One Man and His Blog: March 2011 Archives

March 2011 Archives

March 31, 2011

How to take Innovation cash and waste it in five easy steps!

Sad  n Scary

[Photo by Orin Zebest on Flickr, and used under a Creative Commons licence]

It's Carnival time. But I'm not really in a Carnival mood. Maybe it's because of the sales or the mergers, or just a dodgy curry. I'm not sure. But I'm in a grumpy mood. So I'm not going to be all positive and optimistic and full of twinkly joy about innovation (which is what I'm meant to be blogging about).

No.

I'm going to lecture those venerable US institutions that Mr Cohn has suggested we address about the sort of idiots they should throwing into the street, followed by their suitcases and battered hat. Here are the 5 biggest mistakes these guys are making:

1. Reinvent the wheel

For some reason, journalists and publishers have got in their heads that what we do is so very special that it warrants special technology. And so we try to build it. Quite why we feel the need to do this when we rarely felt the need to design our own, custom printing presses is quite beyond me. But we do. At worst, we spend millions on custom publishing tech that gets us maybe a 5% incremental improvement over the off the shelf stuff. At best, we buy the off-the-shelf stuff. And then we rewrite it until it breaks. Stop doing that. And sure as hell don't fund people who are doing that. Please, please stop. This just upsets me.

2. Live in splendid isolation

Here a good question to ask someone who wants to spend your money for you: what do you read? If the answer to the question largely involves products that are rooted in killing trees and tattooing their corpses with words, then they don't deserve your wonga. Any customer of an online journalism product is going to be a regular user of other online services. If I had a pound dollar for every time I saw a would be journo-startup say something like "yeah, we're going to be a proper online news service, not a blog thing", I'd be sat in a big leather chair, behind a huge oak desk making would-be journo-start-ups beg for their cash. Guys, reverse chronology has won. It's at the heart of Twitter. It's at the heart of Facebook. That's how people consume stuff on the net. If the net's not in your blood, net people's cash is not going to be in your PayPal account. Capiche?

3. Believe in received wisdom

There are an awful lot of journalists who seem to feel that Moses actually came down the mountain with an extra tablet, one that had the commandments of journalism carved on it. The great, big immutable laws of reporting are apparently one of the fixed constants of the universe, much like the value of Pi or the inevitability of taxation. This is, of course, delusional self-aggrandisation. Much of what we think about journalism is, in fact, a characteristic of print, or an effect of management efficiency in the sort of large-scale media that justified the expense of presses and trucks and newsboys and that sort of thing. If your would-be innovation can't grasp that the core of journalism is little more than "find stuff out that people need to know; tell them about it", then they're doomed. They're too trapped in the strictures and concepts of a fading world to build something really innovative.

4. Delude yourself about the value of journalism

People have never bought journalism, yet we persist in the delusion that they do and did. In print, people have bought entertainment packages, which include news, fun reading material and even activities, like crosswords. We were actually selling them advertising delivery vehicles. The adverts paid for more of the journalism than the cover price did. Anybody who walks in the door with a proposal for a pure content sale business should be pushed straight back out of it.

5. Forget all about the business model

It's pretty clear that the days of building a product and hoping that the path to monetisation will just materialise are done for web products generally. This applies just as much to journalism projects as anything else. If someone has an answer to the question "what is the journalism going to help you sell?" than you can start having that conversation, the one that might lead to cash changing hands. But if they don't have a plan for getting other people to give them cash, then don't be giving them any of yours, my friends.

There. Now you know everything you need to know to create your own failed hyper-local entrepreneurial journalism start-up. Go out there and fail!

 

Au Revoir, Publican

Publican Newspaper - October 1996

In the mid-90s, I finally got myself out of university, and into the working population. And my first job was on a weekly B2B magazine - for the pub trade. This week, that publication puts out its last issue, before it merges with its long-term rival, the Morning Advertiser (called the Licensee back then)

The current staff have just published a retrospective of the title's 36 years, and have included an issue I worked on (right). I remember vividly the very first sample crate of the very first alcopop (Hooper's Hooch) arriving in the office, not long after I joined, and the staff generally poo-pooing the concept. Oops.

