One Man and His Blog: February 2011 Archives

February 2011 Archives

February 24, 2011

Can we be honest about user data?

You know, the publishing business might not be doing itself any favours with its fervent opposition to the Apple subscription terms. The more posts like this that appear, the more our reputation diminishes:

Put simply, publishers don't want readers to opt in, because they know readers will prefer to opt out. Transparency is not a friend of publishers who for decades made a mint by selling out readers to advertisers and list brokers. Most readers may not be aware of this, but those who are don't like it. Publishers know that and hate Apple for calling their bluff. If personal info harvesting isn't essential for publishers' business model and it is in the interest of readers, then why would they be against an instant referendum in the form of the opt in button?

User data is valuable, and will be part of the business model we build in the future. But we need to be significantly more transparent about what we collect, why we collect it - and what the benefit is to the user. Apple is, in effect, challenging us to persuade the user to click "yes". Can you do so?

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Quote of the Day #1

God spare us from people who think conversations have "winners" and "losers".

- Shane Richmond in response to a comment on his post about Apple subscriptions.

February 23, 2011

Liveblogging versus second stage shovelware

Liveblogging is one of my favourite journalistic forms to have emerged in the last few years. I'm a huge practitioner of it myself, and take every opportunity to indulge myself in it that I can. So, this post by Martin Belam caught my eye this morning. He was responding to a post by John of The Louse and The Flea, who was criticising The Guardian's liveblogging of the Christchurch earthquake.

Martin's response was to point out that The Guardian did other, more traditional, reporting of the story. But I'd just like to take a moment to defend the practice of liveblogging itself, something many of the commenters on the original post are clearly not sold on.

Most journalists think in a goal-driven way. It is the finished product that matters; the 350-word inverted pyramid that captures the essence of the story; the 3,000 words, 3 DPS feature on a certain topic. That, though, is a product of the historic fact that a magazine or newspaper was finished. The page was set, the presses rolled, the story concluded. Sure, you could follow it up in the next issue, but the original story was done.

The internet does not possess this quality. Nothing on the internet has to be finished. It's a simple matter (or should be, at least) to re-edit a story and republish it. Indeed, there's initial evidence that the courts are aware of this and if you fail to update certain material to acknowledge changes in circumstance, you create a legal issue for yourself. Websites never go to press. The medium is a different one, and allows different forms of journalism.

Liveblogging is one of those. It is one that's born from the ability to continually update and change a post as events develop. It is just one form of journalism that is derived from the characteristics of the web, rather than the characteristics of print. To try and restrict internet publishing to the characteristics of print will look as foolish to future generations as the early days of TV did, with their tendency to just point cameras at theatre-style productions.

In essence, some people are still locked in what I might call second-stage shovelware. First stage shovelware was just taking what we produced for print, and shoving it online. There aren't many people left, thankfully, who think that's a viable idea.

The second stage of shovelware is where you've accepted that internet is a viable medium of first publication, but you're still using nothing but print formats. And I'd argue that this criticism of The Guardian liveblog is rooted in that.

The basic flaw in the original post, as I see it, is that the author misunderstood the context of a liveblog:

For instance, as I write, the first entry is a report from Tony Manhire in Auckland (nearly 500 miles from the centre of action), that starts:

Contrary to early reports of an evacuation, Christchurch hospital remained open, and was operating at full capacity, despite suffering minor structural damage.

What earlier report? Where is it?

Further down the page, of course. Reverse chronological ordering is one of the defining characteristics of web publishing: new at the top, older at the bottom. You find it on blogs, on Twitter, on Facebook. It's part of the established vocabulary of web publishing.

But the misunderstanding is deeper than that, I think. The liveblog isn't meant to be read when it's finished. It's meant to be read while it's happening. In a sense, the finished product is less relevant than the work in process. It is a product of the process-driven mindset, of people whose joy is in bring news to people as it happens, as much as in creating a finished product after the fact. It is, as the very name suggests, a live thing.

I think it's interesting - and somewhat revealing - that the original The Louse and The Flea post didn't link to the liveblog it was criticising. In fact, the only links in the post are those that came along with sections he was quoting from the liveblog. That's print thinking, not web thinking, where linking is the most basic of core skills.

Shoving square print thinking into a round web-shaped hole is never going to end well.

UPDATE: I've just noticed that Kevin Anderson has also blogged a long response to the post, arguing that there is a valid point in the suggestion that real-time content needs context. 

February 21, 2011

The Victorian Age of (poultry) Publishing

Poultry Week Past
I'm a sucker for the history of our titles, and I often think it's a shame that we don't do more with the vast archives some of our magazines have developed. So this blog post from the Poultry World team just delighted me, with its insight into the Victorian-era incarnation of the publication as the wonderfully-named Fancier's Gazette.

