Category Archives: Journalism

Experimenting with Google+ hangouts – live, interactive broadcast conversations

Google 的貼牌冰箱(Google refrigerator)

(Photo credit: Aray Chen)

Spending time on Google+ is sometimes a lonely thing. It’s the one-handed clap of the social media platforms.

But it has 170 million users who have “upgraded” their Google accounts and countless millions who may yet do so. But the potential for it as a platform is vast and there are good reasons professional and non-professional media organisations should take it seriously.

Continue reading

Entrepreneurial journalism at City University – the next generation’s ideas

Angry Birds

Angry Birds: not a bad business model

One thing the news and media industry needs is new ideas for making money – so that people can launch their own businesses or help existing ones do better.

Which is why the conversation surrounding entrepreneurial journalism is such a healthy one. Pioneered by the likes of Jeff Jarvis at his City University of New York course, the trend is spreading in the UK – with London’s City University, where I’m a visiting lecturer, running its own EJ course for postgraduates this year.

Tonight was the open evening for students to showcase their ideas for viable startups to a selection of industry folk and I was invited to come along and critique their proposals. There was a quite a range on show – from mobile apps with an ecommerce model (getting in on the social, local, mobile trend), a pro-amateur video agency and a fully formed customer publishing idea with a real-life client already interested in the context. It would be unfair to give more away about the ideas with them being so early in their gestation.

But when asked for me advice, this is broadly what I said:

  • Renewable revenues: It’s fine to sell an iPhone app – Angry Birds does OK from it, as do lots of others. But for content-based apps it’s not quite so easy to make a living from one-off payments, especially for new launches. For publishers, the key is to have renewable revenues – things that can give investors and creditors an idea of visibility, which is when a business can see how much revenue it will make in the future. Subscriptions can work very well – but they take a huge investment in marketing to ensure customer acquisition and renewal. This is why events have grown so fast in the consumer and B2B sectors: they are highly renewable and give unparalleled visibility.
  • Scalability: One shop in a high street might make a profit, but 10 shops in 10 high streets across the region will make far more and at a better profit margin – the same is true of online publishing. Some of the students had formulated very interesting ideas for apps and sites that might work in a specific sector – but few had made the ambitious step of thinking about launching it into adjacent sectors or industries, so to benefit from economies of scale.
  • Understand your market: A good question to ask about your business is: what’s the total audience and what’s happening to it? One group I spoke to were targeting a specific sector of higher education that is in fact shrinking year on year. That doesn’t bode well for your profit growth. That’s why so many media businesses are keen to invest in emerging markets where growth is so much higher than the UK, which is a mature, developed market. That same group with the shrinking sector could, however, use the technology they want to develop to launch into many different sectors. Which ones have the most growth?
  • Vendor relationships: It’s vital to think of the user and how he or she will use the product but – especially if something hopes to be funded by advertising – the relationship with vendors, or advertisers, is just as important. So much of the ad agency world is driven by personal ties and relationships as well as price and audience. Particularly where students had thought of an agency model, selling to a media organisation mostly, they hadn’t thought through enough what that pitch would be.
  • It’s not about news: What I found very  interesting and a real sign of the times is that not one group I spoke to based their startup idea on news creation (although a couple suggested they would aggregate and curate it). If no one in the next generation thinks they will get rich by doing news, that says very much the industry today.

But all in all it was a great event and I was genuinely impressed by the ingenuity and business sense the students had. It’s not patronising to say that at least a couple of the ideas could well see the light of day and certainly hope that one day they do. I’m sure City will be running the course again next year and I’ll be interested in seeing where it – and its alumni – go from here.

Enhanced by Zemanta

Investigating the economics of local newspapers

Deutsch: Karte der Verwaltungsgliederung des V...

Image via Wikipedia

There is a grim certainty that the existence of local and regional newspapers are under threat in the UK and other developed economies. There are no shortage of articles from commentators saying this is generally a bad thing. Northcliffe’s East Kent Gazette is the latest in a long line of closures.

But what are the realities of this situation? Are papers really all doomed? What’s the minimum overheads and revenue you’d need to keep a title going, whether online or in print? Are papers better off in large PLC ownership or should they,  as many have argued recently, return to local, independent ownership? Can’t they exist as online-only titles?

