Monthly Archives: December 2009

Blogs, Twitter and a more accessible Media. Podcast interview: Mark Thompson, of Mark Reckons blog

Mark is a relatively new blogger, who has quickly come to a reasonable level of prominence in the blogosphere. In this interview Mark talks about himself, and how his blog has developed. We also talk about how blogs, and particularly Twitter, have made the national media more “permeable” – and what happens to nuances when blog stories are covered in the media.

We also think about choosing names for blogs, and why it’s a bad idea to try and compete in the search engines with the Head of the BBC. I also explain why I chose the name Matt Wardman when I started writing my own blog in early 2007.

This is an episode of the regular (ish) Politalks podcast. Politalks carries interviews with national figures about politics and current affairs, but also with lesser known figures who have an interesting perspective.

The Politalks RSS feed is here. There is also a newsletter.

Are the winds blowing in the direction of paid content, targeted advertising and better journalism?

Free does not mean that content has no value, but when the very sustenance of the entity producing that content is in danger, the concept of “free” begins to edge closer to devaluing content.

But even if content online has been free for so long, if it is captured back and tightly shut under a pay wall, does it become more valuable as a result? Or would news organizations have to earn that money if and when they finally achieve that pay wall?

As has been pointed out several times before, and on this blog as well, pay walls have been tried, tested and have, in effect, mostly failed. But many of the experiments that have involved paid content have erected pay walls around generic content or opinion that would perhaps be available elsewhere for free.

Moving toward specialized content

It is a pretty reasonable assessment that the more reasons a news Web site gives its readers to spend time on a site, perhaps by offering in-depth, contextual and narrative journalism, the higher the chances are that they will linger on the page longer, and even buy products through targeted advertising. And for better or for worse, this idea that the most engaged readers of a Web site will not only be willing to pay for content but also click through and purchase products advertised on the side of it is catching on.

As Steve Myers writes in Poynter:

“…pay structures create narrower, more specialized audiences and offer more opportunities for higher-yield, behaviorally-targeted advertising, which changes depending on users’ online habits.”

He explains that as paid sites start to attract more focused readers who recognize and identify a brand and content, it would also make it easier for news organizations to use targeted advertisements.

Free and paid content can co-exist

What worries me, however, is that news organizations are looking at options as either-or propositions. Getting your users to pay for content does not mean you can do away with Google, like Rupert Murdoch seems to believe.

There’s no denying that random visitors that are led to a site through search engines account for a large enough percentage of revenue to be ignored, as Paul pointed out in a previous post. In fact, it’s been roughly estimated that stumbling from search engines can make a news site about 50c a day per person, way less than subscriptions can, but it is still close to a hundred million a year, considering the average newspaper gets about a million visitors per month through Google searches alone. For the actual math, I direct you to the excellent Ryan Chittum at CJR.

Hence, blocking Google might not be the answer, but it is also important to note that the Wall Street Journal does have over a million readers subscribing to its content monthly, and since these users prove to be valuable to advertisers, specialist content could well be the answer for other newspapers as well.

There have been complaints all around that for an industry on the brink of collapse, news organizations are less than savvy in the area of market research, and aren’t doing much at all to help determine the monetary value of the content they offer and the kinds of products they should be providing in order to make money.

Instead, what many news organizations have resorted to over the years, is the “massification” of news in order to appeal to the broadest conceivable audience, a process that merely erodes the quality of journalism, without offering solutions for revenue generation, since such audiences do not have a brand identity that advertisers can appeal to.

As Slate editor David Plotz points out, the more media companies and editors begin to focus on the numbers, the faster they will shift from their pursuit of a “mass audience” and begin to produce more exclusive, in-depth content. Along that line of reasoning, Steven Brill’s Journalism Online plans to charge only the most frequent users who seek very specific content while allowing cursory surfers to avail of most topical news for free.

Following the lead of financial publications

Successful pay models, such as the Economist’s premium content, and the Financial Times’ paywalls are, after all, based on loyal readers returning to a site frequently on account of the exclusive content it provides. Financial publications, of course, are in a league of their own when it comes to paywalls, because of their high value, well-differentiated content and affluent consumers.

