My blog has moved!

You should be automatically redirected in 6 seconds. If not, visit
and update your bookmarks.

Friday, February 29, 2008

Bebo still rules the roost in NZ

From Hitwise New Zealand come the latest rankings for who's using which social networks in New Zealand:

Rank Name Domain Market Share
1. Bebo 17.53%
2. Facebook 15.78%
3. YouTube 12.56%
4. MySpace 3.62%
5. SkyKiwi 1.84%
6. 1.50%
7. Windows Live Spaces 1.20%
8. Yeeyi 1.17%
9. Stumble Upon 1.13%
10. Orkut 1.12%

Explain Twitter without using a computer

Try this as an exercise: Explain Twitter to someone who’s never seen it. You’ve got 10 seconds to think about it. Oh, and you can't use a computer. Ready? No? Too bad, away you go.

It's harder than it looks. I know because I attempted to explain not only Twitter but also RSS feeds, Google reader, Google alerts and the usefulness of blogging to a group of journalism students yesterday – but without a computer.

I was at the new Whitireia Community Polytechnic campus on Cuba St in Wellington (upstairs in a nice light, roomy space which is not quite finished) and the PCs weren’t hooked up yet, nor a data projector. So it was the whiteboard or nothing. Which worked well enough given that it was an informal session. But my diagrams and illustrative anecdotes sure do need work.

I’m going to be working with three journalism schools this year, in one capacity or another, and really want to give students some ideas on how to use web tools in their jobs.

To use Twitter, for example, the way beat bloggers are: asking colleagues for question ideas, contacts, seeing what people are talking about and picking up on interesting links.

To follow prominent bloggers in their beat, and use RSS feeds and a reader to keep track of blogs and news. To use Google alerts to track names, places, topics; shared bookmarks to pool their resources and help each other out; and mine forums, Flickr, Twitter, Pownce for story ideas.

And to blog, because what better way to get used to writing every day and understand keywords, headlines, links.

So far I’ve introduced myself to around 30 students; only four or five are bloggers, most don’t know how to use RSS or Google alerts, none were familiar with Twitter or wikis.

I have my work cut out for me.

I’ve found a new respect for teachers this week, having had to stand up and ‘teach’ a class of my peers during a teaching and learning conference at AUT University in Auckland and walked unprepared into the classroom yesterday morning.

I’ve no shortage of ideas on what I’d like students to walk away with, but less idea on how to go about it.

It’s not enough to stand up there and talk. Powerpoint slides are good, but can be inflexible, tie you to the computer and restrict you to a sequential presentation. The whiteboard’s good but you have your back to the class and it’s harder than it looks to listen, write things down in your best handwriting, encourage participation, value students’ suggestions and use them to make the point you set out to make. Good teachers make it look effortless. It isn’t for a newbie.

So, my homework is to play with some active teaching ideas, look harder at the excellent Common Craft series of videos which I think do a great job of explaining web tools. And I’m going to dive into Wired Journalists to see what’s there and scour Paul Bradshaw and Andy Dickinson’s posts for ideas.

Anyone got any other suggestions?

Wednesday, February 27, 2008

The great disconnect

The trouble with this highly connected high-speed wired world we live in, is that it isn't.

It's hard work staying connected on the road. I have two wi-fi enabled devices - a little lightweight laptop and a hunking great HTC Tytn pda. Which is all well and good but for the utter paucity of wifi in New Zealand and the nonsense of having to pay for it when you find it.

To add insult to injury, when you do happen upon wifi, you have to sit down, turn on your kit, wait for it to fire up, find the signal, go to the Telco web page, figure out how much blood they want, enter credit card details, wait for it to compute and connect.

Or find the url of your home Telco supplier's wifi site, load it and remember your username and password, and wait to connect. Or sally over to the coffee shop counter and buy a card and find something to scratch off the sticky black coating and type in the great long code hidden underneath, and wait to connect.

By which time your coffee's cold and the small window you had between meeting one and meeting two has closed so your emails and research and blog post have to wait until tonight.

You can check for a signal on your pda and fire off a typo-strewn missive tapped out on a tiny keyboard, but not without handing over your life savings to Vodafone for the privilege.

So you go to the hotel at the end of the day and plug in the ethernet cable, if you can find it, swear as you watch every single tab in your browser switch to the ethernet login page (surely one tab would do?), read the outrageous charges ($33 a night or $10 for two hours), weep, get over it, type in accept, wait, and then reload all your browser tabs.

By which time you're so knackered after the long day of meetings, lugging computer kit around and repeated logging ins and outs that you dispatch urgent emails quickly and try not to feel guilty about the rest as you power off and collapse into your overpriced bed. It's a wonder they don't charge extra for that and make you assemble it.

I don't mind paying a bit for wifi but for goodness sake build it into the cost structure and make it as easy as turning on a tap.

