Tag Archives: journalism

NUJ's making journalism pay online: five points

NUJ logoThe NUJ’s New Ways to Make Journalism Pay conference on Saturday brought together a group of journalists and entrepreneurs who are making money through online journalism in the UK. Many of the speakers had toiled to build brands online, and those that had were now running sustainable businesses. If the future of journalism is entrepreneurial, then these speakers are evidence of it.

You can read a breakdown of all the speakers’ points at Ian Wylie’s blog and if you scroll back on my twitter account @Coneee. Here are five points from the conference that jumped out at me.

1. Getting to a sustainable position is difficult.

David Parkin, founder of Thebusinessdesk.com, took two years to raise the £300,000 he thought he’d need to survive an estimated 18 months of operating at a loss. In the end it only took 9 months after an expansion into the Northwest, but it was still very “hairy.” He had to “make noise”: put up posters, give away coffee on the street, and branded mints to posh restaurants where businesspeople dined. Daniel Johnston, founder of Indusdelta.co.uk, had to live off his savings for the first 18 months. The site is now profitable, and supports the salary of another staff member.

2. The rules of the journalism game aren’t changed by the internet.

Paul Staines of the Guido Fawkes blog gets up at 6.30AM, and is still up when Newsnight is on in the late evening. He hasn’t got any ins with big politicians, and most of his news comes from disgruntled interns. No wonder! David Parkin found that for him, starting a successful venture was still “very much about contacts.” Daniel Johnston, although professing to not know whether he was a journalist, borrowed the principle of independence from good journalism: providing a counter point to the Government view (which he said was “gospel” before he came along) of the welfare-to-work industry also allowed him to build a sustainable business.

3. Traditional media doesn’t do investigative journalism.

Gavid MacFadyean, director of the Centre for Investigative Journalism, said 75% of investigative journalism is now done by foundations or NGOs. This is because of cost cutting at newspapers and in TV, but also because foundations offer a far more effective environment for investigative journalism. Gavid said: “Foundations say just do your worst, and we’re trying! It’s no strings attached money,” which seems to be bliss compared to less independent advertising-supported models.

4. Email is important.

Many of the speakers had collected the email addresses of their readers in the tens or hundreds of thousands, allowing them to quickly notify readers of news, while also opening up possibilities for making money. David Parkin recalled success with sending emails when the interest rates changed. By providing this information within 2-3 minutes (speed which the BBC and “big media” don’t bother with) after it had happened, businesspeople could be more informed. Angie Sammons of Liverpool Confidential said having an email list of interested individuals means you can directly provide them with sponsored offers, making you money and also helping your readers.

5. Local freelance journalism is dying.

Since this was an NUJ conference organised by the London freelance branch, it’s not surprising that the room was full of freelance writers, many of them used to pitching stories to editors of local newspapers. Note that many seemed to be “used to” doing this. A combination of a crash in rates, an unwillingness for local editors to commission work and the virtual impossibility for newcomers to get their first (paid) start gave me the impression that it’s never been harder to get work as a freelance local journalist. Fortunately, the overriding message from the day was it’s never been easier to make it online.

Also see:

What I expect at news:rewired — and what I hope will happen

Screen shot 2010-01-06 at 11.23.20Next Thursday is the news:rewired event at City University London, which is being put on by the good people at journalism.co.uk. I’ll be on hand as a delegate.

All of the bases will be covered, it seems: Multimedia, social media, hyperlocal, crowdsourcing, datamashups, and news business models.

Continue reading

FAQ: How can news organisations compete at a hyperlocal level? (and other questions from AOP)

These questions were submitted to me in advance of the next AOP meeting, on ‘Microlocal Media’, and have been published on the AOP site. As usual, I’m republishing here as part of my FAQ series.