Another little bit of the print heritage of B2B passes into history. Of all the magazines I've worked on full-time, only one is still publishing now. Times really are changing...

March 30, 2011

A few changes at RBI

Computer Weekly & Microscope

Patrick Smith does some analysis of changes here at RBI following the sale of Computer Weekly and Microscope. Some interesting thoughts in the comment from Rory Brown, too.

Afternoon Coffee Reading - 30th March 2011

Coffee and laptop

The tabs in my browser were getting out of hand. Time for a link dump:

March 29, 2011

Vale Computer Weekly

Cwcom

I didn't want to let the working day end without a quick post to acknowledge the news that RBI - my employer - is in the process of concluding a sale of Computer Weekly and Microscope to TechTarget.

Obviously, there's not a huge amount I can say about this at the moment, as the sale process is still in progress, but there are a couple of things I'd like to mention. The first is that I'm surprised that so many people are surprised by the proposed closure of the print products with the sale. RBI itself has followed this path in the past, and given the size of the magazines these days, focusing and investing in the online business seems like the right strategy for the new owners, especially in the computer trade...

Also, there have been a number of tweets of this nature in the past 12 hours or so:

RBI sells Computer Weekly and title goes online only, at @pressgazette - http://bit.ly/hD4H8L << Dismembering Reedless than a minute ago via web


Now, while Jack has never been one to shy away from a bit of controversy, I think this is just plain wrong. This isn't RBI being dismembered, but part of a long process of refocusing the business. Oddly enough, the sales get all the attention, the investments and acquisitions get much less play...

Update: I feel the need to clarify after an accusation of corporate mealy-mouth syndrome. RBI is a radically different company to the one I joined in 1997, and even the one it was when I moved into editorial development in 2006. I truly believe that this evolution is a good thing - it has become the sort of company that can survive the rapidly changing times for the publishing business we're in right now. If I didn't think the ship was steering the right way, I'd have jumped overboard a long time ago...

A simple path to productivity

Hotdesking at estatesgazette.com's offices

This post on Unclutterer might go some way to explaining why I'm always so productive when I'm hotdesking from the Estates Gazette offices in Holborn:

When your environment is cluttered, the chaos restricts your ability to focus. The clutter also limits your brain’s ability to process information. Clutter makes you distracted and unable to process information as well as you do in an uncluttered, organized, and serene environment.

My work environment here is hardly rich in clutter, as you can see…

March 28, 2011

Needs MOAR byline

The problem with creating iPad apps in a print-like format is that, well, sometimes print-like errors slip through…

TodaystimesNeedsmoarbyline

March 23, 2011

Why the NYT will fail, graphically

The NYT pricing structure against other online services

Neat piece of data visualisation from The Undestatement.

The New York Times charging model is completely out of line with general online service subscriptions. More data to suggest that is a reinforce print, rather than make money online, strategy.

March 22, 2011

Reading the Internet: it's work, honest

Mary Hamilton:

I take what I’ve read and I pass the best bits on, because that’s the other kind of journalism I do, and because I hope that my personal Twitter account is just as much a resource and a source as any professional one, and I hold myself to higher standards still. And I keep what’s relevant and use it every day to inform the decisions I make and the way I work, to back up my hunches and make sure I’m always learning more about what I’m doing.

I, too, have a job where reading the internet is in the job description. Honestly, it rocks. Feel free to hate us now.

Tweeting a Mountain out of a Molehill

Oh, oh so that's what the whole Friday / Rebecca Black twitter business is about.

There are times when Twitter completely embodies the phrase "making a mountain out of a molehill".

March 21, 2011

Propping up print with a partial paywall, eh, NYT?

I haven't said much about the New York Times payment structure (it's not a paywall), because, well, it looks OK. Not a bad way to address the issues of monetising the commodity we call general news. But one thing has been bugging me about it, and it was neatly summed up by John Gruber of Daring Fireball:

If you want to pay the New York Times to read the news using both their iPhone and iPad apps, in theory, you should be their ideal customer — you’re willing to pay, and you’re looking forward, technology-wise. But you’ll save money by getting several pounds of paper that you don’t want delivered to your doorstep every week.