Sunday, February 24, 2008

You heard it here last

I'm not proud, but it's been taking me an awfully long time to get through my emails and feed aggregator lately so these tidbits have been kicking around a week or so.

1. Four US newspaper chains join forces to create combined ad group selling spots across all the companies' websites. The four, Hearst, NY Times, Tribune and Gannett, said it was the best way for them to compete against Google, AOL and others.

2. US media jobs fell to a 15-year low in December.

3. The NY Times is cutting 100 newsroom jobs in the coming year.

4. It's not just you, or me, it's Netscape founder Marc Andreesson too: when asked by Spiegel magazine if any aspect of the internet had become overwhelming he said, "Information. I certainly have too much information. It drives me bananas. that's why I have gone on an information diet."

He talked about newspapers and their efforts to move online (thanks to Adrian Monck for the link).

"Newspapers with declining circulations can complain all they want about their readers and even say they have no taste. But you will still go out of business over time. A newspaper is not a public trust - it has a business model that either works or it doesn't.

SPIEGEL: Well, it's not quite that simple. In truth, all the major media brands are on the Web, and many have far more readers and far greater revenues than a site like

Andreessen: Take the New York Times. They are slow and they are in denial. After 15 years of the Internet, their online division - though it has been very aggressive and well run compared to its peers - still represents only about 10 percent of the company's total revenue. And it's not enough. The core of the business is collapsing.
"What's going to happen is that print subscriptions will decline to a point where it's no longer economically feasible to keep the printing plants operating. They will be shut down. So will the distribution networks. When that happens, the only thing left will be revenues from the online divisions. That won't be enough to cover newsroom costs. There is no way that they have a transition strategy from point A to point B.

SPIEGEL: What would you do differently?

Andreessen: Well, if the newspaper companies all self-destruct because they have failed to come to grips with this transition, then that's their problem. The people who made horse carriages were not the ones who started car companies.
"But here's the point: There is an enormous market demand for information. It just has to be fulfilled in a way that fits with the technology of our times. It is also going to open up a lot of opportunities for a new generation of media companies, usually born on the Internet.
"Right now they are popping up all over the place - like Talking Points Memo, a political blog from the left that is a bit of a throwback to pre-World War II journalism, when newspapers were expected to be partisan. None of them are huge, but that's how an industry gets created. We may be sitting here in 10 years and see major news organizations born out of experiments that are happening right now that have nothing to do with CNN."

What's to blame: journalism or technology?

There's a nice bit of debate on the boil about whether journalism itself is to blame for the decline in newspaper sales.

It seems to have come down to whether you think people don't buy papers anymore because of lifestyle changes - it's easier to read stories online, say, or catch radio bulletins on the run - or because journalism quality has slipped and people are fed up with __________________ (put your favourite beef in here: shallow stories, overworked journalists not having time to investigate stories, obsession with celebrity, over-reliance on PR, anything else you don't like about the media today).

Adrian Monck kicks off with this post saying journalism is not to blame and giving the following analogies:

"The decline of Vaudeville had very little to do with the declining effectiveness of one-liners and the relative merits of novelty acts.
"The decline of drive-in movie theatres was not the fault of Hollywood screenwriters.
"The crops did not fail because we offended the gods.
"The problems journalists are confronting are to do with the changing social habits of people who once purchased newspapers and were thus appealing to advertisers.
"Besides, the very first study of reader preferences in newspaper content (by George Gallup at the start of the 1930s) revealed that the things people liked best in them were not the journalism, but the pictures and comic strips."
No change there, then. The one mistake guaranteed to jam a newspaper's switchboard is to run the wrong crossword.

Lots of lively comments on the post, including this one from Wired Journalist Ryan Sholin:
"You're certainly right on with the Vaudeville angle, but I have a hard time believing that Not Sucking wouldn't hurt as newspapers try to transition to a model that still depends on actual written words, now and then."
Roy Greenslade has picked it up at the Guardian, re-running Adrian's thoughts and sparking a fresh wave of comments. All very enjoyable reading.

What do I think? All of the above.

Yes, people are complaining about spin, shallowness and the prevalence of celebrity stories, although it doesn't necessarily mean they don't buy papers and magazines to read them.

I, too, complain about recycled stories, the ever-presence of Britney Spears, the woeful trend to over-dramatise - inconvenience becomes chaos, annoyance becomes outrage, concern becomes horror. Not just in newspapers but across the media.

In reality, though, I'm not struggling to find enough that's sufficiently engaging to read or watch, I'm struggling to find the time to read it all, there's so much of it.

Mostly, I think newspapers are declining because of technology and lifestyle changes. There are more places to get news now and there's more of it. We travel more by plane and less by train. We all have cars (a luxury item in the 50s) and are less reliant on buses. I don't read features in newspapers so much anymore, but I do follow blogs and read popular non-fiction paperbacks on technology, economics, psychology and science - same content, new formats that better suit my lifestyle.