Q. How can publishers compete with zero-cost base community developed and run sites?

They can’t – and they shouldn’t. When it comes to the web, the value lies in the network, not in the content. Look at the biggest web success story: Google. Google’s value – contrary to the opinion of AP or Rupert Murdoch or the PCC – is not in its content. It is in its connections; its links; its network. You don’t go to Google to read; you go there to find. The same is true of so many things on the internet. One of the problems for publishers is that people use the web as a communications channel first, as a tool second, and as a destination after that. The successful operations understand the other two uses and work on those by forging partnerships, and linking, linking, linking. Continue reading

Stop rearranging the deckchairs

If you want to ascribe something importance you traditionally don’t put the word ‘sub’ before it. The immediate message sent by the Broadcasting Sub-Committee’s report on Welsh newspapers is that the subject is not very important. Furthermore, asking the Broadcasting Sub-Committee to report on Welsh newspapers is the political equivalent of asking a veterinary surgeon to replace an elderly relative’s hip.

Today, Assembly members will discuss the report, and Assembly time will be largely wasted in the process. It is a document that contributes very little to the overall debate about the future of Welsh newspapers. This is primarily because any report that attempts to deal with the decline of newspapers but discounts the opportunities of new media so casually is largely useless. It’s like trying to explain to someone how to grow an apple tree, without ever mentioning seeds. You can do it, but chances are it won’t make an ounce of sense.

The headline recommendation of this report would be nothing short of catastrophic for the future of the Welsh media if the UK government were to implement it:

Recommendation 1: The Welsh Assembly Government should make representations to the UK Government seeking assurances that cross-media rules are relaxed to allow the exploration of new partnerships.

The Welsh media is, and has always been, structurally weak. This weakness has been significantly increased by the dominance of media monopolies in Wales. This, in turn, has had a detrimental effect on plurality in the Welsh media and has been a plague on diversity of press opinion. It also means that when one organisation is failing, lots of newspaper outlets suffer.

The Broadcasting Sub-Committee’s recommendation is that rules that restrict media organisations from venturing into other marketplaces, like TV and radio, should be relaxed. This is a truly astonishing recommendation. The desperate problems the newspaper industry in Wales faces have come about, in part, because of monopolies. This report is seeking to extend the power of these monopolies. This is presumably so that they can then ruin broadcast news in Wales as well.

This recommendation is in many ways what we should expect from a report that consulted so widely with local newspaper owners, but never sought to ask them how they thought they might be culpable in the demise of their own titles. It is to be expected that they would ask for more power to branch out into other media and then set about squeezing every last penny from it, with little or no regard for the public service they should provide. What is also striking about this report is that Bob Franklin, an informed commentator and media expert, appears to have been largely ignored.

Franklin, quite rightly points out in the report that cross-media ownership rules are already dangerously close to collapsing in on themselves because media organisations so readily ignore them. He states:

‘…banks are suggesting to media companies that they ignore existing competition regulations which they see as primitive and as not suitable for the digital age because monopolies are understood within geographical boundaries…I think that big financial institutions are recommending a sort of ‘gung-ho’ challenge to existing regulation along the lines of ‘see what they do, call their bluff.’

The report cites the IWA in response: ‘There is something to be said for enabling some of the strengths of newspapers such as the Western Mail and Daily Post to be used to strengthen news coverage on commercial radio.’

Well, there you go then. The problems that the Welsh newspaper industry is facing could be solved by putting Western Mail content and/or journalists on commercial radio stations. Despite using this strange defence against Franklin’s concerns the report then does something very odd. It makes a recommendation that seems directly opposed to the previous one. Recommendation two states that:

The Welsh Assembly Government should make representations to the UK Government seeking assurances that any move to relax regulations relating to cross-media ownership should be accompanied by measures to protect plurality of local media.

This is directly contradictory. It is not possible to maintain plurality in local or regional media when you are reducing the strength of cross-media ownership rules. You either do one or the other, you can’t do both. You either defend the plurality of media or you allow large media groups to own more than one type of outlet.

