Monthly Archives: November 2008

Online storytelling

I bought the Observer at half nine on Sunday night on a break from a massive traffic jam on the M4. In the interests of being honest about my news consuming habits, I bought it for Food Monthly – I wanted Nigel Slater’s Christmas recipes and to see what tone they were going to take with Jamie Oliver.

Last night I sat down to read the Magazine. The cover story is this about the stabbing of teenager Kodjo Yenga. I didn’t think I was going to read it. When I realised how long it was, I definitely wasn’t going to read it… but something in one of the pull quotes made me think I’d give it a go. And I was gald I did. it’s brilliant.

But here’s my point. Go to the Observer website and it’s their top story. They’re obviously proud of it. And they should be. But it’s 9,000 words long. And in that 9,000 words there’s not a single picture. None of the participants on video, not even 30 seconds worth. No links out. No formatting, no pull quotes like the one that changed my mind about reading it. Nothing to break up the stream of words that goes on for miles.

So does this story not work on the web because of its nature? Do we say ‘this kind of journalism only works in print?’ Or should we be trying to find a way to tell that story in a way that works online – because what it has to say is important, and fascinating, but completely lost when told in this way.

And if we don’t find a way to get round that, to get the essence of what we do in a format that works for people who won’t sit down and read 9,000 words of text, then we really will struggle.

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Baby P, Facebook and contempt of court

Yesterday, while looking for a link for a story I came across a Facebook group identifying Baby P.

There’s been a lot of between-hack speculation about why he and his parents can’t be named – after all, the social workers and the doctors have all been named and shamed, so why not the people who really did the damage? As it turns out there are valid legal reasons – but does it matter?  I found his name completely by accident.

Once you’ve got his name it’s but a short step to his mum’s name, her boyfriend’s and even the house number and the street they live in.

This illustrates two things: first the futility of newspapers believing we’re the sacred keepers of news no-one knows about until we tell them. There are thousands of people who have this knowledge and thousands more who are just one facebook friend away from finding out. In this kind of world, how can we pretend that news itself is what we sell?

Second, how can the courts police this? Publishing Baby P’s name is technically contempt of court, punishable with a prison sentence. But everyone who joins one of those Facebook groups is ‘publishing’ his name to all their Facebook friends. Are they all in contempt?

And what about the newspapers? Thanks to Google caching, once you know the names it’s a simple search to bring up all the stories published before the reporting restrictions were imposed, even though they’ve been removed from the newspapers’ websites. Who’s punishable there?

Is it possible to enforce reporting restrictions in these circumstances? With everyone so connected to everyone else, isn’t it im possible to put up barriers to information? and if so where does that leave us when there really are valid reasons for witholding the identities of those in court?

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An unformed theory

I still haven’t really worked out what I think about this… so I’m posting some thoughts to see if you lot out there can assist me in formulating them.

There’s a lot of talk about new business models, about the market not caring if we make money, about there being no right to a job in a newsroom. There’s a lot of talk about regional newspapers having less than five years.

When I first read Joanna Geary’s post on news not needing journalists I disagreed with her. (This may partly have been because of an earlier post about subs being unecessary – everyone’s allowed a bit of bias, surely?).

But now I think maybe the problem is actually a stage further than Jo’s original post and is probably closer to an argument she makes in a later post about the market for journalism.

What if there’s less of a market for news than we think there is?

I’m talking long long term here, mind, but its a problem that would need working on now if it’s to be fixed.

Here’s what I mean.

People under 25 don’t buy newspapers. No surprise there.

But how many people under 25 actively seek out the news?

This is how I hear about things: I listen to the radio headlines when I’m in the shower or in my car. I click on links that my friends send me.

If there’s a big story, I’ll check the TV news bulletins or channels. I read papers when I’ve got time and not for information. I check their websites when they have specific content I already know about that I want to see.

Someone from the BBC said this week it’s a ‘known known’ that there is a need for journalism. (If I could find the link I’d give it to you!) But is it? Does our audience of the future actually want what we want to give them?

Now I don’t know the demographics for PM or the 10, or Channel 4 news, for example. I’m not saying that no-one under the age of 30 cares about what’s going on in the world.

What I am saying is that the appetite for news is limited. They get their headlines almost accidentally, while they’re doing something else. They do what I do and follow what interests them. They absorb the things they need to know while they are doing other things. They didn’t grow up buying or reading their local newspaper. They probably don’t know or care about their neighbours.

We can get out among them, make sure that our links are where they are, that our content is under their nose. We can Twitter and Facebook and YouTube and blog and read blogs, and chat to our audience.

But how much of the content we provide is going to appeal to more than a niche audience? Especially in small towns where by its very nature the content is less exciting, where there’s less hard news?

Even the Beeb struggles to get UGC. Number of Radio One Newsbeat comments on Obama being elected? Eight, last time I looked.

I believe passionately that good journalism is necessary in society. But I’m a journalist – so I would think that. What if our readers (or rather, non-readers) don’t? What if they’re happy with 30 second bulletins and learning about earthquakes on Twitter? What if they don’t care whether we’re covering council meetings or finding out about that block of flats that collapsed? People get information through their own network. We might come into that network somewhere but we’re not at the heart of it.