I like Adrian's point about
"journalism’s culture of self-flagellation - it is actually a typical human response: seeking to explain events beyond our control by reference to ourselves."

Reason to love #23

The embedded media player that lets you listen to podcasts on the page you're reading. Much nicer than those swirly patterns normally served up with audio.

That said, if you want to navigate away from the page you're on you have to launch the player in a pop-up window to keep the podcast running. At least you get the choice.

Page numbers add context for online readers

I notice the Guardian has added a nice little feature at the bottom of stories which shows which page the story ran on in the paper, if it did, where it was first published and when it was last updated online:

"This article appeared in the Guardian on Saturday February 23 2008 on p1 of the Top stories section. It was last updated at 02:17 on February 23 2008."
It's a nice touch giving that context - where a story appears in the paper effectively reflects how many 'Diggs' it got at conference, how relevant or important it is. Stories considered most important are at front of section and top of page. Less important stories further in and lower down. So page numbers are a useful guide.

The Guardian's 'article history' doesn't appear to be working uniformly across the site yet, no doubt another feature of their recent redesign that's going to take a while to bed in. And it's not alone, the San Francisco Chronicle also includes page numbers, (thanks to Editor on the Verge, Yoni Greenbaum, for the link). I don't know if it's entirely automated or requires human intervention, but I hope it's resource-light and will catch on.

There's a lot of talk these days about the role of editors in news and whether it becomes defunct online because readers can now do the job of sorting important stories from weaker ones by voting on them, linking to them or ignoring them.

Readers can do those things, of course, and can find information directly and bypass news sites altogether if they want. But not everyone is that motivated and most of us don't have the time.

We still want editors to sift through the tide of information that surfaces daily and tell us which stories are most worthy of our attention. Their take on what's important is in itself useful information and I think their role remains crucial.

I was reminded of this the other day while talking to someone who regularly reads several online newspapers around the world. He said he wouldn't want news homepages to become lists of readers' favourites: "I like to see what the newspapers think is the big news of the day." The difference in style, priorities and political leanings of various news sites adds still more context to the daily parade of stories.

This is something those of us focused on redesigning news delivery should keep in mind. I love the community side of digital life and think it's essential for news organisations to dive into it. But not at the expense of exercising their own news judgement.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

When every conversation = talking to the press

This hits a nail on the head very nicely, I think. It's from Seamus McCauley on Virtual Economics. After extolling the virtues of a hayfever remedy that worked particularly well for him he goes on to deliver the following media strategy advice for companies:

"This is what marketing looks like. Produce something good that people want to tell their friends about, and let them get on with it. Your product and your customer service is your marketing now, and the most useful thing your marketing department can be doing is training everyone at your company with a customer-facing role to understand that during every single customer interaction they are now effectively talking to the press."

Not just customer interactions. In effect, any conversation any of us has these days could end up being published. Any conversation.

I'm a journalist-turned-blogger so I tend to apply journalism rules to blogging: if I'm going to post about a conversation I tell the other person that's what I'm likely to do, take notes and strive to make the post accurate, fair and balanced and with suitable attribution. That's what I was taught at journalism school.

But there wouldn't be too many non-journalist bloggers who would do that. Why would they? Which means the conversation I had at the dairy this morning, at the bank at lunchtime, via email this afternoon, on Twitter tonight or at the pub next week could wind up published.

It gives pause for thought, doesn't it.

And then there's the photos. I found some horrendous photos in a shoebox recently (and some absolutely lovely ones) and digitised many of them. But there are a fair few, of my friends and of me, that I won't put on Flickr. Mullets, after all, are best left in the past where they belong. Here's hoping my friends are of the same mind.

Seamus went on to add this nice bit of advice for companies (media companies take note, too):

"Oh, and making a nice website that contains genuinely useful information f
or people to link to
, and making themselves available to answer questions from everyone politely and accurately."

Guardian puts its correspondents on the map

The Guardian has a Google map showing the locations of its staff around the world. To be fair, it's probably one of few papers with enough foreign-based staff to warrant using a world map. But still, it's a nice idea and would work just as well with a national or regional map.

My Telegraph is doing something similar, asking its members to show where they are on a world map, and then there's Twittervision which shows tweets as they happen from around the world and is surprisingly enjoyable to watch.

The value of maps as online tools came up in conversation the other day with general agreement that they were over-rated. The maps I've mentioned are pretty straightforward - all you have to do is look at them and maybe click on markers to read some text. But those small, embedded maps, where you have to zoom in and move the map about and wait for it to reload six times before you find what you want, can get annoying pretty quickly.