When AM Huw Lewis made his announcement about the possibility of local newspapers having a stake in digital news channels, it was welcomed as an interesting idea by many. Commentators, on the whole, failed to understand that having more media outlets doesn’t necessarily increase the plurality of perspectives. The Broadcasting Sub-Committee has made the same mistake. Plurality in the media needs to be plurality of opinion, and the recommendation of this report would put that at risk by creating more media outlets that are saying the same thing.

Another of the recommendations in this report is about improving government support for newspaper groups. This, as a suggestion, has two fundamental faults. Firstly, the independence of media from government is vital in any democracy, and cannot be guaranteed if media producers have to apply for government grants. Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, large media corporations in Wales bear a heavy responsibility for the problems the Welsh media is now facing. Giving them a bail out is no better than bailing out bankers. And, of course, as with the bankers there is no guarantee they won’t just screw it all up again.

Despite all of this, there are some good points made in the report. The recommendation that there should be a review of the provision of publicly funded training courses for journalists is an excellent idea. The report also supports the idea of a Welsh Media Commission and/or a forum for discussing the newspaper and broadcasting industry in Wales. This is an important idea which, should it come to fruition, would at least ensure major media issues don’t get swept under the carpet.

However, overall, it says little that is useful. This report ultimately fails because it talks about rescuing organisations that are dangerously out of step and out of touch with developments in their own industry. From Murdoch down, the media world is attempting to come to terms with an enormous shift in an industry that has been largely unthreatened for the best part of 300 years. New media is growing in strength, and the Assembly needs to spend some serious time looking forward towards it, and not just backwards to print.

It would, of course, be remiss to ignore the problems with new media. There are certainly plenty of them. Many popular news websites, for instance, still rely on the prestige and content of the print publications that they are associated with. Online news still only reaches certain social strata, with a large number of those on the breadline not bothering with internet access. Standards in online journalism, with a few exceptions, are often no better than those on local newspapers, with reporters relying on material that is secondary sourced, and rarely bothering to pick up the phone. As much as web 2.0 has contributed in terms of interactivity, an awful lot of user generated content is just rubbish, produced by hobbyists both unpaid and untrained.

These are big problems, but they are not insurmountable, and they are also not the reason this particular report dismisses new media so easily. The report brushes aside any future model of new/old media interaction because it is unable to envisage how this would be cost effective. This is in the main because the majority of newspapers still derive all their profits from the print side. The low value that advertisers ascribe to online placements means that news websites cannot survive by them alone. In short, because it might eat into the enormous profits these corporations, it’s not worth investigating.

There are a number of potential business models for online newspapers. There is the one that argues for subscription-based access to websites. This is, despite what Rupert Murdoch might think, an absolute non-starter. Recent analysis by Media Week showed that in a survey of 2,000 customers, nine out of 10 of them wouldn’t pay for web news.

Another popular model is one based upon using the brand of the newspaper to sell advertising space, cars, houses, upmarket holidays and lonely hearts services. The problem with this last suggestion is that it ignores the fact that the public reputation of many local or regional newspapers is extremely poor these days. Would you use a dating service advertised in your local rag? This approach may work with large national newspaper websites but it isn’t going to work in a local setting.

These difficulties combined allow this report to discount new media solutions with a frightening degree of casualness. They state:

‘The internet seems to be a difficult issue to address for newspaper groups and we did not receive any conclusive evidence from witnesses that it would be able to provide a financially sustainable and complementary medium to newspapers.’

This is difficult to swallow.

The truth about online business models for news websites is that a combination of subscription, newspaper brand endorsement and a savvy approach to advertising will be the model of the future. Large newspaper groups will inevitably adopt these strategies for local news websites and they will, eventually, make money. The trouble is that it will never make them enough money. The reason it will never make them enough money is that they can never make enough money. They are driven entirely and remorselessly towards ever greater profit. This is the difference between putting your readers first, and putting profit first.