The post has more photos from a couple of centuries back...

More historic blog posts, please.

February 20, 2011

How to sell print maps in the internet age

Broward County Mapping
More accurate than the internet!

Broad generalisations FTW!

February 19, 2011

Newsroom rivalry. There's nothing like it

I almost feel sorry for the guy...

February 18, 2011

The path to more news you can use

It's carnival of journalism time again, and boy have I struggled with this one. You see, the subject matter is increasing the sources of news. And, my first, second and third reactions were all the same:

Do we need more sources of news? Really?

The internet has lead to a proliferation of sources, as publishing opportunities open up to a multiplicity of sources.Blogs and websites and information streams of various sources are coming at us in ever greater volumes. We get 174 newspapers' worth of information a day. Time to put the brakes on, perhaps?

But the more I think about it, the more I realise that there are gaps, places when the enthusiast and the expert don't often go, and that's where the margin is for the publisher and the journalist. That's where we operate, to some degree. We're publishers of business information, much of which is journalism, but a significant chunk of which is data. We're providing reporting to help people do their jobs, and actually, we've found there's a market for information that is hard and time-consuming to collect and publish.

Now, I'll be honest here: I'm using a very broad definition of news. Some of what I'm talking about here is information - stuff people can actually apply to their job. We style it "news you can use" internally, and I think that's a neat summary of what we're trying to achieve.

So what steps do you need to go through to produce effective News You Can Use?

  1. Let go of generalist information as the driving factor behind your news values - that's a characteristic of print, where you needed to appeal to a wide audience.
  2. Figure out which niches are ill-served by existing channels - research, research, research. What subsets of information need the times and resources of experts to ferret out. Where can we as full-time find-outers add value?
  3. Figure our what information they need - and the emphasis is on need here. This is not about "what they might find interesting". This is about key, useful, valuable information that can make their working day more productive.
  4. Figure out who is best placed to provide it for them - because, and here's the thing, it might not be professional journalists. It might be researchers. It might be the professional community itself, who just need a place to share and exchange professional opinion and expert comment. Getting this right is going to determine your business model and the way you structure your site.
  5. Iterate, iterate, iterate - the feedback loop you get from your readers, your audience, your community is one of the most powerful tools that you have in shaping the future direction of your operation. You have both the explicit information - that which they tell you - and the implicit - that which your analytics can show you they like. Combine those and feed them back into your product, and you can be sure that you're actually increasing the net stock of news with useful content. And that's what we need more of.

What is social influence?

This is fun:

February 17, 2011

Some Afternoon Coffee Links

A couple of interesting links, that make an excellent aperitif to my last post:

A Little Devil's Advocacy on iPad Subs

The whole discussion about the charging structure for subscriptions that Apple announced earlier in the week has left me rather bamboozled. It feels like rather a lot of people have missed something rather important about this iPad thingamajig.

You see, there's a super-secret way to get all your content onto an iPad without Apple charging you a dime for it. If you look really carefully at your iPad, in amongst all those clumsy, slow, print-replicating magazine apps you've downloaded is a blue-ish icon which looks a little like a compass:


Found it? Cool. Now click on it. Yes, it's called the web. You can access the web on your iPad. Blimey! Who'd have thought it?

You could put your content up on something called a web site, for free, or with a paywall, and have your customers access it that way. On their iPads. And Apple doesn't charge.


Sarcasm aside, I think the rather bizarre belief in some quarters that the iPad will magically recreate our content packages of old and restore the traditional business model of publishing (debunked here) is at the root of the outrage shown in some quarters over Apple's charging structure. People have obsessed over apps to such a degree they've forgotten they're just one route from your servers to a customer's eyeballs.

Apple is offering a shopfront, a payment processor and (for the app itself) hosting facilities. For that, they're charging you 30% (and then only for customers that come to you through Apple. For customers you acquire yourself? Still free.) As Shane Richmond has pointed out, that's pretty damn close to what publishers pay newsagents. And there aren't many publications which ONLY sell to newsagents. If you want on the iPad app system, those are the terms of business. And some publishers are doing so. If you're not prepared to pay the cost of accessing the platform, then build a pretty damn compelling web offer instead.

If you don't think you can do that, and you don't think you can find a business model that accommodates Apple's terms on payment and user data, well, you have worse problems than this 30% charge, frankly.

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Cross-platform subs: sign of The Times

Times advertising
Spotted on my morning commute: heavy promotion for subscriptions to The Times as a cross-platform offer. 

February 16, 2011

Guest posting on leases, bloggers and PRs

Today, I was going to do a post about the blogstorm in Cardiff over John Lewis, leases and independent shops.

But I gave it to Stacey as a guest post instead. It's probably more at home amongst property folks, but I'm sure some of you will enjoy it, too. 

