September 2010 Archives
September 30, 2010
Sometimes in the hectic rush towards a digital future for journalism, it's worth stepping back and looking at the major structural issues that need to be addressed as part of that change. There's a post on the Media Briefing that makes a good starting point for thinking about the staffing, management and training issues we have to get right - at least, if we want traditional media businesses to survive this transition.
In some cases, digital strategy is led by those with technological expertise; in others, it is in the hands of commercial colleagues. Occasionally, excessive influence is exerted by people with no record of achievement in journalism, technology, or business.
In a period of speedy transition, this may be inevitable. Even the youngest of today's national newspaper editors had arrived in Fleet Street before the web became mainstream - while those who arrived after, say, 1999 have not yet reached the peak of their profession.
This is a transitional problem, of course, one that might appear that it will be solved over time. But there are other dangers, because if our education system isn't right, these problems will propagate over time. There's a great piece on Media Shift looking at journalism academics and the training they provide:
I am writing this article on an iPad which is tapped wirelessly into a coffee shop's WiFi. The device knows where it is in space and, if I allow it, will broadcast that information to any application I choose. Nearby, a young man browses the web on his iPhone. A woman is using a Blackberry. We are all online, all wireless and all capable of sending video, audio or text anywhere in the world.
In an instant, I could convert my iPad into a magazine-style newsreader using one of a dozen applications such as Flipboard, River of News, Early Edition or FLUD. Beautifully formatted pages, filled with images and videos which my social media friends have flagged, will flow and slide across the screen.
But, despite that, much of the fundamental (and sometimes final) training we offer journalism students is dished out as if none of it were happening. As if the boulder-sized granularity of the news cycle had not melted in a quicksilver stream. As if the line between author and audience has not been smudged to grey and as if, really, nothing much had changed about the fundamentals of journalistic narrative, despite a wholesale remaking of the information landscape.
Too many of our educators are trapped in the same headspace as those editors, aware of the digital revolution, but not really engaged with it. There are exceptions - I've had the pleasure of guest lecturing at Cardiff at the invitation of Glynn Mottershead for the last two years, and City University has just taken the admirable step of recruiting Paul Bradshaw, one of the leading thinkers (and bloggers) about the new era. They aren't the only prominent educators who "get" digital, but they are, I feel, exceptions rather than the rule.
And so, I don't think we can afford to wait for time to solve the problem. I think Greg Hadfield was spot on when suggested that editors need to assert themselves more over the commercial and technological sides of the business - but there's a caveat with that. They do need to surround themselves with people who do understand the digital environment, and trust their advice. In essence, they need to trust in their own judgement on news values, but be prepared to see those expressed in wholly new ways by those who report to them. As I mentioned earlier in the week, sometimes we cling too fiercely to the trappings of the print era, rather than the fundamentals of journalism.
This, though, is psychologically tricky. We're asking people who have spent decades climbing to the top of their profession to accept that some of the skills that got them there aren't as important as they once were. People near the top might have to accept that they may never reach that pinnacle, because a younger generation has a new set of skills that might usurp them. And there's nothing quite as tricky to manage as people who, with good reason, feel threatened.
September 29, 2010
As a lone blogger how much legal protection do you have? No more than anyone else, when it comes to libel, contempt of court law and so on, except that people are more likely to pay attention to large media organisations.
But there are many instances where bloggers have lost a lot of time and money over legal disputes. Last week, for example, journalist and blogger Dave Osler finally saw an end to a legal battle that consumed three years of his life, after he was sued for libel by the political activist Johanna Kaschke.
The truth is I was tired. But I wasn't tired of writing, or speaking at events. I was tired of our endless tech problems, our inability to find enough talented engineers who wanted to work, ultimately, on blog and CrunchBase software. And when we did find those engineers, as we so often did, how to keep them happy. Unlike most startups in Silicon Valley, the center of attention at TechCrunch is squarely on the writers. It's certainly not an engineering driven company.AOL has Blogsmith - the platform it runs its successful network of blogs on. And that's one of the dirty secrets of the new age of publishing: it's cheap and easy to get going, but once you hit a certain volume of success, it gets real hard to scale things well. Techcrunch has already outsourced a bunch of its technology: it's running on the WordPress.com platform and using Disqus for comments. And, if we take Arrington at his word, that wasn't enough to take the pressure off.