Maybe we should be asking ourselves if we want these monoliths to continue running the local media for profit. Perhaps it would be better to have organisations whose bottom line is not the bottom line; who are doing it because they believe in the importance and values of local news, and not in how much revenue they can squeeze out of the punters.

This is why this report is such a massive failure. Of course, WAG needs to show willing in terms of the newspaper industry, and job losses are a real concern, but it also needs to start looking forward. And, most importantly, it shouldn’t be stepping in with recommendations to save organisations that have already failed by relaxing rules that are there to protect our media from being destroyed wholesale. Local newspaper owners have a public duty and they should not neglect that. If they do, they should not be surprised if they become obsolete.

On the whole people do not become journalists for the money. In fact, you would be mad to. Most do it because of – dare I say it? – higher values. The abandonment of those higher values in favour of profit chasing has done irreversible harm to our old media, and it should not be allowed to happen again in this new era.

The question of whether these bloated, faceless, mass-media corporations, are the ones who should be spearheading the future of local news is, to put it politely, a no-brainer. They shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near it. Key in the online news-environment, as anyone who has ever spent a day knocking about it will tell you, is quality. The degradation of local news, by owners who have neglected and battered their own titles year in and year out with cutbacks and a desperate drive for ever greater profits, demonstrates just how unfit these companies are to take new local journalism forward.

Hopefully in today’s debate someone will talk about the importance of new media and Assembly investment in the future of new media in Wales. Though it is doubtful they will.

It is time, therefore, that a grass-roots movement of journalists with a hyper-local approach had a go at cracking this. It’s also time the Assembly recognised the opportunity and thought about ways of encouraging it.

We should stop looking to those who ruined our local media last time to fix it temporarily, only to go and ruin it again. They have had their chance and they’ve made their money.  It’s now somebody else’s turn.

****

Rob Williams is a digital sub-editor at The Independent Online.

He is the author of The Mabiblogion a blog about Welsh Media and Politics

Article first published at waleshome.org

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FAQ: Why do you blog? And other questions

Here’s another collection of Q&As from a correspondent, published here to prevent repetition:

1. How do you feel about the opinions published in your blog being used by journalists in the news?

I’m not clear what you mean by this question, but broadly speaking if my opinions are properly attributed then I am fine with it.

2. Why do you blog?

I started blogging out of professional and creative curiosity – at that point it wasn’t an online journalism blog. I continued to blog largely because I started to feel part of a wider community – I particularly remember comments from Mindy McAdams and links from Martin Stabe. Now I blog for a combination of reasons: firstly, it is hugely educational to put something out there and receive other people’s insights; secondly, it leads to meetings and conversations with very interesting people I otherwise wouldn’t meet; thirdly, it’s a useful record for myself: forcing myself to articulate an idea in text means I can identify gaps and come back to it when I want to make the same point again.

3. Do you consider yourself a journalist when blogging in that you source news and broadcast it?

Yes. But how much I “source news” and how much I “broadcast” it are subject to further discussion.

4. What do you think about information put on social media websites, such as photos and personal details, being used in mainstream media?

I assume you mean without permission? I think there’s a lack of proper thought on both the part of the individual and the journalist. On a purely legal front, it’s breach of copyright, so media organisations and journalists are in the wrong. On an ethical front, journalists need to realise that a social network is not a publishing platform, but a conversational one. If someone puts information there it is often for an intended, personal, audience. The closest analogy is the pub conversation: it is being held in public, but if someone listens in and publishes what you’ve said to a much wider, different, audience, then that is unethical (public interest aside).

5. When blogging, are you aware that you are putting your opinions and thoughts out there for the world to see? Do you censor what you say because of this?

Yes. And yes. ‘Censor’ is probably the wrong word: I choose what I say; I generally don’t talk about my personal life or meetings which I assume are confidential.

6. Do you think a news piece sourced from blogs is as worthy as a piece sourced from investigative journalism?

To properly answer this I’d probably need lengthy definitions of what you mean by ‘worthy’, blogs, news, ‘sourced’ and investigative journalism. And even then I think to impose broad-brush distinctions like these is a flawed approach. A news piece sourced from blogs can be investigative; ‘investigative journalism’ can be ‘unworthy’. Judge each case on its own; don’t dismiss the value of something because of the packet it comes in.