I was in despair yesterday trying to find a map of Hamilton to print out and stick on the wall so I could orient myself, now that I'm going to be there regularly as part of my work as Editor-in-Residence on the Wintec School of Communication journalism programme. Couldn't find any such thing, only a string of Google maps the size of a tissue. Map sellers rejoice, I'm going to go out and buy one.

I like the idea of geotagging and being able to use a map to find information relevant to where I live, work, whatever. And I really like the idea of news sites being the first place people think to look for information relevant to their area. But as a user, if technology limits mean the map slows me down I'd rather just scan some text and be on my way.

Friday, February 22, 2008

Make room for a programmer at the news conference table

Still on the theme of newsroom technology I wanted to point to this post from Rich Gordon on Mediashift Idea Lab about a Knight Foundation initiative to grant journalism scholarships to computer programmers. He notes that Georgia Tech is already running a computational journalism course.

Every now and then I get the feeling another piece of the puzzle is fitting into place. This, I think, is another piece of the puzzle.

It's not uncommon to find the odd programmer in a newsroom - they're the folk who fix the broken widgets and figure out how to translate the editor's bright ideas into code. But there's often only one, they're often not on the editorial payroll and sometimes they're not even on the editorial floor but tucked away in an IT department cubicle.

But imagine if you had a programmer at the morning news conference or weekly planning session. Someone pitches a story, it gets tossed around the table - what can we do for the paper, what can we do for the web, what's the community potential? The picture ed pulls up some images on the screen, the reporter mentions some data he came across that's relevant and a news editor recalls previous stories that dovetail nicely and an old series of pics that would be perfect. Round the table you go, asking: Can we do this? Would that work better? Are we telling this story in the most compelling way?

Instead of having to scurry off and find someone to ask what's possible or, sigh, put in a request form, the programmer can say right then and there - no, that's going to take too long and I can't be sure it'll work properly, but I have a better idea and I can do it if you give me x, y and z.

Now the editors can allocate staff and tech resources accordingly. The editors know what they're getting for the web and the paper, the reporter knows what words and data are required by when, the designers can get to work and the pic editor can get researchers or the duty snapper on the case.

Ah, it's a lovely world in my head.

Rich Gordon sees 'journalism programmers' as creators of a new generation of newsroom tools. Here's his take on why that's so important:

"Many journalists just aren't comfortable with technology. And even if they learn to use technology tools successfully in their work, few want to delve deeply into the process of developing new technology. And most media organizations don't seem to value their programming staffs or involve them in the journalism process. Instead, their work supports back-end systems like payroll and billing.

"But there's also clearly a need to educate computer scientists about journalism, which is why what Georgia Tech is doing is so important. When computer scientists think about journalism, it seems they often are most interested in trying to create software that replicates what journalists do - or makes them unnecessary. Think Google News - or the Northwestern InfoLab's News at Seven, an automated system that generates TV news 'shows' by harvesting information from the Web, translating it into human speech and delivering it through avatars.

"Don't get me wrong - if an algorithm can truly replace what a journalist does, I'm happy to let a computer do the work. But I'm convinced that the most indispensable things that journalists do - reporting, interviewing, analyzing, writing and editing - need to be done by humans.

"I'm also convinced that most technology professionals just don't understand how journalists do their jobs, what makes them essential to a democratic society, or how technology is helping destroy the business model that has supported the creation of original journalism. I'd like to see computer science scholars and professionals thinking more deeply about how technology can help journalists do a better job, not just put them out of a job."

Thursday, February 21, 2008

Just tell me what button to push

I like this post from Scott Karp on Publishing 2.0 about the need for simplicity in newsroom systems. He quotes a newspaper exec who wanted any new system to be "so seamless, so transparent, so idiot-proof that I can do it without training — and so that it doesn’t add more than a heartbeat to my day."

I know the feeling. I remember the horror at being asked to teach print journalists how to use an overly complicated legacy web CMS. We didn't do it in the end, which is just as well because it would have been a disaster. Making even relatively minor workflow changes in the overly complicated print CMS was hard enough, and for good reason.

Most people don't give a fig how systems work and few want to expend any energy on learning how to do things quicker or work smarter or with more flexibility. 'Just tell me what button to push' is about the size of it. As Kathy Sierra said at Webstock: people don't want to be tool experts, but experts at what they're using the tool for.

This took me a while to accept, to be honest, I guess because I always like learning about a system so I can work more efficiently and flexibly. I assumed others would be happier once they'd learned a few more tricks. I was wrong. Most just wanted one simple way of working and as little variation as possible. You live and learn.

Scott's post goes on to cite a number of successful ventures based on really simple user interfaces - Google, Twitter, YouTube. It's good to be reminded now and then how important it really is to keep it simple, stupid.