But as’s Alan Murray explained in an interview with the Nieman Journalism Lab, most news organizations should be able to tap into the idea that loyal readers will pay for exclusive information, as long as they steer clear of charging for the most popular content, which has the potential to yield maximum traffic and hence, revenue.

Whether it is due to declining ad revenues and falling readerships or the recession, newspapers in the US from the Minneapolis Post to the Arizona Republic, are adopting the idea of pursuing these “loyal readers” to sell their content. Others, like the Tribune company, are merely seeking them to target advertising.

Very early this year, Andrew Currah, a fellow at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, called on news organizations to not give up their core editorial values in the quest for clickstream data, not simply because such lack of focus would be detrimental to journalism, but because it would not prove to be beneficial to revenue generation in the long run.

“The basic logic of a webcentric strategy is to maximise the size of the audience around the news, for as long as possible. But a rush to generate clicks may in fact erode the distinctiveness of the brand and its connection to a specific audience,” Currah wrote.

Regardless of what they’re seeking – direct payment for content or indirect revenue through clickthrough advertising –  specialized, in-depth content to retain that brand and connection has got to be good for journalism.

“Influential” nomination for GP’s blog post despite being ignored by BBC

In September I reported on a medical blogger’s criticism of a BBC News Online piece. That critical blog post by AnneMarie Cunningham, is now up for an Edublog Award for the ‘Most influential blog post 2009‘.

Which is a curious thing. As AnneMarie herself points out:

“It is about poor research and poor journalism. I’m not so sure how influential the article was, as none of the authors, the universities involved, or the publishers responded to my emails seeking clarification on the research.

“I discovered later that the BBC were not the only people to publish the story. Most of the main UK newspapers had also picked up on it. So as google-sidewiki appeared at the same time I went around leaving links to my blog post anywhere that I could not leave a comment directly.”

Certainly the blog post kicked up something of a stink on Twitter and other blogs, but what influence did it have? The Editor of BBC Online Education wrote AnneMarie off as having some sort of agenda. It’s a reminder that however much we may crow about the power of the internet to give a voice to the voiceless, and identify flaws in reporting, there will always be those who find reasons not to listen.

NATO engages with Bloggers for first Briefing

q-logo-natoAt the start of this week, Dave Cole of the Atlantic Council of the UK organised the first visit to NATO Headquarters for bloggers.

I should have been on that trip on behalf of the Wardman Wire . Instead I found myself in a nearly built new wing of a Nottinghamshire Hospital, chattering with other patients about politics and NATO.

An objective for the Atlantic Council was to encourage an already quite wide ranging public debate about their “Strategic Concept” to include bloggers and independent commentators. It was also a “first” for NATO in attempting to engage new media commentators. Roughly, twenty years after the end of the Cold War, and the changes in role that have developed since, NATO is asking the question:

“Who are we? Where are we? What are we doing here?”.

I’ll write about the Strategic Concept later, but for now I’ve a few comments on the bloggers’ briefing itself, which was organised by the Atlantic Council UK.

First, a disclosure: I did a small project earlier this year as a consultant/adviser to the Atlantic Council UK in setting up this process and visit.

NATO is – by its nature as an organisation which provides a platform for political, military and security co-operation over timespans of decades or even generations – necessarily conservative (with a small c), and highly security-conscious.

The visit was under the auspices of Dr Stephanie Babst, NATO’s Assistant Deputy Secretary General for Public Diplomacy. As others have commented, it is a new departure for an essentially conservative organisation to engage with a field of commentators as varied – and as changeable – as bloggers.

NATO’s “Strategic Concept” incorporates more than just straight politics. The role of NATO has developed to include providing infrastructure for peace-making / peace-keeping, support for humanitarian relief, activities touching on civilian policing, and providing resources for other organisations (such as the European Union) seeking to develop their own role. Also, the NATO has moved beyond its traditional area of operations. Some of these have developed on an ad-hoc basis, or as a result of NATO being the only organisation capable of meeting certain requirements.