Ultralocal Blogging Roundup. Talk About Local ’09, Guardian, Wired Mag

There have been several events and reports worthy of note in the last week in the world of local blogs and websites .

Wired Magazine Intelligence Briefing

Recently I gave an interview about current directions in the world of local blogging, for one part of a Wired Intelligence Briefing, to @jamiedouglas.

The whole presentation identified “10 current trends in 20 minutes”, which characterise our environment:

  1. We the people – isolation of the political class.
  2. Abundance creates scarcity of attention.
  3. Serendipity and shared experiences – where discovery happens.
  4. Everybody is local – enrichment of neighbourhoods.
  5. Collaborate and listen.
  6. The media is unpoliceable.
  7. Watch out, sport.
  8. Social networks have a half-life.
  9. Google’s Achilles’ heel.
  10. An era of etiquette.

Talk About Local ’09

Also worth a look is a report in the Guardian about the Talk About Local ’09 Unconference, held on Saturday 3rd October in Stoke-on-Trent:

Almost 100 people left their bedrooms, home offices and local community halls for talkaboutlocal’s inaugural unconference this weekend. Some attendees in Stoke-on-Trent are professional journalists, starting out on their own against a backdrop of local and regional press lay-offs and closures, some have a political cause to fight while others quite simply want to give a voice to a community not well-served by a newspaper industry retracting and centralising.

Definitive numbers of these hyperlocal sites are hard to come by but the website www.nutshell.org.uk has already listed more than 50.

The event organiser, William Perrin, from TalkAboutLocal.org says: “People have always wanted to get involved to make things better and suddenly they can do it for themselves. The web 2.0 tools provide platforms that are incredibly easy to use, without any real cost.”

In the Guardian, the report author mentioned the practice of Stoke City Council to treat “Citizen Journalists” as being different from ‘real journalists’:

The town hall which PitsnPots set up to scrutinise has been less welcoming. Stoke Council’s head of PR and communications, Dan Barton, explained that bloggers would not be invited to briefings and are excluded from sitting at the press table in the council chamber.

“Opinion should be encouraged but we do draw a distinction between what is news otherwise we are in danger of de-valuing the role of journalists,” he said.

The National Association of Local Councils (NALC) is currently updating its guide to include the rise of social media networks but looks unlikely to change the definition of who gets treated as a journalist. A spokeswomen said: “We can say anecdotally that we would encourage councils to treat only accredited journalists as journalists. And treat citizen journalists as citizens. But that does not stop citizen journalists making enquiries in the normal way … And there is no reason why media releases cannot be available to everyone as they are public documents.”

Reflections

The comment from Dan Barton seems to imply that the content of newspapers is “news, not comment”, and that the content of blogs is “comment, not news”.

I’d suggest that this is a ludicrous position to take, bearing in mind the extent to which news and opinion are mixed in the local (and especially the national) media, and also the miraculous range of howlers and planted stories which appear regularly. To mention just two that I have covered in the the last 5 weeks, remember the non-fact-checked Mayor of Baltimore spoof, which appeared in half a dozen national media outlets, and the Alan Sugar on Terrorism Death List story, which was invented out of the air and swallowed by the Sun?

I’d assert the opposite position: that thoughtful and careful bloggers, whether our beat is “local”, “subject-based”, “professional”, “political”, “technical”, or anything else, have potential to increase significantly the range and quality of niche coverage, due our tighter focus and our freedom from a need to work tightly to deadlines and volume of output requirements.

There are two clusters of issues that we need to address:

  1. We need to make sure that we do work to a level of quality which is equivalent to, or better than, our colleagues whom Mr Barton is willing to name as “journalists”.
  2. We need to make sure that it is impossible for the councils we are scrutinising to refuse to accredit us for any reason.