I’m putting together an article (possibly a series) for that asks all these questions – but I need some evidence and in the spirit of open, networked investigations, I’m asking for your help:

– If anyone has any information, data or figures on how their local newspaper is run as a business, please get in touch. I’m interested in costs and income. Anonymity and discretion are assured – I won’t necessarily mention the title nor the company. (For the time being I’m just looking at the UK situation).

– Views, opinions and ideas on how to make local and regional papers into viable businesses are very welcome. Think about business models – aside from paper ad sales and coverprice, what could business managers do to build genuine, renewable and reliable revenue streams?

I’ve been gathering some figures so far on this and the results are very revealing – some titles are making healthy profits and have small costs, for example. I don’t think the world needs another “isn’t it sad” style blog post from anyone on this – I’m more interested in data, evidence and what might happen next.

Email me on patrick dot smith at or call on 07904587050.

Enhanced by Zemanta

On probability, statistics and journalism

heredity and cancer, breast cancer, inherited ...

Image via Wikipedia

This should pose a good teaser for any working reporter and news editor who uses percentages of chance on a day-to-day basis.

If a woman is given a positive screening result after a mammogram, which is bad, what is the probability that she does not have cancer?

Answer: 91 percent.

Why is this? Cambridge University professor David Spiegelhalter explains in the September UK edition of Wired (emphasis is mine):

Mammography correctly classifies around 90 percent of women who go for breast-cancer screening. So when a middle-aged woman is told she has a positive test result, what’s the probability she doesn’t have cancer? The answer, which is surprising to most people, is around 91 per cent. The crucial missing piece of information is the size of her background risk.

So suppose she is from a population in which around one in 100 have breast cancer. Then, out of 100 such women tested, one would have breast cancer and will most likely test positive. But of the 99 who do not have breast cancer, we would still expect around ten to test positive — as the test is only 90 percent accurate. That makes 11 positive tests, only one of which involves cancer, which gives a 10/11 = 91 percent probability that someone who tests positive does not have breast cancer.

Spiegelhalter writes that this is difficult to understand because it is difficult to understand: probability doesn’t make sense, nor follow the rule of logic we think govern our lives and the outcomes of decisions.

But he also correctly identifies a flaw in news reporting where the numerator – the amount of things - is enthusiastically reported, without mentioning the amount of times the event could have happened, the denominator.

So the amount of health scare stories (mentioning no names) that are perpetually reported – invariably from unpublished, unreviewed studies and promoted by PR officers – are lacking in context and thus utterly misleading.  Ben Goldacre has been making this point for years.

Health scare stories may be right to mention that while the relative risk of, for example, getting cancer from drinking/not drinking red wine/eating peanuts/reading the Daily Mail may be increased or decreased. But the absolute risk may be statistically unchanged – when a person is considered as part of a wider population, not just the 1,000 or so that took part in the study.

News naturally focuses on the unlikely and the shocking – it would be boring otherwise. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it has to be misleading.

Enhanced by Zemanta

#SIPAUK2011: Links and slides from my presentation on journalism, aggregation and curation

Today I’m speaking at the Specialised Information Publishers’ Association’s UK conference on a breakout session on digital tools for editors and publishers, in a session with my erstwhile colleague Martin Stabe, now an interactive producer at

To sum it up very briefly, I was talking about curation, aggregation and the importance of transparency in online publishing.

Here are some of the links that I mentioned during the talk:

  • Ben Goldacre on why he doesn’t trust journalists that don’t link to primary sources (here, here)
  • Benoît Raphaël  of on the “Google newsroom”  - decentralising news production from a physical location and using free online tools to innovatively track trends, write analysis and use the wisdom of your audience.
  • Journal Register CEO John Paton’s excellent post of his excellent presentation at the WAN-IFRA Summit in Zurich last month. He really did reinvent the newsroom, the products and the business by putting online first and went from bankruptcy to profit by doing so. No gimmicks – he took costs out of the business, stuck print journalists’ ego with a big fork and focused on what matters.
  • Adam Tinworth on why there can be no special pleading of “our audience doesn’t get social media”.
And here are the slides:
Enhanced by Zemanta

#newsrw: Heather Brooke on the PR gatekeepers of officialdom

The modern journalist’s role is not merely to report news, but to filter and distil masses of information that matters to the public and present it so they can act on it.

And reporters have to realise that supposedly independent government officials will always try to keep data secret where it might cause a negative headline.