Twitter as a news delivery service: postscript

Since my last post on Twitter as a news delivery service, I've signed up for two New York Times feeds and noticed that they're using a headline-only format which solves the problem of tight space quite neatly, I think:

NY Times: World nyt_world New South Korean Leader Cleared in Fraud Inquiry
NY TImes: National nyt_national Justices Shield Medical Devices From Lawsuits

But while the headlines were succinct the feeds came in floods. I signed up for two, world and national, which quickly took over my Twitter page:

It was even worse on my phone, taking over two or three screens. It made me wonder if it would be possible to stagger the timing of feeds so they didn't all go at once. It would certainly make multiple feeds more palatable to users.

FastCompany puts the community into journalism

The beatbloggers talked to Ed Sussman at about how they went about developing a robust community on their site (using Drupal). FastCompany is a business magazine that looks at innovation, technology, management, leadership, social responsibility and worklife balance.

FastCompany members have the opportunity to blog on the site, ask questions, answer questions, suggest questions and suggest stories, as well as more usual elements such as voting in polls and commenting on stories.

Unusually, their contributions appear on the homepage alongside stories and blogs written by journalists and experts. I've never seen journalism and community so closely entwined before.

The interview is an interesting read with some good advice in it. The piece opens with this quote:

"When editors are going to assign a story we typically think about different elements that go into it; who is the writer, who is the photographer, do we want a video or a podcast or any kind of poll? Now we ask an additional question: what is the community aspect?"
On how journalists' job change:
"For some it doesn't change at all, for others it changes a lot. There are some people who are long-form feature writers, who will remain long form feature writers. They are not going to be moderating groups, but they will probably answer a lot of questions and messages about the stories they write and engage in more personal conversations.
"Some of our journalists, like Charles Fishman, write six or seven features a year and turn out a book every year and a half. Thats still what he is going to do - but he will engage with our audience in a much more direct way.
"Other people have totally new jobs: The senior editor at the website became senior editor / community director. She is in there answering as many questions as she can that need to be answered. She is working full time with the community."
On members microblogging:
"I call it a microblog because it's not just an answer to a question, you can click on their profile and anything they answer whether it's a question or a comment or a blog post. If all they do is answer a couple 'fast talk' questions a month, in essence, they are blogging in a guided way, answering questions which our journalists are posing to the community.
"In fact, you can subscribe to their feed externally or internally, so you can follow all the content on our site. There are people already who are answering every single question and they seem to like that a lot more than blogging. I also like the fact that our editors are in there mixing it up with them."

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Twitter as a newsroom communication tool

Following on from looking at Twitter as a news delivery mechanism, I've been reading Paul Bradshaw's thoughts on using it as a communication tool in newsrooms.

He suggests signing up editors and reporters to Twitter accounts with mobile access and having them follow one another. That way they can give and take direction, file updates on where they are and what they're working on, and ask each other for tips, contacts, information.

This is not an entirely new idea. The topline instant message systems built into older print and radio CMSs have long given reporters a way to talk to each other instantly, directly and succinctly.

Twitter's different only in that it's web-based and mobile so you can take it with you wherever you go (give or take a few connectivity black spots). And it's group-based so you can have as few or as many people in your network as you want.

Obvious drawbacks raised by one commenter were that some people would see it as 'being watched' and resent having to participate; others would file updates only to look busy.

Fair point. It can sometimes be better to introduce tools rather than impose them - ie make a range of tools available and see which ones stick. That way there's more ownership and less friction: 'design for how people really are.' Early adopters have a way of catching others up in their enthusiasm and once enough people find the tool useful it will gain traction and can then become officially adopted.

Another current drawback is that you can't have multiple Twitter profiles on a single email account, so if a journalist wanted to keep work and private life separate they'd have to have two Twitter identities using different email accounts, which is a real faff.

The final hazard would be the IT department getting wind of it: they'd probably put it on the banned list.

Perhaps an in-house version might be better for newsroom communication, with Twitter best used as a tool for individual journalists to tell people what they're working on and ask for ideas and help not just from colleagues but their Twitter buddies and the blogosphere as well.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

A digital CV sends a positive signal

I was just reading a ReadWriteWeb post about rebooting CVs to bring them up to date for today's market and it chimed with me.

I've been thinking for a while that I'd like to see journalists move to using online CVs, especially if it links to evidence of their digital citizenry - blog, published stories, pictures, videos, social bookmarks, social networks and so on.

If I were hiring right now, I'd certainly rate someone who sent a digital CV. CBWorkSpace seems a perfectly useful site for presenting a CV simply and easily. And if you have video gear and are confident of your presenting abilities you might want to try CB Video Resume. The ReadWriteWeb post has a couple of other suggestions too.

I've started including links in my email signature to my blog and profile/career summary on Naymz and LinkedIn, as a point of reference for people 'meeting' me for the first time. Just last week I pitched for a job and found that providing a link to my LinkedIn career summary was enough background information to satisfy the client (we also met in person).

That said, it's important to have a good paper CV too and make both digital and paper versions available. After all, there are a fair few editors around who aren't too comfortable yet in the digital world (she said, rather understatedly).