Using online access to prop up paper subscriptions does not suggest a huge amount of confidence in the online revenue model being viable in its own right.

March 18, 2011

Journalists: in love with excluding people

Fleet Street Blues:

Are 'community moderators' and other such multimeeja types really journalists at all? Or is it an entirely different skill? And is it time we stopped pretending otherwise?

That's exactly equivalent to asking if 'page designers' and other such paaaayper types are really journalists at all.

Good luck with telling them that they're not…

March 16, 2011

RSA: The Rise and Fall of Information Empires

The RSA

At the RSA again for the Rise and Fall of Information Empires event.  Today's speaker is Tim Wu, riffing on the themes from his bookTom Chatfield is in the chair.

Liveblogging follows (typos and errors likely):

Every North American author's dream is coming to talk in England... (really?)

Clarence Hickman worked for AT&T in the 1930s. Worked at the Bell Labs. Had a secret machine that was 7 feet tall and it would revolutionise the world. If you dialled his number and he wasn't there, you could leave a message. He invented the answer machine - but the significance was the magnetic recording device that would lead to hard drives and much of modern computing storage. We only know this because historians discovered this in the 1990s. The invention was suppressed for 60 years. Why? In the 1930s, AT&T decided that this was a grave threat to the telephone. But also, 2/3 of American phone calls were obscene (their research suggested), and if they were recorded...

This monopoly status that AT&T had: is it a feature of that age, or is it something we have to worry about now? My book suggests that it's part of a pattern of invention, a struggle to establish, and then a flourishing, We are in one of those with the internet. The end of the story is consolidation, and then control by a monopolist, or a close cartel of companies. That has been the fate of most information revolutions. Will this happen to the internet, or is it inherently different?

Why might it be different?

There's a sense that there's something radical in the way it's been engineered - it's designed to resist control, as the protests in the middle east are showing now. The economy is different. There's no way a ,monopoly could last, runs the thinking in Silicon Valley - they always get taken down.

Why might it not?

1. Economic laws - why has Facebook been so successful? Everyone goes there because everyone is there. The network effect means that the more people that are there the more useful it is. This is what happened in the telephone market.

2. Human nature -people get excited (and utopian) by the possibilities of new technology. It's a problem solved, they think. It can end war, improve relations.  Then annoyance rises, so they need more filters. They become more interested in higher quality products, which are more reliable and secure. The film industry went this way. Some companies are beginning to emerge that cater to that - Google, but, more obviously, Steve Jobs and Apple. It's beautiful and reliable and gets rid of the junk. In that, you can see an echo of the monopolists through time. Is that the factor destined to bring back monopoly?

Q. Why should people want open systems?

A. Sometimes the things people want aren't good for us. We need room for dissenting and unpopular voices and views. There's a dynamic nature to monopolies. They tend to start off good - at the beginning they're fantastic, which is why they become a monopoly. (Everybody in the room uses Google). The problem isn't the short term, it's the entrenchment over 70 years. They become stagnant. Dictators are like this, too.

Q. What should we be looking our for with Apple and Google? When does the transition to damage happen?

A. These are the two companies most likely to seize the one ring to rule them all. There's a real chance that they'll become a global entrenched power, which we've never seen before. (Facebook is another one to watch). Watch to see if they put their resources into innovation or defence. Do they put money into new products, or into attacking their competitors? While there's still a healthy start-up culture, there's a chance of monopolies falling.

Q, Aren't monpolies the birth partners of capitlism?

A. Yes, and they will recur. We will always have the. So, as a society, we have to address the issue of what we do with concentrating private power. Dictatorships and monarchies have their problems as well as advantages, which is why checks and balances like parliaments arise - and there are brutal solutions like breakups.

Q. It seems to be historically inevitable that monopolies decline as new technologies emerge. Should we be more concerned about the creation of new monopolies, or should we concentrate on destroying them when they've emerged?