September 27, 2010
The other issue is really about professional identity. Journalists are very tribal, meaning that they have always been very sensitive about who is and isn’t a journalist. Economic uncertainty has only heightened this sensitivity. Many journalists still define themselves not only by their jobs but by very specific ways in which they do their jobs.
This is a bit like a builder defining themselves by the fact that they mainly do extensions. Possibly factually true, but really unhelpful if demand for extensions suddenly dries up…
Give the hoohah over the future of Movable Type post Six Apart's assimilation into Say Media last week, I really couldn't refuse the opportunity to meet Jun Kaneko, the product manager for MT, who was in the UK on holiday until Saturday. He hopped into London on Friday to meet what might be described as the rump of the UK Movable Type community, plus Maarten from Belgium.
Maarten has throughly blogged what we talked about over on Movable Tips, but here's a couple of things I took away from the meeting:
- The reason that Six Apart KK has succeeded with MT in Japan where the rest of the company struggled worldwide seems to be a simplicity of licensing terms, that favours resellers and solution partners, rather than direct relationships between the software writers and the users.
- I never realised how anglophone-centric tech reporting is. Sure, I got some taste of it around mobile phone reporting, which often (usually?) neglected to analyse the very different markets in Europe or Asia, but the fact that MT is in fact, in the old joke, big - huge even - in Japan, has gone almost almost unreported in the English-speaking world. But then, so did the closure of Six Apart Europe (based out of Paris) back in the early part of this year.
I walked back to the office with the very clear feeling that Movable Type has a future, and a strong one, but what Jun and his team do over the next nine months will determine if that's principally in Japan, or in the rest of the world as well.
September 22, 2010
Here's a thing to discover just before you go to bed: Six Apart, the company that produces the blog software that's at the heart of much of my day job, is about to be sold. In its new incarnation as part of Say Media, it appears focused on advertising sales and engagement as much (if not more so) than on blogging.
Clearly, this matters to me: we publish hundreds of blogs on Movable Type, have an enterprise support arrangement with Six Apart, and will be watching what happens in coming days very closely. [Update: Typepad bloggers have been officially informed]
That said, I think there's plenty of reasons to be hopeful, and I would suggest that the Mashable piece that questions the future of Movable Type overlooks one key advantage to Say Media keeping both Typepad and Movable Type going, and developing them aggressively. Without them, Say Media is just another ad network, and the world is not short of ad networks. With the blog platforms, they're a full-service publishing support business.
In essence, they can say: "You worry about the content, we'll worry about monetising it and hosting it":
- Just want to blog? Use Typepad + and their ad support services.
- Want to build and monetise a community? Typepad Motion + ad support
- Want something more bespoke? Use Movable Type + Say Media Services development + Typepad Hosted services.
Obviously, we'll know more when the formal announcements are made later today. And, as I said above, I'll be watching developments very carefully. But I'm a way away from pulling the (long-prepared, admittedly) MT-escape lever...
September 17, 2010
Apple Inc. is developing a digital newsstand for publishers that would let them sell magazines and newspapers to consumers for use on Apple devices, said two people familiar with the matter.
The newsstand, designed particularly for the iPad, would be similar to Apple’s iBook store for electronic books, said the people, who declined to be identified because the negotiations are private. The newsstand would be separate from Apple’s App Store, where people can buy some publications now, they said.
Now, remember - Apple will not save the news business. But this might be one element that helps.
September 12, 2010
I've picked up a Canon Ixus 130 for work purposes. A recent visit by Documentally to our fine company suggested that it might be time for us to move on from Flip cameras (and their ilk) to digital compacts that can take good photos as well as good video. Here's a very basic set of footage shot on it over the weekend, to test how it performs in difficult lighting. Expect some more robust testing in the week to come…
September 10, 2010
From the "batshit insane" file: the Royal Opera House is busy sending appallingly typo-ridden legal threats to an opera blogger.