If you do send a paper CV by email, make sure you save it as a pdf first - you never know how a Word document is going to print out and it could get altered when it's opened.

Final tip: when you get the pdf ready, you might also want to add hyperlinks for your email address, websites, online stories and blog address so your prospective employer can click through from the pdf when they open it.

How news sites can stay relevant: #572

"Every media brand, to remain relevant, needs to get into the business of helping their audience find the best content on the topics they cover, and not just publish their own content."

A quote from Scott Karp of Publishing 2.0 which appears in DigiDave's useful post on Social Bookmarking for Journalists 101.

DigiDave, aka David Cohn, makes the following excellent point early on in his post:

"My bone to pick isn't that news organizations don't know about social news sites. They obviously do - and want to benefit from the traffic spikes they can offer. My concern is that individual journalists aren't using them enough - which is a pity, because if anybody should be recommending news articles through these sites [Digg, StumbleUpon, Reddit etc] it should be journalists, whose job it is to know what is good and bad information. If we live in an era of micro-internet celebrities, and micro-blogging - these sites offer a platform where collectively journalists can show our inherent value on the social web."

I also like his sketch of the main social bookmarking sites, using the device of imagining what news publication they would be if they were print products. For example, he likens Digg to a teen magazine (
tend to like easily digestible content: pictures and top ten lists), Reddit to the San Jose Mercury News (heavily focused on hardcore technology) and Propeller to USA Today (packaged for the masses, not a tech or geeky audience).

Plenty more good stuff in there. Well worth a look.

Keep it short, sharp and to the point

The ever-readable Paul Bradshaw kicked off a series on online journalism basics recently with the importance of brevity - both for writing and for multimedia.

It's a good point that can't be made too often so here it comes again - as succinctly articulated by Paul:

  • The web is different. It is not print, it is not television, it is not radio. So why write content for the web in the same way that you might write for a newspaper or a news broadcast?
  • Shorter articles tend to work better online because most people struggle to read long documents on screen, or find scrolling too much hassle if they’re looking for something specific or succinct.
  • Within the article itself, paragraphs should be succinct. Stick to one concept per paragraph. Once you’ve made your point, move on to the next par.
  • Brevity is equally important when producing multimedia material. For the medium that brought us YouTube, anything over three minutes is too long.
  • Brevity works well online because it allows for more effective distribution: others can link to the specific element they are commenting on, or even embed it on their site.
  • What’s more, it provides the raw material for further journalism: a user might decide to re-edit the material to provide a different narrative; or mash it up with maps or databases; or they might incorporate it into further investigation into a particular issue - all of which further distributes your good name, and provides further material for you to build on.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

One-liners from Webstock

I got back last night from a really productive week in Wellington meeting people and attending Webstock, a conference for web designers but universally relevant.

A big thank-you to the organisers: the event was well-run, aside from highly patchy wi-fi, and turned out to be an engaging, useful and enjoyable couple of days.

It's going to take a while to process all the information and ideas that sprang up, but a few one-liners stand out as likely to underpin thought and discussion over the next few weeks.

Design for how people really are
You can never have too much data
Figure out how to make data explorable
Your site is not your product
People are passionate about things they're good at
People don't want to be tool experts, they want to be expert at the things they use the tools for
Use your own products
If you want compelling feedback on site usability, video people using it (their faces tell the story)

Using Twitter to deliver news: a few early thoughts

I've been getting news feeds on Twitter from BBC, Radio NZ and a Netherlands based group called BreakingNewsOn for a couple of months. So far, I'd say Twitter works really well for delivering news.

From a user point of view it's great - news finds me instead of me having to find it, I can see just enough information to decide whether or not I want to read more, and I can click through to the source site to read more when I am interested.

From a publisher's point of view, it's also great - cheap, relatively easy to set up an automated feed, and another way of getting news out to audiences in their own environment rather than relying on them to make the effort to visit your website.

It's ideal for publishing breaking news (it's like a ticker that runs not just across your website but across your users' screens too). It also seems to work well for regular round-ups, provided the headlines are re-written to reflect the nature of the update. Twitter users have no way of knowing at a glance that the story's been updated if the headline looks the same as it did an hour ago.

There are a few limitations:

  • You have to keep the character count to 140 and the link has to follow the headline/abstract. The headline can't act as a link. It would be great if Twitter could make the latter possible. It's a tight publishing space, so it really helps to keep your identifier short. BBC works well - it leaves plenty of room for text. BreakingNewsOn is way too long.
  • The headline IS the story. I gather most news services are serving RSS feeds to Twitter which run headline: standfirst/intro and chop off once the character count runs out, leaving a dangling ellipsis (...) followed by the link. Here's an example:
BBC TV poll backs Berwick border move: According to a television poll, 60% of people in Berwick-upon-Tweed want t..
This does the job, although to be honest I find the ... just as annoying as anywhere else I see it online. I'd prefer to see:

BBC TV poll backs Berwick border move: TV poll finds 60% of people in Berwick-upon-Tweed want to be part of Scotland.

