Thursday, 27 November 2008

The Bad Boys of Brand

One of the developments as a result of the digital sphere is that a handful of individual journalists have become brands or identifiable commodities in their own right, founder of and former regional journalist Rick Waghorn told us today. BBC business editor Robert Peston has become so recognisable in the last 12 months it prompted a slew of articles about the man behind the scoops. Who is this guy? Who were his sources? He really was "the face of the credit crunch"- a brand name.

What was remarkable about this was "Britain...turned toward a journalist to tell us what is going on". But aren't journalists the least trustworthy people on Earth? Apparently not. Despite all the traditional and well respected corporations out there, this individual forged an identity that had people turning to him.

One of my colleagues made the very good point that Peston would not be where he is today if it were not for the BBC providing him with the tools to get there, and I whole-heartedly agree. But in principle, I would hazard a guess that this idea of the branded journalist will become crucial.

In an increasingly fragmented market place, with huge competition not only from your own profession but anyone capable of setting up a Blogger or Wordpress account, carving out your brand identity is key, even if it is within an organisation like the BBC. It is arguable that considering the anti-BBC backlash of recent months and years, the corporation are relying on people like Peston to fly the flag just as much as people like Peston are relying on them for a flag pole. (Although some would say Sachs-gate is an example of what happens when this relationship gets out of hand.)

So I was somewhat confused when Mr Waghorn suggested that we "Go back to what we're good at: good writing". After weeks of being told to embrace multi-media, this felt like being told to get back to that type-writer, you are a newspaper journalist.

He advised us not to get involved in this mobile journalism fad, but instead to form a sort of journalistic swap shop and trade our precious copy for say, a broadcaster's professional video footage. He said this would cut costs because we wouldn't be wasting our time and money by trying to have it all.

I think this is way off the mark and part of the reason why many local newspapers are failing- because they haven't grasped that one skill doesn't cut the mustard anymore. And multi-skilled journalism is a good thing because it opens up the avenues of choice in media consumption. You want local news from a journalist, a "brand", you trust? Great. Want it in a video blog? A multi-media journalist can do that. You want video clips that correspond with my written report? Got that too. But if you don't like my version, our rival paper's got something different.

Basically, to rely on some sort of shared melting-pot to put multi-media content together, I think, seriously threatens to stifle the variety this new age of media offers. (Waghorn appears to be a supporter of choice, chastising regional newspaper groups for rejoicing over the BBC's climbdown on BBC Local, so its possible I've misunderstood him.)

The most successful brands haven't got there by doing one thing, getting good at it and then sticking with it. The multiple strands of Richard Branson's Virgin empire are extremely varied; cola, record stores, planes, mobile phones, wine, trains, even space travel for God's sake. And although Murdoch tends to stay within the communications industry, he hasn't become the world's most famous media mogul by refusing to try his hand at something new. The secret isn't to stick to what you know. It's to learn something well, add it to your skill set, and move on to something new.

Friday, 21 November 2008

"If there is a flaw, it's human. It always is."

Shane Richmond, communities editor at the Telegragh, told us this week the internet is causing newspaper readers to become increasingly fragmented. People no longer want to be pigeon-holed as a particular kind of 'reader', be it Guardian, Telegraph, the Sun, whichever. And this is essentially a good thing. On balance stereotypes are always unhelpful and it tackles the notion of straight forward poltical affiliations. People may hold a range of opinions and ideas; left is not simply left, right not only right.

So the fact reader loyalty is on the wane and people are selecting their material not just by topic but down to the individual article is giving them more choice. You might not buy multiple newspapers but you probably will click on a couple of websites to get your politics at the Times or your reviews at the Independent. And it has also made RSS central to many web users' daily routine.

Really simple syndication, or rich site summary depending on what you read, has taken off in a big way. Microsoft acknowledged its arrival in 2005. In the same year a white paper produced by Yahoo predicted the number of RSS users in the US and UK was 72.8 million. And that was three years ago.

Although I am a relative late-comer to RSS, I am a fan. But one thing concerns me. No matter how many different view points you source on a subject using feeds, you still have particular interests. Whether it's British politics, American sport, or Brazilian film, one advantage of RSS is:

"It allows you to easily stay informed by retrieving the latest content from the sites you are interested in".

But this could be limitng. Is there a danger that RSS is the virtual equivalent of sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting "I can't hear you!" to the stuff you're not interested in? Science is not really my thing, but the advantage of reading a newspaper or using a news homepage is whilst heading for the stuff you would normally go for, you might come across an important story that catches your eye. A recent example for me would be CERNs large hadron collider. This would probably never come through on my RSS because its not covered by the sort of feeds I subsribe to, but it's a pretty significant scientific event. And while I understand RSS feeds are probably rarely used in isolation, Amy Gahran points out the effect they are having on websites as well as newspaper sales:
"Web sites are becoming less important for online content distribution as RSS feeds are enjoying increasingly mainsteam usage."

Although Gahran provides a great discussion about how online entities can market and forward traffic from RSS feeds, my point is that there are things people should know which could be missed using RSS. When Shane Richmond speculated about Web 3.0 as a mass of free floating information tailored especially for your needs I was reminded of everyones' favourite Scientologist, Tom Cruise (no offence to Shane). In sci-fi thriller Minority Report, advertisements are specifically tailored for you. Spyware on Amazon and iTunes already use this kind of technology with "others like you bought..." mechanisms. If this happens with the internet at large, where does this leave exploration and discovery?

RSS is an extremely useful tool and there are some really interesting discussions about its advantages regarding privacy and control. Rob Alderson flips my argument on its head looking at what My Telegraph bloggers are talking about- many of their posts centred on topics that weren't making the news. But I think Anthony Mayfield's point from last week can be used here too: utilise the technology, don't be lead by it. The technology is great, but it presents the very human temptation to be lazy. Keep thinking outside the RSS box.