A. Dealing with them in advance is very difficult - you have to look at companies that look they might be successful and try and stop them...  A little communist and out of fashion. Encourage good behaviour, let they know that they're being watched, and make them aware that there are remedies in the end.

Q. The iPlayer seem to know what I should want, but I take the opposite view. I'm worried about the internet making us compliant and submissive citizens.

A. Most consumers seek out safe, comfortable experiences. Safe, reliable systems become stagnant - but things that keep things healthy are unpopular; forest fires, political dissenters.

Q. Canada situation: re:ownership of content

A. The worst things I saw was when there's too much integration between those who move content than those who produce it. The original BBC is an example - an integrated system, but someone trustworthy to run it. The current model is all the power and no responsibility. Newspapers always try to throw elections - but there's an extra power if you're the only communiction medium in teh country. There's a real danger.

Q. There was nothing inevitable about the success of the internet. We need to pay attention to institutions that make the arguments and allow debate.

A. Yes, there were contending protocols to the internet - but they were all competing against an open system.

Q. (something about criminals and cyberwars)

A. Yes, there is the threat of cyber war, and that's why there's a move towards a more closed system. But it is easy to go too far. There's criminal activity on the streets. There's tension between the needs of law enforcement and human freedom.

Q. We're talking about monopolies like they're very bad things? Is there any way a monopoly can be managed like it can last?

A. When I say "monopoly" I don't mean it's a bad thing: most of them have this golden phase. In the 1920s AT&T said "we are going to build the best network in human history" - and they did. And Google is now saying "we won't do evil, trust us". It's very similar to politics - look at Oliver Cromwell. They can go sour over time. Google are self-concious of this problem. They try to engineer ways to prevent themselves becoming evil. They try to void stagnation and defensiveness. I spent some time inside Google as a fellow, and it's a very real struggle.

Q. Regularlory capture - successful companies start spending lots of money on political lobbying

A. If you're a large company, the best way to ensure survival is to have government make your competitors' business illegal. It's much simpler than trying to beat them. There's a tendency for a powerful company to seek the assistance of government. But (in the US) that's also protected free speech.

Q. This seems to be a battle between freedom and control.

A. Great observation. What happens if you invent something that's designed to be free? The inventors of the internet were trying to solve actual problems. Some of the inventors of the computers were involved in LSD research... We're seeing some of this with open source software, trying to use the law to build freedom into software.

Q. Have you contemplated similarities between information systems and road/haulage systems? They have amazing freedom. Can we learn anything?

A. It's incredibly relevant, and possibly a model. It has a much longer history. The electric network is also similar, You can buy any product and plug it into the electric network. It's very innovation-sustaining. There's a law of common carriage. An early realisation in English law that owners of bridges, ports, etc have tremendous power. That should influence how we think about communication networks.

And we're done.

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March 14, 2011

The Double Tap Everything Future?

Targeted at unsettling and challenging marketing people, but with some relevance to the publishing business:


March 11, 2011

Facebook Comments: a social data honeytrap?

Facebook wants to be your comments service. A few weeks ago, it revamped its Facebook Comments service, and relaunched, grabbing sites like Techcrunch and GigaOm along the way. Facebook clearly has ambitions to be the social service for the web, and this is another step in that direction.

I've been watch its spread with some interest. Comment-based communities are fascinating to me, if only because we've successfully built a number of them around our blogs. Getting commenting right is hard, takes management, and can actually increase its management needs exponentially as your success grows. Any technology that eases that is going to be attractive.

And, at first glance, the Facebook paradigm of "real names only" seems to encourage more responsible behaviour in commenting. If you are locked out of anonymity the greater internet f**kwad theory no longer comes into play. Trolling has more consequences. But there is a flipside to that. We have markets where anonymity is a virtue in allowing people to actually join in discussions where exposing their own names would put others at risk. Our social work communities would probably be killed stone dead by enforced real identities. I suspect that people who find this a very attractive proposition haven't really looked at the range of research that's been done on how people build multiple identities for themselves on the web. At its simplest level, sometimes people want a clear delineation between work activities and "friends and family" ones.

