Monthly Archives: April 2010

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Online newspapers: Paper is only a metaphor for constructing digital information

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The news industry has a definitions problem.

A newspaper is not a newspaper in its online form, but and are both referred to as online newspapers. The staff responsible for these digital appendages are just as obsessed as print colleagues with the appearence of their “front page” and the subsequent pages, presumably hidden just beneath your screen.

Nuno A. Vargas from Barcelona University asks, in an abstract from an interesting research paper (spotted via my erstwhile colleague @Martinstabe):

Are today’s online newspapers embracing the web fully as a new medium or are they anchored to the paper metaphor, disregarding the possibilities of the online platform and leaving the users with a poorer information experience?

Should, he goes on, information be “presented in the same format no matter the nature of its content?” This is a key point that The Organs Formerly Known As Newspapers are grappling with. Do you – this is the current solution – divide all your content into different sections and let users sail their merry way through the sea of words as they please, much like a multi-section weekend newspaper?

What about an algorithm-based content that knows what content different readers (and advertisers) like best? And, as the iPad is demonstrating, pictures and video are just as powerful and compelling for story-telling, so what’s with all the focus on text coming first all the time? As Vargas puts it:

The online platform permits a wider spectrum of approaches to news feeds and a paper-based attitude will fail, for obvious reasons, to fully fulfill the new medium’s potential.

But he doesn’t just criticise – Vargas has a suggestion: don’t just tell, filter: “Today, information can be produced and sent out in different forms and shapes. Using efficient and compact modules of images, sound and text, the online journalist [can] inform his audience in a thorough and accurate manner.”

Vargas quotes Aron Pilhofer, head of the Interactive News Technologies Group at the New York Times who apparently said: “Unedited data is information that cannot be accessed.”

The killer point for Vargas is that online newspapers “make that data visible to the user in the best way possible, allowing for that same user to make his owndecisions,turning him into a role player.”

This is exactly what has done on several occasions – through its MPs’ expenses crowd-sourcing, for example, and the on-going Open Data API project. But then The Guardian’s online subs still fret over how their front page looks – indeed, organic front page entries are one of the most common traffic source for most news sites, so that attitude does make sense. But for how much longer will that be the case?

For his full paper, Vargas interviewed some 60 academics and media professionals and the precis linked to above promises the full version is coming soon. More on that, hopefully, soon.

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Professional vs ‘amateur’: NUJ asks independent digital journalists to disappear

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Even the most enthusiastic National Union of Journalism members will admit the union has had a troubled relationship with “new media”. Like many unions, the NUJ is still grappling with how technology is revolutionising its industry, increasing efficiency and making everything a little bit more unstable.

The union leadership, notably general secretary Jeremy Dear who wrote a forward-thinking plea for calm in 2007 and commissioned an intelligent report on new media, have tried hard to bring the union up to date, recognise the changed landscape and even invite these “bloggers” into the union’s big tent (I may ban the use of the outdated and redundant word “blog” within 20 metres of my house, applying for a digital Asbo if needed)

But then this comes along: as AllMediaScotland reports, via Jon Slattery, Scottish NUJ members are declaring war on these non-professional interlopers that are reporting on football matches. A letter titled – and I’m not making this up – “Kick the amateurs into touch”, has been sent to newspaper editors and is worth quoting at length (the emphasis is mine):

At a time when industry cuts are affecting professional journalists, we do not want to see amateur scribes covering games that could be done by qualified staff or freelance members of our profession. It is a scandal when journalists lose work and are then replaced by non-hacks, many with no professional training or qualifications.

Every press box this season has had more than a fair share of policemen and teachers acting as ‘fans with lap-tops’ and it is galling to see living standards of journalists falling when it can be avoided by a simple commission to cover a game.

The union recognises the pressures every desk and editor is under to cut costs but where an event is being covered anyway, we just ask you to consider using a professional journalist. The regular professionals who are still asked to cover games are sick of working next to the growing army of amateurs. They are worried about falling editorial standards and their livelihood driven down by cheap labour or people with second jobs.

This [football] season is almost over but plans need to be made to handle the fixtures from August and we hope you can help us raise industry standards and ethics by commissioning proper freelance reporters and photographers.

Unlike aerospace engineering or train driving, journalism is a craft that can be practised by anyone with the passion and knowledge to do it. Some “amateur” websites are in fact written by seriously talented people with real ambitions for their work – whether its covering a geographic area, a sport, or an industry .

I’m not familiar with the football reporting scene in Scotland. But what is it that makes a journalist “professional”? If I set up a Scottish football site, start selling advertising, perhaps do some content deals and make that site my main source of income – fooball journalism my profession. The only difference is that these “amateurs” aren’t part of the same journalistic culture that the NUJ exists to preserve.

The NUJ wants to save jobs. That’s what it does. But it’s a losing battle to hope that the tide of talented, independent journalism that is evolving across the country will suddenly disappear. This is competition and it’s here to stay.

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Advertising with Addiply: no more Rochdale car ads

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I’ve always been a fan of “the practice what you preach” maxim. After writing about it, speaking to its creator and watching its gradual but promising growth, I’ve signed up this site to the advertising platform Addiply.

Those red boxes on the sidebar are available for text ads at £0.50 a week; a banner ad (see below) is also available for £0.50 a week. It’s not much, but it’s something.

I don’t expect or intend to get rich through this site or through online ads in general. But hosting isn’t free. And if there’s a way to help advertisers get their message across, I’m happy to help.

Addiply founder Rick Waghorn – whom I first wrote about my then colleague Martin Stabe wrote about exactly three years ago when he left the Norwich Evening News to concentrate on digital publishing – took me to task last week for hosting Google Ads which do nothing for either my meagre revenue or for the community I write about/for.

Ads for cars in Rochdale don’t say much about what I do, he rightly says. The £6 I’ve earned so far from AdSense would suggest it’s never going to be a significant earner. With any luck, to prove the point, this panel should show up something equally irrelevant:

[ad#Google Adsense]

And though Addiply has been more closely associated with the “hyperlocal” movement of blogs and sites that cover tightly defined geographies that are increasingly ignored by anemic local papers – check out the Lichfield Blog‘s healthy looking inventory – there’s no reason it can’t work on niche, industry-specific sites either.

As I look to advise clients on what ad platforms to use and why, I can now report to them that Addiply is fast, simple and transparent. But as Rick is fond of saying, you have to sell the space to really make it work…. so if you’d like to advertise to a growing band of 2,000(ish) readers a month, take a look at what’s on offer.

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There’s more to news publishing than the pursuit of profit

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In times of crisis in business, you re-evaluate what you do and why.

The current debate over the Future of News, which mostly consists of learned sages berating encumbant media executives for not getting “it” and journalists moaning that there’s no “model” that will save their craft or monetise “the internet”.

This debate makes some pretty dangerous assumptions and it may be setting the benchmark of success in the wrong place. As with so much of UK life since the “big bang” deregulation of the City ushered in by Margaret Thatcher’s pro-enterprise Conservatives in the 1980s, profit and profit margins have come to dominate the media.

But what if the purpose of magazines, newspapers and online media was not to line the pockets of institutional shareholders, achive unrealistic margins or give satisfactory returns to private equity partners; what if the whole point was just to to survive? Continue reading