Saturday, 15 November 2008

A local tool, for local people

Rupert Murdoch's warning that developing technologies "have the power to destroy not just companies but countries" must have sent shivers through the spines of many newspaper editors. But perhaps none more so than the local newspaper editor-he who tirelessly serves his region to bring his people their news. The shop closures which will mean they have to travel 10 miles for a pint of milk; the road works which will play havoc with a town's day-to-day life for weeks to come. These publications are facing real, immediate threats. Profit figures for Trinity Mirror are down 11.4 per cent. Similarly, Johnston Press profits dropped by 15.5 per cent. And these are the bigger players in local media.

Guardian Media Group CEO Carolyn McCall said recently the internet had "decimated" local media by taking the classifieds market and using it far more effectively. In his now famous speech to the Society of Editors, Paul Dacre declared regional media were in an "inexorable downward spiral". So when iCrossing's Anthony Mayfield said what makes successful online companies is the way they target interest communities, I was slightly confused. Under this remit- target your niche- local media has the potential to thrive. Readers of local paper want news tailored to their lives, their concerns. Local media should be making a killing here.

But it's not. And with circulations falling, the funding to set up online is unlikely to materialise anytime soon. But what about the abundance of free tools available on the internet? Twitter, Flicker, GoogleMaps. So I started thinking about how local media might use these tools to target their niche market.

I went to a town planning meeting at Penarth Town Council on Thursday night. Sounds thrilling doesn't it? But this is exactly the kind of area where local publications can use media tools to give their audience what they want. People care if there is going to be a Tescos built on the local park. They care even more if the next-door-neighbour is going to build a conservatory right next to their patio. Remember the story a few years ago when a man killed his neighbour of 20 years in an argument about a hedge? People want to know who's planning what, and GoogleMaps can show this in a visual manner to let your local audience know what might be affecting them. The map below shows the location of all the applications discussed at the Penarth meeting on Thursday. Click on them and you get details about the plans and what stage in the process the council are at.

View Larger Map

And it could be developed further. Links could be added to the full planning application or architect's drawings. Or an option for lodging objections or signing an online petition. Admittedly this isn't making any money but my counter argument for that is two-fold. Firstly it's free, so at least you're not spending anything. And secondly, despite Carolyn McCall's comments about advertising, a recent survey by OPA showed that readers trust local newspapers and their advertisers much more than national publications. This is something local papers can take advantage of. In many ways they can obey Anthony Mayfield's "rules of engagement" for successful online media ventures much more easily than the national papers. They're already deeply embedded in their "network" and are "live" within it. What is essential is that they use tools like the example here to remain useful to their audience as well. Where local newspapers will fail is if they do not realise that just putting your content online is no longer enough.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that my local newspaper, The Hexham Courant (big picture at the top) has revamped its website and begun to embrace the internet as a multi-media platform. They now have a blog, video news bulletins and access to their supplements on "virtual print" pages. It's still quite basic, but a big step in the right direction.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

My Big Digital Adventure

No sooner had I sworn to make online and digital media "my thing", than I was handed the perfect opportunity dive in head first.

A fortunate few of the Cardiff postgrads went to cover the Society of Editors Conference 2008 in Bristol as reporters for the Society's webiste. That in itself was exciting- a fantastic experience to get bylined on an industry body's website (shameless self-promotion perhaps) not to mention getting to listen in on a huge range of opinions about the buzzword ringing in everyones ears: CONVERGENCE.

Going straight from a contaversial speech like Paul Dacre's or a thought-provoking rant from "video visionary" Michael Rosenblum and writing for immediate publication online was exhilirating. And of course there's nothing like white-knuckle pressure to give you complete clarity of mind when writing.

But what was more thrilling was the 'unofficial' coverage the group did via Twitter under the hash tag #soe08. I think I'm right in saying Cardiff students set this tag up last week, and although I have no doubt the system would have been set up by someone else if we hadn't, it gave me a real buzz to see the number, and calibre, of people who got involved using the same tag and providing practially minute by minute coverage. With over 10 pages of tweets, contributors included Press Gazette,, the Guardian's Jemima Kiss, lecturer Paul Bradshaw, MediaUKPress, online journalist and blogger Martin Stabe as well as pretty much every one of the student contigent.

Reporting this way gave a real sense of connection. That we were being published and read by people who already have the long and exciting careers we seek was empowering. And equally, we had instant access to their thoughts on what was going on. But one issue this threw up was: is Twitter a tool primarily being used by media types, for media types? Could we report like this on a non-media event or more local story? And who would read it? Its recent outing on Radio 4 might change this and I was delighted when my housemate (a music student) said she'd signed up to see what it was about. But I'd be interested to know if people think, other than major media events like the US election, it currently has value as a crowd sourcing tool.

Another limitation was pointed out to me by Rob Alderson, my partner in crime in this most digital of adventures. Dacre's speech was at 7pm, but its contents was embargoed until 10pm. No matter how instantaneous the internet is in itself, there are still real world restrictions that can limit this immediacy.

On an unrelated point, there is an important demographic observation to be made. The majority of people at the conference were white, old-ish men. Of the handful of women it was disheartening to be told that many of those were the wives or partners of the male professionals and I saw just one black journalist. It struck me as odd that we were talking about massive change when some of the basic demographics at the top end of journalism seem to have a way to go.

In her interview with Cardiff's Hannah Waldram, Jemima Kiss highlights that for this reason, the conference was probably most valuable for people like us because we will be the ones to change things.