We've all seen the great traffic gains that the Facebook Like button can provide, which will almost certainly have been boosted by recent changes to the way it operates. A version of commenting that pushes all the load to Facebook's servers, that enforces real identities, minimises spam and drives traffic from the news feed is a very compelling proposition.

And yet, it makes me very uneasy, and here's why:

In essence, as Matthew Ingram suggests, it seems that many companies are looking for a magic wand that will take the challenges of community management away. Certainly, I've had plenty of experience of people whose attitude to comments is to ignore them until they become a problem, and then demand a magic technical solution. I'm sure that, to some people, Facebook Comments looks like that solution.

lt just has a touch of the "oh, company x will save us" attitude that seems prevalent amongst those in the journalism game right now. That might be Apple with its tablet or Facebook with its comments, but I'm deeply sceptical that a single saviour company is going to heal all publishing's ills. Publishers are already feeling burnt by Apple's subscription terms. I think seeing Facebook Comments as a saviour will inflict a worse injury.

In particular, I find the idea of handing your community interaction wholesale to Facebook to be both disconcerting and short-sighted. Facebook is a competitor to every publisher, both for advertising and eyeballs, and helping build its absolute dominance of everything social on the web feels like a short term gain for a long term loss. In fact, I think you can tell a lot about the companies who have chosen to adopt Facebook comments, because they've swapped any form of "owned" relationship with their community for page views. And when publishers are howling in protest at Apple making transfer of subscription information to be optional and at the customer's discretion, handing the whole infrastructure of discussion to a walled garden that just won't let that data come back to you (unlike, say, Disqus, Facebook Comments does not yet allow you any way to get the comments back out of the system) seems bizarre.

Facebook has huge ambitions to dominate the social web. I'm not sure that I'm ready to bend down before it and call it "master" just yet.

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March 7, 2011

A Property-Related Pause

The MIPIM blog from Estates Gazette

A word of warning: things may well be quiet this week over here on One Man & His Blog. It's MIPIM week, and that means a busy week for Estates Gazette, the magazine that I spend several days a week working with.

A good chunk of their team is off to Cannes already, and I'm doing what I can to provide support for their digital journalism efforts from London. I'll also be doing regular aggregation posts, rounding up the best of MIPIM blogging from around the web.

And that's not going to leave me much free time for blogging here…

March 5, 2011

Eight Years of One Man & His Blog

Worthing Pier from the beach

How time flies. Eight years ago - and at work, based on the publication time - I started this blog. It wasn't my first blog, but it's by far the longest-lasting and the one I'm most committed to. And this won't be my most significant blogging anniversary of the year - this autumn will see me hit my decade of blogging. I will have been blogging for a quarter of my life, which is at once both staggering, and strangely brief, given how central online "personal publishing" as we used to call it, back in the day, has become to my life.

The picture is the closest one I can find to the 5th March 2003 - it was actually taken on the 9th, on Worthing Beach, after we'd been to visit my grandmother, who sadly is no longer with us. Ironically, it's just down the coast from where I'm sitting now, typing this in our temporary Shoreham Beach residence. And, actually, a lot has changed in the year since my last blogiversary post. My job has evolved. I no longer have the word "Blogging" in my job title, but working with our bloggers is still a big part of what I do. Indeed, we're about to embark on another round of experimentation with our blogging, which should be great fun. Dr T. and I have made the first step in our great escape from London (the second being rather dependent on someone buying our Lewisham flat). I became an uncle.

And, despite the innumerable stories that hit in the annual cycle of "blogging is dead" stories, it shows no signs of petering out. Indeed, there are strong signs that it's still growing. The reverse-chronological style it pioneered is driving Facebook, Twitter and even traditional news sites in ever-increasing numbers. Comments are becoming an ever-more expected part of all publishing. (Sadly, I lost the first three or four months of comments on this site, thanks to having to use an external commenting service with Blogger, back when I started.)