I’ll cover these issues more in a future article, but I think it is time for local bloggers to go on the front-foot; the decline in local media has left the gate wide-open.

Two places to start are firstly to write for other outlets, such as your local newspaper and sites which are regarded as “media” not “blogs”, and to see if you can get a UK Press Card. There are a range of bodies which issue UK Press Cards, and some people may come within the rules who do not realise that they do so.

Matt Wardman is an online consultant, and edits the Wardman Wire group political blog and Nutshell directory of local blogs and websites.

What thelondonpaper’s death means for freesheets on the web

On 18 September 2009, beloved London evening freesheet thelondonpaper folded. In its wake, London Lite remains.

While the closure is part of a larger effort by owners News International to trim the fat from their portfolio and erect paywalls around profitable titles, it also speaks to the future of freesheets on the web.

Back in April, thelondonpaper re-launched their web site. What was interesting about that was that London Lite had effectively no web site. It still doesn’t — just a ‘e-edition’. Its content is “incorporated” with morning freesheet Metro.co.uk. Looking back, one has to wonder what would have happened if the money hadn’t been sank into the web presence. Would thelondonpaper still be around?

In a comment on a Guardian article about the closure, a now-former londonpaper web developer had the following to say about the redesign: Continue reading

How can the government save journalism?

I had an interesting meeting recently with an MP who wanted to get a handle on the state of the media right now and how good journalism could be supported. Rather than just hear my voice I thought it would be worth starting something wider that involves more voices, and point him to this.

To kick things off, here are some of the things I thought the government could do to create an environment that supports good journalism:

  • Release of public data (I’ve made this case before – it’s about helping create efficiencies for anyone reporting on public bodies). He seemed to feel that this argument has already been won.
  • Tax relief on donations to support investigative journalism: a number of philanthropists, foundations, public bodies and charities are starting to fund investigative journalism to fill the ‘market failure’ of commercial news production. In addition, an increasing amount of investigative journalism is being done by campaigning organisations rather than news organisations, and there is also the opportunity for new types of businesses – social enterprises and community interest companies – to fund journalism.
  • Encouraging innovation and enterprise: as regional publishers reduce their reporting staff and shut down their less profitable publications, gaps are appearing in local news coverage. Local people are launching news sites and blogs to fill those gaps – but not quickly enough, or with the resources, to match what was left behind. Funds to support these startups are much-needed and might also encourage journalists who have been made redundant to put their experience into an independent operation. There is no evidence to suggest that subsidising existing publishers will subsidise journalism; indeed, I would suggest it will stifle local innovation and economic growth.
  • Reskilling of redundant journalists: related to the last point, I would like to see funds made available to help put redundant journalists (more Chris Browns and Rick Waghorns) in a position to launch news startups. They have a wealth of experience, ability, knowledge and contacts that shouldn’t be left to waste – give them online and enterprise skills.
  • An effective local news consortia: The Digital Britain-mooted local news consortia is a vague idea in need of some meat, but clearly it could go some way to meeting the above 2 by supporting local independent media and providing training. Allowing the usual suspects to dominate any new operation will see business as usual, and innovative independent operators – including those who work on a non-commercial basis – will quickly become disillusioned. The idea of putting some or all of the commissioning process in the hands of the public, for instance, could be very interesting.
  • Address libel laws: one of the biggest obstacles to investigative reporting is the potential legal costs. Most newspapers now make a hard commercial decision on stories: if the story is worth enough money to make it worth fighting, it gets published; otherwise, it doesn’t. Public interest or importance is not the major factor other than in how it affects likely sales. Likewise, startup operations are likely to shy away from edgier reporting if they feel they can’t afford to fight for it in the courts. Stopping councils from suing for libel was an important step; keeping libel laws out of science should be the next one – and it shouldn’t stop there.

So those are the ideas that occurred to me. What would you suggest this MP, and government, do to help journalism?