That’s not going to be enough to keep us all in business. So what do we do? Try and inveigle ourselves into their lives and hope that one day they’ll wake up and say ‘I’m going to spend 20 minutes on my local newspaper’s website every day from now on’?

Resign ourselves to the fact that sooner or later all regional journalism will be crowdfunded like the brilliant, or a not-for-profit public service?

Completely rethink the content we provide? Slim down, cut back, pare – leave the parish pump stuff to whatever parish pump bloggers care enough to write about it and have fewer journalists doing more interesting stories, push personalities not patches – and then figure out how to fund it?

I don’t know the answer. I don’t even know if I’m right. In fact if anyone can tell me that the news-consuming habits of the under-30s are the opposite to those I’ve suggested I’d love to hear about it!

UPDATED: This, from Helen Boaden on the BBC News Editors blog, sort of underlines my point about the appetite for news:

“Last week, 5.5 million people tuned into our US election programme with David Dimbleby. Interestingly, we don’t know the precise figure for 1979’s programme but we can be pretty certain it was many, many more.

What we are seeing in television is audience fragmentation – the natural impact of greater audience choice in a multi channel age. When people have a lot to choose from, they go off in all sorts of directions. It means that really huge audiences for television news on all channels are a thing of the past.

You can see this quite clearly in the figures. In 2006 – in homes with digital television, news viewing fell by a third. And the numbers watching current affairs fell by half. ”

I think Paul and Joanna are both right. Supporting journalism and saving the ‘news industry’ have become two different propositions….

Some links while I gather my thoughts

Joining the debate on Joanna Geary’s post about news not needing journalists and checking out the BBC’s news offering for their younger audience on the back of what I’ve written about the under-25s and newspapers has started an unwlecome chain of thought about what news is and who really wants it.

So while I’m working out what I think… here are some links!

It’s not all bad news

Brilliant example of a multimedia package

Is the Guardian going to rethink what content goes online and when?

People WILL still buy newspapers when something big happens!

Reinventing the wheel

Too many news groups, it seems to me, are bent on creating their own version of free-to-use technology our of some misguided ‘keep-it-inhouse’ policy.

It’s an example of the battle between the proponents of the link economy and the companies that still think using other people’s software or linking to external content is a bad thing.

We’re doing our first live blog this weekend, from AFC Bournemouth’s away game. The sports desk is very excited at the prospect. I’ve shown them how the Liverpool Daily Post does it and some Portsmouth News examples.

The only minor snag is that we’re not supposed to use Cover it Live, the program both those papers rely on.

Instead we’re supposed to use the group’s recently released version.

But, as is so often the case in these scenarios, the company’s version isn’t as good.

I can only assume the group version has been created to try and emulate some of the success of CIL. But why bother? CIL has much more functionality. You can embed comments, videos and polls – all of which enhances the community aspect of the live blog. Your readers see it as a conversation, not a story they can comment on.

Here’s a comparison.

Now tell me, what would you do?

(We’re using CIL.)

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How many 25-year-olds you know buy a newspaper?

A thought:

I hate to admit it, but newspapers as they exist today have probably had their chips.
Maybe not tomorrow, or next month, or even next year – but it’s coming. Why?

Well as Ryan Sholin demonstrates, the newspaper buyers of the future don’t buy them. A weekly publication, maybe. A daily newspaper, when they can get the news that’s relevant to them online? Nope.

After all, how much of the content of the average regional newspaper (because that is what I’m talking about here… I’m not sure if this theory applies to the national and even less sure why I’d think that was the case) is of relevance or interest to all its readers?

I’d say maybe five or six page leads out of the 15 or so pages will be interesting enough to appeal to everyone.  And the nibs are usually glorified events listings and done much better elsewhere.

So if you’re only reading five stories a day, it makes much more sense to look at them online, subscribe to a feed that will tell you when important breaking news happens, and rely on your social network to send you the interesting stuff.

So maybe what we have to do is
a) break the news online. Be first, be best, be the place people trust for the facts. If that means curating the best UGC in your patch then go for it.
b) provide some of that interesting stuff. Present it in an interesting way. Give people something they can’t get in print and then use the feedback to inform the in-depth analysis you’re writing for print
c) be where the people are, whether that’s Twitter or
c) be really good at the analysis, the backgrounds, the feature writing – so that people will buy your weekly round-up because they think it’s worth spending some of their spare time on

What does that mean for the newsroom? Fewer reporters, probably, more emphasis on quality of writing, both in print and online, and contacts.
We’ll all have to know about mapping and video and creating interactive content.
More page designers, less sub-editors.

You’ll notice I’m clinging to the idea that there will still be a printed publication of some kind.  Why? Because I love books and newspapers and magazines. I love how stories can be presented in print. I think great page design can always be a show stopper. I think pictures still work better on paper. And I do agree that people will always read. Fingers crossed I’m right

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