Therefore commentators from other niches within the blogosphere may be just as interested as those of us who focus mainly upon politics. A change in the Strategic Concept can have an effect on, and therefore needs to incorporate insights from, for example:

  • The world of politics.
  • Military and weapons specialists.
  • Policy wonks, and think tankers.
  • Development organisations.
  • Human Rights campaigners.
  • Communities which may be affected by changes in the military – consider the impact on Yeovil if there was a smaller (or larger) role for British made helicopters.
  • Traditional troop towns, and their local politicians.
  • Expatriate communities in the UK from countries where NATO operates.

All of these niches and communities have their bloggers, and have different thoughts and viewpoints to bring to the conversation. All will all ask highly targeted questions based on their own knowledge, and the host organisation needs to have the relevant people available to engage with the different questions.

Further, bloggers are also not always as familiar with normal “rules of engagement” with the media as professional journalists, and we hate being either “bullshitted” on the one hand, or “stonewalled” on the other.

NATO also needed to be sure that it would be a useful exercise to host the visit, and to appreciate the more informal way which bloggers operate, compared to more traditional media outlets.

Combine all of those, and there is plenty of potential for misunderstandings, wheels to fall off, and thereby the prospect of future repeat visits to be derailed.

I hope to do a more detailed case study of the project later.

Bloggers who attended:

Luke Akehurst (

Martin Butcher (

David Cole (

Mehdi Hasan (

Sunny Hundal (

Zohra Moosa (

James O’Malley (

Will Straw (

Bloggers who have commented:

Sunny Hundal: NATO hosts first ever briefing for bloggers

Will Straw: NATO: We won’t bugger off

Mehdi Hasan: My conversation with a Nato brigadier-general

Luke Akehurst: NATO holds bloggers briefing

Hyperlocal websites? They’re just ‘tittle tattle’ says MP

The final select committee on ‘The future for local and regional media’ took place Tuesday, with Liberal Democrat MP Adrian Sanders apparently writing off the whole of the web as being incapable of holding power to account.

Here’s some of the rather bizarre exchange with Creative Industries Minister Sion Simon, who was giving evidence before the committee (also on BBC’s Today in Parliament around 18 minutes in – worth listening to for the tone with which Sanders delivers his dismissal):

Sion Simon MP (Labour, Birmingham Erdington)
Who will go to the council? Hyper-local news-sites like Pits n Pots in Stoke on Trent will go to the council meetings – as they do. Stoke on Trent has got a successful local newspaper but it also has a very successful hyperlocal news site in Pits n Pots who, if you want to know, what’s happening in the council and behind the back stairs in the council and everything to do with local government in Stoke on Trent you’re at least as likely to go to Pits n Pots as you are to go to the Stoke Sentinel.

Adrian Sanders MP (Liberal Democrat, Torbay) – Interrupts
I’m not convinced. Continue reading

Presentation from AOP Microlocal Forum

Below are the slides from my presentation at today’s Association of Online Publishers Microlocal Media Forum, where I was asked to talk on the subject of ‘Monetising Microlocal’.

You can read Dan Davies’ notes on the forum here (with a link to a further post with notes from the panel discussion).

How a school photographer’s ‘special offer’ was symptomatic of the content industry’s problems

This week a photographer was at my children’s school taking pictures. Inside the package that was sent home for our purchasing choice was the following “Special offer”:

“Have all the [six printed and framed] photographs for £25 and we will email the images (max 3) copyright free for just £35 extra

Incredulously, my wife asked: “3 emailed images cost £10 more than 6 printed ones. How does that make sense?”

The more I thought about the “Special offer” the more I saw how symptomatic it was of content-based industries. Here are just 4 issues it brings up:

Don’t overvalue your content

Like newspapers who charge more for accessing one article online than they do for a whole bundle of articles in print, this photographer thinks his content is worth so much that he can charge almost 50% more for it in its ‘pure’ form.

But without the glossy paper and the framing, a school photo loses much of its symbolic charm for parents. Particularly when it is produced in the factory-line-like settings that characterise school photography (and, likewise, much journalism). He forgets that he is not selling an image, but a package.