I have made not a penny from "images referenced to performances at the Royal Opera House". The ROH have not, I suspect, incurred any losses as a result of my use. In fact, I believe that this blog has actually enhanced ROH finances by encouraging people to buy tickets, and particularly by familiarising new visitors with what goes on there and what performances are really like. On a day when the ROH's Chief Executive Tony Hall is boasting of bringing "new audiences into the opera house", it is sad that they will have one less resource to help them.
I have no idea what perceived harm the organisation is trying to correct here, but this will do their reputation way more damage than any less-than-positive reviews ever would. Madness.
[Raised glass of red wine to the West End Whingers for the tip]
Interesting Forbes article on the problems Microsoft faces. It is making good money, but is failing to grow. Why? It is failing to execute on innovation. The solution? A better working relationship between the innovators and those running the traditional business:
As with any partnership, its success can only be built on mutual respect. Innovation leaders must recognize, first of all, that they need the performance engine. Almost all innovations inside established companies build on existing assets. Second, they must realize that conflict in the partnership is normal. It is not the result of laziness or instinctive resistance to change; it is the result of good people doing good work, trying to make the performance engine run as effectively as possible. Leaders of the performance engine, meanwhile, must recognize that no performance engine grows--or even survives--indefinitely. Therefore each side depends on the other.
Lessons for traditional publishing companies here, I feel…
I have a couple of exclusives on the Olympics site that I will be publishing in tomorrow's Estates Gazette. The heart-warming side of this is directly and then indirectly both come from a kind poster to this blog. In its own small way it proves the power of the internet and citizen journalism in unearthing interesting nuggets.
September 8, 2010
Here's what this means: no two people will see the same web. Once a single search would do the trick - and everyone saw the same results. That's what made search engine optimization work. Now, with this, everyone is going to start tweaking their searches in real-time. The reason this is a game changer is feedback. When you get feedback, you change your behaviors.
Last Thursday, I opened Safari, and found a death notice. Vox, a blogging platform I've used for four years, was on death row. At the end of this month, it dies.
I used to love Vox. Up until mid-2008 I was an enthusiastic Voxer, posting there as least as much as I do here. But my activity had petered off in recent years, and I think there are some lessons worth learning in the demise of this once-promising platform.
I was a Vox user from June 9th 2006, and for about two years I loved it. It had an ease of use and a simplified posting interface that was unmatched until the arrival of Tumblr - and Tumblr still lacks Vox's superb integration with other sites. It was very much a "son of Livejournal", which Six Apart owned at the time, combining Livejournal's social network features that allowed you to show certain posts to a limited selection of your contacts, with a really easy-to-use interface.
A few people tried to use Vox as a straight blogging platform, but it was far more of a communication tool, as Six Apart CEO Chris Alden once characterised it to me, designed for publishing to the dozen people you care about most, rather than the world at large. It was a good idea. Yet, four years on, it's dead.
So, what happened? Two things, I think:
- The most obvious is the old adage that when you have a hammer, every problem starts to look like a nail. Six Apart is a blog company, and when they decided to build a communication tool, they built it in a blog form. But blogs are quite hard to maintain. Not everyone has the inclination to create structure content in a way that a blog demands. And that made it hard to get your friends and family on there. My only notable success in that area was Rev Stan. My late mother managed two posts. My wife? None.
- The bigger problem was timing. Vox was launched in 2006. The earliest mention I can find on my blog was in June. Facebook opened up from students to the general public in the September of that year. By the time Mena Trott was promoting Vox at Le Web in December, Facebook was building up a head of steam, one that Vox was never able to match.
These two factors were, in conjunction, killers. Facebook made it much easier to do Vox's "private communication" schtick by reducing the barriers to getting content into it - upload a photo, post a status update, rather than write a post.
There were other issues. Users who accuse Six Apart of neglecting the platform are pretty accurate. All of the US team's development resources have been focused on the relaunched Typepad in the last couple of years, and to good effect. But the neglect of Vox showed, particularly in the spam management area. The writing had been on the wall for a while.