That stirring call to arms is from Heather Brooke – journalist and freedom of information (FOI) campaigner – who was the keynote speaker at’s fourth news:rewired event on Friday, at Reuters’ London HQ.

Brooke’s FOI requests led to the release (via an unplanned leak to the Telegraph) of every MPs’ expense claims, which resulted in perhaps the most critical constitutional and political crisis in modern times. And her advice is timely…

Breaking down the backroom deals in news

Brooke learned her trade as a crime reporter in the US, where access to incident reports and other data is guaranteed. She came to the UK in 1997 the UK, and here it’s a different story, involving cosy private relationships between reporters and gatekeepers:

That’s why I became a campaigner for freedom of information in Britain – I didn’t like the way it was done here. It always came with strings attached, it was favouritism, it was about who you knew – so if you did something for them, they would do something for you.

So the agenda is decided by the people that have access to the information, not the media, whose job it should be to interpret data. As any regional hack knows, police “voicebank” phonelines – where coppers tell reporters what has happened in the last 24 hours, but seem to think police-run family fun days are breaking news – are very close to being worthless. Is this how the police-reporter relationship will always be?

Civil servants as PR gatekeepers

The people with access to official information – usually PR  and communications staff, but not always – had “an unhelpful attitude”, says Brooke: “People forget that they are there to serve the public. They think the information is theirs, that they own it.”

This is what’s happening across the world: they [officials] are trying to manage the reputation of their institution. We need to understand that in our data journalism. We need to make them understand that this [disclosure] is good for them above all.

This rings very true. Why are civil servants – who work for the public, not political parties – so careful about releasing information? Because it could genuinely negatively affect them in their jobs and their lives. But this is government by Daily Mail, not open disclosure for the public good.

Journalists’ data roles

“The journalist’s role is managing all this data and distilling it down into what is important to the public,” she says. And, without wanting to get into a “Is ice cream strawberry” style debate, for Brooke the interrogation of data is specifically what separates professional journalists from amateurs.

All that gathering data, checking, getting statements… this verification takes time and it takes money. But what many media organisations are forgetting is that this marks out a professional from a blogger or non-professional.

Brooke’s talk reminded me of the tenacity shown by journalist Chris Wheal in a conversation with a Treasury PR manager who was being mystifyingly unhelpful with his reasonable request for data (I wrote about it here).

It’s an uphill struggle finding the data you need to tell stories fully in the UK. But if you don’t take no for an answer, that’s a good place to start.

Enhanced by Zemanta

BBC Social Media Summit: Newsrooms need a mix of skills and cultures #bbcsms

LONDON, ENGLAND - MARCH 02:  A BBC logo adorns...

Image by Getty Images via @daylife

In this digital media, journalism and always-on bubble that we live in – if you’re reading this blog you’re probably in that category – we are weird.

Speaking at the BBC’s Social Media Summit on Friday at White City (or “White Stadt” as Google Maps puzzlingly and Germanically translates it) BBC Global News head honcho Peter Horrocks says that most newsrooms are not populated by people who are obsessed by the future. He says:

I think it’s really important that the people in this room and following online realise how weird and unusual they are in comparison to most newsrooms.

Most newsrooms are full of people living in the moment – they are  reactive and responsive to event. And theyre not interested in the vision and future of journalism and that’s fine. We need people like that. It’s got to be a balance of the different cultures.

Cultural divides

Horrocks was speaking on a panel titled Cultural Change and his points were useful to underline the fact that digital newsgathering is not used by a good many journalists, who still manage to do a good job.

Horrocks said last year that BBC News staff have no choice but to use socaal media in some way – a comment mistranslated as “tweet or die” by some. “It wasn’t tweet or die, it was tweet or be sacked“, he says, adding that he is serious about the need for Beeb reporters and producers to communicate and listen to people online.

Echoing a piece we ran this week on TheMediaBriefing calling for a blend of young, digitally-minded experts plus more management focused, traditional media  folk who simply know how to get stuff done, Horrocks says the BBC needs to be a “coalition” of people searching for the future and people just getting on with things.

WaPo: Numbers do matter

There is a tendency when talking about building relationships through publishing to ignore the numbers. It’s not the quantity of followers, but the quality of conversation that matters, goes the assumption.

But, speaking on the same panel, Raju Narisetti from the Washington Post has a refreshing counter-argument: numbers are everything in social media publishing. User data is the key to getting value – editorial and commercial – from relationships.