As a content producer you may be aware of the overheads involved in producing digital content – but the consumer only sees savings: you as a producer don’t have to print it, you don’t have to package it, and indeed those costs are passed on to me as a consumer – so why are you trying to charge me more for it?

Copyright is worth nothing if it’s unenforceable

The mention of copyright in the photographer’s ‘special offer’ is a bad choice of words, for a number of reasons. Firstly, after some conversation with photographers on Twitter, I realised he was actually trying to say ‘you can send this to as many friends as you want’ but he’s using his own language, not ours as a consumer. It’s about his rights, not our benefits. Sound familiar?

Secondly, the legal overtones raise our hackles. This is a picture of our children – what are you going to do? Sell it to Corbis?

Finally, any veiled threat here is empty. If someone chooses to digitally copy and redistribute his content, the chances of him finding out about it are minimal. This is a battle he cannot win, and in raising the spectre of the law he is risking the relationship, the brand, and the service being provided.

Pricing is everything

Offer 20 parents who already have 6 printed photographs the opportunity to get 3 of them in an email for £35 and I would suggest 19 will say no.

Offer the same group of people the same opportunity at £10, and I would suggest maybe 5 will say yes. At £5, maybe 10 will say yes. At £2, maybe 18. These are estimates, but the general point is: sometimes you can make more money by charging less to more people.

In this situation the price needs to take into account – again – that you are not pricing content, but the convenience of a service. Someone will be willing to pay £5 to save themselves the trouble of scanning an image. At £35, they’ll save the money and scan it themselves if they need to.

It doesn’t matter what value you place on the content, it’s how much people are prepared to pay for it that sets the market.

Invest in new markets

The promising thing about the photographer’s ‘special offer’ is that he is thinking about new ways to sell his content beyond the printed product.

If he’s serious about this new market, then, he needs to invest in it, and in terms of strategy – not just kit.

Digital images could be used as a distribution strategy, not just a sale. He could partner with framing companies to offer premium framing options for parents and relatives online. There are all kinds of ways he could reinvent the school photography process as a package; as a service.

But if he thinks that he has the same monopoly on content that he did in the school snapshots market, he needs to think again. The barrier to entry has been lowered; and in contrast to his commodified product are a dozen community producers (let’s call them Uncle Dick with his SLR and Mum with her scanner at work and everyone in the family with a mobile phone camera) who might not have the same technical standards but care enough about what they’re doing to produce decent work that makes a connection.

It’s a metaphor being repeated in all kinds of industries, and few seem to be learning any lessons from it.

Thanks to @Sharl and @Brendadada for working these ideas through with me on Twitter

Living Stories: NYT and Google produce jaw-dropping online journalism form

How good is this? While Murdoch and Sly complain about Google, The New York Times and Washington Post have been working with the search engine behemoth on a new form of online journalism. I’m still getting my head around the results, because the format is brimming with clever ideas. Here’s the obligatory cheesy video before I get my teeth into it:

So what’s so special about this? Firstly, it is built around the way people consume content online, as opposed to how they consumed it in print or broadcast. In other words, the unit of entry is the ‘topic’, not the ‘article’, ‘broadcast’ or ‘publication’. If you look at search behaviour, that’s often what people search for (and why Wikipedia is so popular). Continue reading

What’s your problem with the internet? A crib sheet for news exec speeches

When media executives (and the occasional columnist on a deadline) talk about ‘the problem with the web’ they often revert to a series of recurring themes. In doing so they draw on a range of discourses that betray assumptions, institutional positions and ideological leanings. I thought I’d put together a list of some common memes of hatred directed towards the internet at various points by publishers and journalists, along with some critical context.

If you can think of any other common complaints, or responses to the ones below, post them in the comments and I’ll add them in. I’ll also update this blog post whenever I come across new evidence on any of the topics.