Anyway, my Vox posts are now safely ensconced in my Typepad blog, and it feels surprisingly good to have consolidated somewhat. There are some features from Vox I'd like to see resurface:
- Easy pulling in of media from other sources (Flickr, Amazon, YouTube, etc)
- Ability to limit some posts to certain contacts
- The asset management
And, with a bit of luck, we'll see some of that emerge in Typepad, which, as it develops, seems to have integrated many of the lessons from Vox. It's not trying to be anything other than a content-focused tool. It plays very nicely with social networks like Twitter and Facebook, allowing you to share content with family and friends, even if they'll never be bloggers.
Vox was a brave attempt to build a blog-based social network. But I still believe that social tools on top of existing services will be more important that building social network after social network. And I suspect that Vox won't be the last social network to fail in the coming months.
September 6, 2010
I'm coming to the conclusion that there's an awful lot of nonsense being talked about Ping, the new social tool in iTunes.
Please note: "social tool in iTunes" not "social network".
That's the root of the confusion and dismay, I think. People are looking at Ping and expecting something much like Facebook - a self-contained network that you can run your social life from. I've long believed that the market for social networks is limited - there's only so many people will use - but that the potential for overlaying social tools on existing services is huge. Ping, I think, is an example of that. It is not a social network in the sense that Facebook or Twitter is. Apple would be moronic to try to launch against them. And Apple is rarely moronic.
Instead, Ping is just a simple social graph laid over the iTunes Store (more so than iTunes itself), creating a way for you to find out what your mates are buying - and maybe buy it yourself. In fact, the description of Ping within iTunes itself makes this abundently clear:
If you want more evidence of that this is mostly about recommendation and purchase, just look at where Ping lives:
It's right in the iTunes Store. (Adam's Brain is my iPhone, by the way. My wife has decided that it's my brain, because I don't seem to be able to think without it…)
So, let's say that again: Ping is not a social network. It's a social tool that allows you to find new music based on recommendations from friends. And what's the point of that? Sales and Folksonomy.
I'm staying in Ping. You can add me as a friend, if you like - but I warn you that my taste in music is terrible…
September 4, 2010
Tommy Gibbons & Aleks Krotoski chatting during a coffee break at Science Online.
Note the shoes she bought to match her Second Life avatar. :-)
I dropped into one of the unconference sessions, looking at engaging with your readers (of obvious interest to me). The panel did a sterling job of giving a beginner's guide to managing comments and commenters, from different scales (personal blogs to Ars Technica). I thought Ed Yong's comments about building a commenter community around your personal blog were particularly good - and the delurking thread idea is one I intend to nick.
But the audience, once the questions started, took the conversation in an entirely different direction, about the reputation of scientists and (to a degree) to the on-going problem of poor scientific reporting. Now, as a journalist, a profession usually in the top three least trusted professions, I'm not entirely clear why scientists are so concerned, but there's clearly a strong feeling fo disconnect between the scientific community and the general public. There was some attempt in the conversation to shape blogs into the answer to that. However, I think there were two key misconceptions percolating through the discussion. The first was the idea that blogging is inherently publishing to the mainstream - a question was asked that pre-supposed that a science blog that wasn't reaching a non-specialist audience was, in some way, failing. And I disagree strongly with that sentiment. Some of the best blogs I know have small, but highly specialised audiences. A highly specialised science blog is just as valuable as a generalist science communicator blog - they're just performing different functions.
The second that was a blog is something that "you have to go to" - Ed started to address that point, describing how people share links to interesting articles on Twitter and Facebook (feel free to use the buttons below, folks ;-)) and that creates an ecosystem of content that is pushed outside its traditional content.
To me, this suggests that many within the scientific community are somewhere between three and four years behind the "cutting edge" of social media - much of the focus is still on blogging, and the rise of the social networking systems has yet to have as much of an impact. But I could be wrong in that. It occurs that scientists are used to describing their work in written form - it's an inherent part of the current systems. And perhaps the barrier of entry to blogging is slightly lower here, which means that blogging hasn't been so supplanted by the Twitter/Facebook world. What do you think?