Ultimately, it'd be great to see a Twitter headline and standfirst written somewhere in the story workflow that wouldn't break when published. This could also be used for mobile.
  • There's a problem with overkill. Part of the fun of Twitter is seeing a stream of diverse posts and conversations. News gets in the way if the feeds take up too much room (there are only 20 posts per Twitter page, no one wants 16 of them to be news posts). One way around this is to break the feeds down to sections: politics, world, Auckland, business, technology, sport etc. Then people can choose just those feeds they're interested in and are less likely to get inundated.

Journalism job suck? Vent here

I love this: It's a site designed just for grumpy journalists to sound off about what's annoying them today. Great fun and quite therapeutic. One for journalism bosses to watch.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Words of the day: fun, simple, people

So much for plans to blog live from Webstock: wonky wifi meant I was offline most of the day - at a web conference, go figure. Better luck tomorrow.

Webstock did a great job today. There was a lot on and I feel like I've been around the world in a day, or something equally exhausting (who knew sitting still and listening could be so tiring). Highlights for me were a look at Django, which seemed every bit as usable as I'd heard, plus a great session from Jason Santa Maria on design as narrative and being about storytelling.

A few kernels:

it's all about people
it's all about tools
keep it simple
design is narrative
gather data: find out how people really behave and design for that
watch trends
read economics and psychology
hire the right people
fire the right people
let users have fun

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

Wellington turns on the charm

Not only has the sun shone all day, but I've met more interesting people in the last 24 hours in Wellington than I have in the last couple of months (I should probably get out more).

As if by magic, before I'd even found my hotel last night I'd run into (almost literally, with my wheelie bag) a guy who specialises in business processes and is a fan of EPC (Event Driven Process Chains - used for mapping processes and workflows). That may not sound like much to you, but it brings the total number of people I know who use EPC to four. Me, a couple of colleagues in the UK, and this guy. Mapping workflows is not, as you can imagine, everyone's cup of tea. So the chance to sit down with someone and yap about it for a couple of hours was truly an unexpected pleasure. (My interest in EPC, by the way, arose when we used it for some web-print integration work at the Telegraph).

And I got to talk workflow again today. First, during a guided tour of Radio NZ with webmaster Richard Hulse, who impressed hugely with all-round affability and a pragmatic and user-friendly approach to systems development. Then with some people I met at the Dominion-Post who gave me an equally enjoyable look around there.

Next up is the Webstock conference, so it just gets better. Tomorrow's line-up includes Nat Torkington, Peter Morville, Michael Lopp, Sam Morgan and Jill Whalen. Can't wait. I'm toying with the idea of using CoveritLive to post from the conference; will see how things look tomorrow.

And all this workflow and webhead fun is set against the backdrop of rediscovering a really accessible city. I hadn't been to Wellington for more than a decade and had forgotten how user-friendly it is. When you're in the city, you can walk pretty much everywhere you'd care to go, and generally within 5 or 10 minutes. (In Auckland you have to budget 45 minutes to get anywhere). The waterfront is close and works for pedestrians, the train station's close and there's no shortage of eateries and drinkeries. Nice.

Monday, February 11, 2008

It's your newspaper, where will you swing the axe?

One more from Mr Jarvis. He's set up a small survey asking which sections of a newspaper you would cut if you were the owner. If you want to humour him, click here.

A minimise-your-legal-risk blog list

Via Jeff Jarvis, here's a top 10 list of advice from Knight Citizen News Network on how to blog without blowing it. All common sense.

  1. Check your facts
  2. Don't carry on virtual vendettas
  3. Obey the law
  4. Weigh promises
  5. Reveal secrets selectively
  6. Consider what you copy
  7. Learn recording limits
  8. Don't abuse anonymity
  9. Shun conflicts of interest
  10. Seek legal advice

Off the record, for now

Jeff Jarvis has some thoughts on how well 'off the record' can work in our increasingly public world:

"The argument for making things off-the-record is that participants will feel freer to talk and to be candid. And that seems to make sense. But at a place like Davos [World Economic Forum], you’re still talking among people who can affect policy, business, brand, media, and careers. And they talk. Just because it’s not in the press or on blogs doesn’t mean such a lapse won’t have an impact.

"Now add to this the live nature of media today. Someone could have broadcast that moment [a heated exchange in a meeting] live or Twittered it as it happened. No one in that room did or likely would because we all want to be invited back to Davos. Yes, that motivates me to follow the rule. But at any other event that is supposed to be off the record, there is surely someone in the room who won’t care. And once it’s out online, it’s out."