Meanwhile, here’s a table of contents for easy access:

  1. Undemocratic and unrepresentative (The ‘Twitterati’)
  2. ‘The death of common culture’
  3. The ‘echo chamber’/death of serendipity (homophily)
  4. ‘Google are parasites’
  5. ‘Bloggers are parasites’
  6. ‘You don’t know who you’re dealing with’
  7. Rumour and hearsay ‘magically become gospel’
  8. Triviality
  9. ‘Unregulated’ lack of accountability
  10. Cult of the amateur

Undemocratic and unrepresentative (the ‘Twitterati’)

The presumption here is that the media as a whole is more representative and democratic than users of the web. You know, geeks. The ‘Twitterati’ (a fantastic ideologically-loaded neologism that conjures up images of unelected elites). A variant of this is the position that sees any online-based protest as ‘organised’ and therefore illegitimate. Continue reading

Paywall watch: The news you’re willing to pay for

Rupert Murdoch’s comments about search engines “stealing” his newspapers’ stories, and his pledge to make sure his titles’ news is not free, has fired up the paid content argument.

In his article for The Register, Murdoch: Google is mortal and together we can kill it, Andrew Orlowski argues that Google indexes too much junk, and News International cutting off its news steams would remove quality content.

However, in a world where the BBC exists (and those of us who work in UK regional press know our local BBC newsrooms follow up our stories and present them as news sometimes weeks after the fact) and provides excellent national and international coverage, then what has Google got to lose?

“Getting to there isn’t something News Corp can do on its own. But much as they may fear him, all the commercial rivals share a common purpose – they’d dearly love him to be the battering ram, bashing down a door they could all run through,” Orlowski writes. But who will join Murdoch?

It’s not as though paywalls haven’t been tried before.
The regional daily in my own home town of Brighton experimented with paid content a few years ago. Readers could pay for a PDF of the newspaper online and the archive.
Today its online readers can read stories, archives and watch videos, which suggests the early experiment was a failure.

On November 26, Johnston Press announced paywall experiments for a number of titles in northern England and southern Scotland.
Two options are on trial, a three month subscription of £5 to view content for some titles, or readers click onto a story and are sent to a page telling them to buy the newspaper.
We will know next year if the experiment has been a success and see if it is rolled out to the company’s other titles.

Johnston Press is not along in experiencing a fall in advertising revenue during the credit crunch.
Many of its regional weekly and daily newspapers have seen a drop in print readership. As Paul Bradshaw has pointed out here, the paywall can be seen as the  logical way to keep quality, loyal readers, which advertisers will be willing to pay premium rates to reach.

In South Africa The Witness in Peitermaritzburg started operating a paywall for its local news service in early November.

In an editorial explaining why the newspaper has taken this option, deputy editor Yves Vanderhaeghen points out to readers, “Google gives you the world, but does anyone cover Maritzburg news better than The Witness? You be the judge.”

He may have a point there, but what is to stop anyone starting a news blog in Peitermaritzburg? A quick scan of the latest edition and the news story can be read online for nothing, and the newspaper won’t benefit from any advertising revenue.

Personally I don’t think paywalls are the answer. I know in my newspapers’ areas we are competing with blogs, message boards, new online “good news” papers and various twitter feeds from new news sources, which would provide our current readership with something else to read for nothing.

New media strategist Steve Yelvington sums up my personal view in his blog Thinking about a paywall? Read this first, by pointing out the majority of regional and even national news consumers are searching for the story they find on our sites.
We have our regular readers, but are they loyal enough to pay for access?

Damon Keisow has taken a closer look at Yelvington’s analysis of online readership and asks where would publishers put the paywall? Surely we want to bring people in and keep them loyal, rather than exploit them.  After all,  local, regular readers are what advertisers want to reach in regional press.

Paywall watch has been launched on Online Journalism Blog’s Facebook group with responses to questions asked earlier version of this article.

Specialist content, premium added extras and RSS feeds to iGoogle and Netvibes pages have all been mentioned as paywall content. However, when it comes down to the fundamentals of mainstream news, the general opinion is news should remain free.

The questions are:

  • What are people’s thoughts about Murdoch’s aim to remove free news from the internet?
  • Have you paid to read through a paywall and why?
  • Do you know of or work for a publication operating a paywall? Does it work? What makes it work?