Today's been an interesting contrast with yesterday. dConstruct was very much a temple of the converted, discussing elements of web design theology. Science Online is much more of a culture clash, with the social media crowd meeting sceptical scientist, and coming away with a draw at best. (In that, it reminds me far more of news:rewired.) Nowhere has this clash been more clear than in the presentation by David McCandless, who spoke at both conferences.
I've blogged about McCandless before, and his presentation was much the same in all cases. He does fantastic story-telling through data visualisation, and his presentation was very warmly welcomed by the dConstruct crowd. The Science Online attendees also took to his infographics pretty quickly, at least while the topics was slightly outside the scientific mainstream. The closer the got to science, the more twitchy the audience became. The reason why became apparent pretty quickly. Challenges came to the labelling of one slide, to the data methodology on another. In the questions. he was challenged on the lack of axis labelling on his more graph-like visualisations.
And here was the culture clash - people who have been drilled by years of practice to present data in very clear, systematic and comprehensible ways meeting those who are, essentially, storytelling through data and graphics. I hope people from both sides learnt something from this: the scientists the value of making things comprehensible for a lay audience, the visualisers the fact that a greater degree of rigour can give your work more impact.
And, in a way, I find these sorts of encounters more satisfying than "preaching to the choir" conferences. Through these sorts of clashes, we can actually see learning happening, rather than beliefs being reinforced.
September 3, 2010
Great presentation by Tom Coates to kick off the final session of the day, unless you're a semantic web fan, in which case it was heresy and the root of all evil in the world. He was drawing a parallel between the work of King Darius in the year A Long Time Ago BC, who built a new transport network across Persia, and transformed the country as a result. (Prior to that, princes of Persia had to jump across roofs to get around).
Today, we're in a similar situation, as we evolve the web from a place where each site was complete unto itself, into a place where the interaction of sites, through the exchange of data creates a new network that will reshape the world. Lanyrd.com is an example of something that was built quickly and easily from data from other sites. (But it isn't the semantic web that'd driving that. The top-down approach has been superseded by a more organic approach to building links - which is orthogonal to the efforts of the key semantic advocates.)
Aside: he built a slide with 150 transitions in 30 seconds. I am in awe....
That network is beginning to extend beyond the world of sites, into network-enables devices. He gave a range of examples from the Boris Bike to parking in San Francisco, but I'm going to focus on the Internet-connected scales. You could scan Twitter for the tweets from the scales, and do trends and maps... OK, back to the parking then - by tracking use and networking the data with traffic information, they can vary parking prices to ensure that there's always one parking space per block, and thus make traffic flow more efficient... Interconnected data opens up the possibility of positive changes to a physical living environment.
And that's what brings us back to Darius. We're building the inromation network that the next generation will build on to change the world.
I hope he puts those slides online. They were just beautiful.
I'm down in Brighton for dConstruct, a conference I've heard plenty about over the years, but never actually managed to attend. And so far, it's proving an interesting morning. It's certainly challenging some of the preconceived notions I see in play in the way we build websites. Brendan Dawes (right) has just given a great talk called "Boil, Simmer, Reduce", which led on nicely from Marty Neumeier's talk emphasising the need to move beyond a comfort zone fo wholesale acceptance and user-testing approval to truly innovate. The first two parts of Dawes' talk were issues I have a low-level awareness of, but easily let go of in the stress of the average day. There is a need to draw in information and inspiration from outside sources, and relect on the ideas that come from that process - and reflect again as you start drawing on those concepts while you're working on projects.
I've noted a trend in blog design in recent years, where the growth in columns from two to three is rolling back to two - or ever one. (Note the simplified look of currybet, for example) In a way, this whole thought process is pushing me back to the days of student newspapers, Macs and Pagemaker, when most magazines used every font that they possibly could. I argued for keeping the typeface choice extremely limited and, seeing as I was editor, I won. I think we're in a similar place with web functionality right now. Roll back the widgets, concentrate on the user journey and what they really want from the site.