February 14, 2011

Pervasive internet, publishing pitfalls and blaming Steve Jobs

I'm feeling uncomfortable right now, and I blame Steve Jobs. Now, I admit it's not very fair to pick on a man on sick leave, but my conscience is clear because (a) he'll almost certainly never read this and (b) he certainly won't give a damn if he ever should. It's his fault, bang to rights, because of the iPhone and the iPad and the changes they've worked on the technology world.

Every day that I come into the office and don't do something that look at a multi-platform future for our content is a day I feel I've wasted. My gut, or my instinct for those who prefer a less biological metaphor, is screaming at me that the new reality for publishing is a continuum of devices, that start at phones, and move through tablets and TV and laptops and desktops and ereaders and innumerable devices not yet thought of.

And the journalism business is not ready.

This is the third major transformation to hit the our profession:

  1. The Internet - somebody only went and invented the biggest, most efficient information distribution system ever.  Oddly enough, the whole content business changed. And we've just about got our heads around this as an industry.
  2. Social Media - now, the internet always was social, but we ignored this bit until the social element became so loud, so important, that we couldn't any more. And, as an industry, we're just feeling our way through this right now.
  3. The Pervasive Internet - this is what people who still aren't paying attention call the mobile internet or - worse - the mobile web. This is the proliferation of internet connection devices that people have with them everywhere and everywhen - and expect the information they want in easily accessible forms.

I'm worried about this last change for any number of reasons. First up, catering this means technological changes, and publishers have traditionally been crummy at those. Secondly, publishers are still struggling with point two. And lastly, too many people are busy rushing the wrong way with these devices. Too many of the iPad-centered publishing strategies have the reek of people taking one look at TVs and thinking "finally, the perfect vehicle to recreate greek theatre!"

The changes are starting to come faster than the publishing business has proved itself capable of reacting to - and that's a huge red flag.

Cheery thought, isn't it?

Dramatic sky this evening...

February Skies
...and it's still light at 5pm. Roll on, spring.

February 11, 2011

Spam, technology and a bloody tough week

A broken and twisted Movable Type keyring It's the end of a long working week, one that has been dominated by behavioural problems masquerading as technical ones. We've had a number of very intense spam attacks on our blog farm here, and it's taken both a number of technical efforts (including blocking certain IPs at a server level) as well as some educational ones to start turning back the tide.

The key problem underlying the general peaks and troughs of comment spam was this:

  1. Blogger doesn't actively manage their comments
  2. Large volumes of spam get published on their blog
  3. System "learns" that those spam comments are OK.
  4. Volume of spam increases as we become known amongst spammers as a good bet
  5. Other journalists get more comment spam
  6. Another journalist gives up managing their comments
  7. Go to 2...

We've made some setting changes to break the cycle, and I have some education work to do (I've discovered quite a few journalists unaware that they can manage comments en masse from their blog dashboard, thinking that it all had to be done from notification e-mails), but it still frustrates me that there's a significant subset of our journalists who, while their blogging, don't see interacting with their commenters as part of their jobs. And we don't have any blogs that get the sort of comment volumes that mainstream newspaper politics blogs get (for example). Even our biggest blogs have comments well within the range of a moderately successful personal blog.

As ever, the hardest part of this change is found in that nasty little place when technology limitations butt up against resistance to cultural change.

And on that cheerful note - have a good weekend. :)

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February 10, 2011

WordPress, Six Apart silences and communities

The company that was Six Apart is gone. The name and Movable Type are ensconced in Japan, Vox is dead and Typepad is part of SAY Media. It seems an appropriate time for a post-mortem, and that's just what former Typepad and Movable Type product manager Byrne Reece has done in a long, insightful and revealing post on his own blog. Between the post and the fascinating discussion in the comments, much that happened in the blog platform war of the mid-2000s is captured for posterity, and there's a whole bunch of lessons in there for today's web companies. It's probably about the last word that needs to be said about the fall of Six Apart.

However, there's one thing I'd like to add, my own bugbear, if you like, that I believe contributed to its fall.

For a company that was, apparently, all about supporting bloggers, it was awful at blogging. Truly, truly awful.

Compare and contrast the posting rate on the Six Apart blogs and the Automattic ones. The main Six Apart blog managed a grand total of 10 posts in the whole of 2010. 8 posts. 16 posts. The Automattic product blogs produce posts at a feverish rate.  The most direct comparison would be 38 plays 16. That's quite a difference. And if you take a moment to compare the posts, you'll see a world  of difference in tone.

And yes, I think this matters. It makes your product look vibrant and alive. It makes it look as if you like your product enough to use it and enjoy using it. And it makes your community feel cared about. A blogging company that doesn't blog has gone seriously wrong somewhere down the line.

I've no idea how or why Six Apart lost its blogging mojo - and find it interesting that SAY Media seems to have it back - but I'd love to know what happened.