In the next few months, I have to make some technology decisions on the future of OM&HB. I've stuck with Movable Type for the majority of those eight years, because I've never really had a compelling reason to move away. However, the version running this site is aging, and I can't stick with it for ever. Do I take the (significant) leap to Movable Type 5? It's not a straight-forward process, the new website structure can cause, uh, complications in the move. But it has some lovely new features, and a clean, attractive interface. Do I make the leap to the open source fork of MT, called Melody? I know and like many of the people involved in the project, but the speed of development hasn't been stellar.

Or do I finally follow the rest of the self-hosted world into WordPress?

I'm playing with all three, and once MT 5.1 and Melody 1.0 are finally released, I'll make my choice.

This is the 2,885th post to this blog - which means I've added 317 posts over the last year. That's slightly below my yearly average of 360.6. But it's not the start of a decline. I imagine blogging is here to stay for a very long time to come, and I'm convinced I'll be blogging here, in some form or another, right into my dotage...

March 3, 2011

RSA: Community and the death of the English Village

Spent lunchtime today at the RSA for a debate between Henry Hemming, author of a new book about small communities called Together: How Small Groups Achieve Big Things, and Clive Aslet, who wrote Villages of Britain: The Five Hundred Villages That Made the Countryside. The formal title was "The Death of the English Village?", but I was more interested in the themes of transition from geographical community to interest-based community, which I think has interesting implications for hyper local and hyper niche journalism.

Chair Matthew Tayor blogged some thoughts in advance of the event.

Liveblogged notes below:

Henry HemmingHenry Hemming

The ideal of the English village is more recent than we think - it emerged in the late 19th century. Were they just reacting to the modernity of their period? Or were they displaying one of the most ancient prejudices? The most defining shift of the last 12,000 years was the groups who moved from nomadic living to settled living. And not all did this - two groups of humans living side by side. In the Old Testament you can see the settled peoples' distrust of the nomadic. It's seen as a divine punishment. This prejudice can be found amongst most societies of the time - and did not die out.

Our romantic attachment to this prejudice has blossomed. You can see it in the way we construct policy today. Billions of pounds were poured into community cohesion by the last government. Community justice centres force offenders to walk around their neighbourhoods in bibs. The Coalition and Big Society rhetoric is focused around these ideals. Over the last century, the lives of millions of Britons have become less local - so policy is increasingly at odds with experience.

Deerhurst: 22 homes, but not a medieval-style commune. Apart from the biannual flower festival, there are almost no moments when the whole village come together. 2/3 of residents gave not lived there their whole lives. Our spacial mobility has increased 1000 times since the 18th century. Our homes are more comfortable than they ever were, so less reason to go out to pub/church. People just don't bump into their neighbours.

He's been researching communities for his book. Communities of interest are providing the sense of belonging no longer provided by location. It is now possible to live as a hermit on a busy street. We need an understanding of community that accounts for that. It's time to end our love affair with the English village...

Clive AsletClive Aslet

Most villages are largely empty during the day - and that's because they've changed. They used to have an economic purpose for existing like that, and did until around 1950. And for most people it was awful - stultifying and boring... The conditions of life were awful. The journalist who founded the Countryman in the 1920s was appalled by the condition of the cottages attached to the Manor he bought in the Cotswolds.

Is our new nomadism, moving from place to place, a good thing? People retire to the ideal of the English village, and they've created a new type of village community. Many parish noticeboards are packed. It's more one age group and one class. Commuting is an issue. Could we use that time better? Would we get to know people better and use facilities more if we didn't? Villages are good size for many of the social aims we aspire to today.

Discussion

HH: Fellowship and identity are at the heart of wellbeing in groups.
CA: Getting the size right is important. Too small, and there's not enough of a gene pool of talent, too big and you don't know people. 
MT: Celebration of small groups can be an attack on big groups and bureaucracy. We'll see a backlash.
Continue reading RSA: Community and the death of the English Village.

B2B not Drudgery

QFT:

Just because it's business to business doesn't mean the content has to be serious all the time. Does it?

Of course not. Why? Because we are all human and we like to laugh and to be entertained. I think B2B journalists tend to forget that readers are human and do actually enjoy the lighter side of life.

Martin is, of course, spot on.

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