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Month: February 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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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. 

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.

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.

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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