We live in interesting times

Horace Dediu:

In that context, yesterday’s WebOS event was perhaps anticlimactic. But it’s still remarkable. Consider how far we’ve come. Step back now and remember the dark days only one year ago when, right after the iPad announcement, a  nearly unanimously chorus was pouring derision on the concept.

And now every computer company is trying to get a competitor out there.

Here's the lesson: don't believe anyone who tells you they've got the future of media figured out. We aren't at the end of the period of change, we're at the beginning. The landscape of production and consumption is changing month by month, and the landscape will look very different in a year's time than it does now.

February 4, 2011

Flips and iPhones for the NYT

New York Times editorial director for film and television Ann Derry talking about how Flip video cameras and iPhones are used in their video news gathering:

Cheap, simple and gets the news footage out fast. What's not to like?

[via TUAW]

Graphic Community Care

Love this simple, graphic cover on this week's Community Care:

Community Care cover
Simple, graphic and eye-catching.

February 3, 2011

Daily links (geddit?)

A few pieces worth reading about The Daily:

  • The Daily Snooze - an entirely positive review, as the headline betrays. :)
  • The Daily is a one-way channel - Scott Rosenberg suggests that the paper is less than social.
  • Daily economics - Jeff Jarvis does the sums. Doesn't sound like the "low numbers" Murdoch suggested would be needed to make this profitable.
  • iPad Review: The Daily - about as comprehensive a review as one could ask for, and the best change anyone this side of the pond will get to see what The Daily is like.
  • On The Daily - an app developer is blown away by the quality of the app itself.

Oh, and it's interesting to note that The Daily has its own blog - on Tumblr.

Possibly more significant than The Daily

Photo Feb 03, 3 14 50 PM

Following on from yesterday's launch of The Daily, iTunes has changed its terms and conditions. Above is a screenshot from my iPad, when I was asked to agree to the new Ts and Cs earlier today.

See the last line of the changes there?

...and that we may request permission to provide personal information to the Publisher for marketing purposes.

That means in-app iPad subscriptions are no longer a void of information. Apple no longer has to own the relationship with your subscribers...

February 2, 2011

The Daily is here. And it's national.

So, The Daily is here, a brand new, tablet-focused newspaper from News International.

Oh, I'm sorry. Did I say newspaper? My bad. I meant national newspaper. Because it's an US-only product right now.

The internet is without boundaries in the traditional sense. Web sites can be read from anywhere in the world. But this newspaper can only be read on US iPads (or, at least, ones linked to an account on the US iTunes store). And that, to me, is indicative. The Daily uses the internet, but is not of the internet. Beyond that, I can't say much, because I can't even download it. So, here's a video to give you a taste of what I'm missing out on:

Computer Weekly has more details on The Daily.
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February 1, 2011

Readability & Instapaper & ??? = Profit

I may be guilty of burying the lead in my post this afternoon about Readability. To be honest, I though the business model was interesting, but wouldn't go very far. But Matthew Ingram has been doing some digging: Arc90 is focusing on the paid model -- and has formed a partnership with Instapaper, a web app that allows readers to save articles for later reading, and also strips out all the graphics and ads. Instapaper's creator, Marco Arment (formerly with blog-publishing tool Tumblr and who is also an advisor to Arc90) says the new service is "one of the most positive, constructive efforts I've seen in the online publishing world in a long time."

That's kinda interesting. They're partnering with the other major "simplify reading" system? It's a distinctly new business model around content. I am now officially Paying Attention. Apologies for the earlier lapse... ;-)

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Weird Office Tat #1: Jolly Red Dragon

Jolly Red Dragon, originally uploaded by Adam Tinworth.

What is it about publishing offices and steady accumulation of weird tat?

Here begins my chronicle of such wastes of molecules...

Decluttering the web, Readability and new revenues

Page loading speed, readability and efficiency have all been topics of debate here in the last six months, driven by great work by some of our architects. This is, I think, A Good Thing. It's both good site hygiene. Increasing broadband speeds have made many people complacent about how their sites perform, while, at the same time, there's a growing movement amongst the more savvy website builders to streamline their sites. Blogs have been through a cycle from one sidebar to multiple sidebars, and slowly back to one, or even none. Indeed, I'm planning to revamp this blog with a much cleaner design sometime in the next couple of months.

However, the real giveaway that something is becoming a trend on the web is that people are starting to build products to solve the problem. I've noted Safari's new Reader view before, and am a regular user of Instapaper. The core technology underlying Reader - Readability - has evolved further. Anil Dash has published a long post looking at Readibility, its ability to enforce clean design on cluttered sites, and a business model attached to it. Here's a video giving a broad overview:
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This page is an archive of entries from February 2011 listed from newest to oldest.

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