It seems there’s a move from a world of reporting and numbers to one of context. I’d like to challenge that and say numbers are everything in our business.

People think of unique users and eyeballs – but people forget that at the end of that unique user is a real person.

And here’s a thought: by listening to your audience, having a good analytics approach, Narisetti points out you can better decide what not to do.

With dwindling resources you can use data to decied what not to do… you are able to show what you can stop doing without impacting on your readership. That shift in metrics has been one of the biggest changes for us.

If it’s hard to sell the idea of journalists being on Twitter, Narisetti recommends the ego-centric approach. Facebook referrals for WaPo are up 300 percent year on year – increasingly, readers expect content to come to them and this is how to grow a brand and an audience.

“Journalists are driven by the ego of having more people reading their story,” as Narisetti puts it. But also, in age where innovation is at least in some part driven by fear, he says “It helps if your industry is in trouble and people think they might be out of  job.”

Related articles

Enhanced by Zemanta

Vaughan Smith on life and death on the frontline in Afghanistan

As much as I enjoy the media jungle and talking about digital media for a living, there are times when it’s worth watching the work of journalists who work in genuine life and death situations.

One such is Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club (where I worked very happily during 2010). Vaughan has been mentioned quite a lot recently for supporting Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, but some people may not know that his day job, (apart from running a club, restaurant and organic farm) is being a freelance video journalist who makes remarkable films from war zones.

His latest is from Afghanistan, where he spent two weeks with the US Army’s 214th Aviation Regiment, for al Jazeera.

What I enjoy about Vaughan’s work is its absence of politics. A BBC, Sky or CNN journalist may frame a report around whether the troops should be at war or not. This is just a document of professionals at work, doing their job, stitching people up in the most unimaginable heat and horror.

In person Vaughan talks about the “cliches” of war reporting and how some TV reports fall into a pattern; his reporting from Helmand Province last year showed that soldiers actually enjoy warfare – they’re aware of the danger, but these are young men visibly revelling in being on the frontline in daring missions.

And if one man and one camera can do this, that says something quite exciting about what else is possible in video journalism doesn’t it?

The importance of journalism and building communities

What is an online community, how do you build a site or service to cater for one and how do journalists work to become relevant in one?

These are the questions students on the MA journalism programme at City University in London are considering (I teach magazine journalism students there).

The students have to identify a distinct, cohesive group, research into how that group communicates and build a website* and use it to build contacts and relevance.

It’s a fascinating and very worthwhile exercise because it gets the students to think: “How useful and interesting is my journalism? Who am I writing for?”

In B2B or trade media, which I specialise in, there has been a very clear shift towards launching niche products within big parent brands: most leading B2B magazine brands now have several blogs, premium subscription products just catering for specific sectors of audience. The multinational publishing and events group Informa, which makes a tidy profit, has individual paid-for digital news and data products that cater for maybe 50 companies worldwide – and because it’s so specialised and valuable they are not cheap.

A B2B marketing exec recently put it to me, in a Thatcheresque turn of phrase, that “there’s no such thing as community really – it’s a very over-used term”. So maybe the terminology is wrong here, but the principles are sound. It boils down to: who do you publish for?

The same thing is happening in consumer media, where an understanding of audience is so crucial.

Get by with a little help from your friends

What I try to get across to the trainees is that this is exactly the kind of thing an editor may ask you to do in future: help launch a new site or product that appeals to a section of our community. Not only that, becoming well known and respected is good in a personal and professional sense – as Josh Halliday will tell you.

But the real point of the task is to use the wider knowledge of a community to improve the quality of journalism the trainees are producing. So by listening and connecting with a community you can create stories, analysis and coverage that is more useful, relevant and in every way successful.

As with so much of “online journalism”, I don’t really know why we have to give it the prefix online, it’s just “journalism” to me. None of this is different to the traditional way of doing things. You build credibility and relevance, then people trust you enough to tell you things, work with you and help you do your job.

This digital business isn’t a broadcast – it’s a conversation. And on that theme: if anyone established in the industry has any has any tips for the students for this task, please do leave a comment below, or perhaps consider writing a blog post on it yourself…

*I don’t like the term “blog” for various reasons, not least its bogus cultural connotations and misleading stereotypes. See more of my ramblings on this theme here.

Picture by Niall Kennedy on Flickr, via a Creative Commons licence.