Sunday, February 10, 2008

Does PR rule the newsroom?

This is a worthwhile read if you're someone who muses on the quality of journalism, whether today's reporters are overworked and the extent of PR influence in reporting. It flared up a week or so ago (I'm still clearing my inbox after holiday) so you may have already caught it.

First, there's some research from Cardiff University - The Quality and Independence of British Journalism - which finds, among other things, that 19% of quality newspaper stories are "all or mainly" from PR and, roughly speaking, that reporters fill three times as many pages as they and their predecessors did 20 years ago.

Then there's the book by Guardian reporter Nick Davies: Flat Earth News, An Award-winning Reporter Exposes Falsehood, Distortion and Propaganda in the Global Media.

Then there's Adrian Monck's blog post taking issue with some of the the maths and conclusions, which is as good a place as any to dive in. Here are a couple of excerpts.

"Here is how Nick summed up that research in November 2007:
The academics did two things. Year by year they looked at what happened to the editorial staffing levels of those Fleet Street papers over the next 20 years. The second thing they did was they measured the space which those editorial staff were filling, how many column inches of news.

You crunch all those numbers for all these companies and you come up with something that is really important – essentially, your average Fleet Street reporter now is filling three times as much space as he or she was 20 years ago. Turn that round, look at it from the reporter’s point of view: we only have one third of the time to do our job.
"Is this bald claim really true? The study links full-time employees to pagination.

"But what about:
  • freelance employees?
  • bought-in copy?
  • the amount of agency material used?
  • changes in technology?
  • the reduction in the number of editions?
"Could any of these things have a bearing on the analysis? And shouldn’t journalists be more productive? What about these innovations:
  • electronic databases
  • computers
  • mobile telephony
  • the Internet
And in response to the claims about unadalterated PR content going into newspapers:
"More than half the PR material in the stories Davies’ criticises actually comes from government, public bodies (police, hospitals, etc.), NGOs and charities (p22). When Andrew Gilligan broke his 45 minutes story he estimated that he appeared on 19 different BBC programmes. Given the range of outlets public PR materials now service, do we really want ministers, police officers and doctors conducting separate interviews with dozens of different publications?

"The real filler in newspapers (and online) is wire copy. This is presented as something of a shock and Nick conflates this misleadingly with PR material (at least he does on the Today programme). Actually the only shock is that newspapers have hidden their reliance on the agencies for so long."
There's some great discussion below the blog post, including replies from Nick Davies. It's well worth a read. I haven't read the whole report yet, nor Nick's book, so don't feel up to considered comment beyond saying I agree pretty much entirely with Adrian so far. But it raises a few thoughts, in no particular order and not especially well thought through:
  • 81% of stories aren't 'mainly from PR'. That's pretty good, actually, isn't it?

  • Press releases these days are predominantly written by former journalists or people who did the same communications degrees as journalists. They have the same skill set. It stands to reason more press releases will go into the paper unadulterated than previously, when they were badly structured and stiffly written in jargon-heavy language.

  • If PRs can present information in news-story form and publish it directly online, and the public can easily search for and aggregate information directly online, what are journalists for?

  • As Adrian points out, much of the PR material coming into newsrooms is via agency copy, which newsrooms have long been utterly reliant on and remain so.

  • What would an acceptable percentage of "all or mainly PR" stories be? 0%? 5%? 10%? Why?

  • What if it's a really straight up and down story that's come to your attention via a well-written press release and which you've called around on and can't find any other information on or angle. If you run that story, with minimal rewriting, that's "all PR". Is that bad?

  • I would still go out of my way to make calls on any press release I was working from and try to dig out more detail, other angles, fresh quotes. Or file without a byline. Old-fashioned pride, I guess. I also remember taking regional council minutes home for bed-time reading and marking potentially interesting bits with a yellow highlighter. Do reporters still do that?

  • Are reporters really too busy these days to make phone calls to check out stories offered by PRs? I genuinely don't know, I haven't been a reporter for years.

  • Given that newspapers began their lives as political broadsheets, the fact that the media is now only partly influenced by government, business and NGOs is progress, no?

  • Aside from journalism commentators, hands up anyone who lies awake at night worrying about the lack of independence of the media.

  • What does independent mean these days? Independent of what? I think it used to mean independent of the state, now it seems to mean 'not owned by a big media company', and sometimes 'owned by someone I like'.

  • If PR influence and non-independent media is 'bad', or at least 'worrying', does it follow that independent news editors are trusted above all others to source, check, filter and package our news? What training or unique qualifications do news editors have to do so?
  • How much news do you reckon you could scare up in an average week without looking at any press releases (no diary events) or information from PRs?

Do podcasts work for news?

ReadWriteWeb wrote about podcasts recently in response to eMarketer figures showing the US market is expected to rise to 38 million users in the next two years.

There's clearly some passion out there for the format. As ReadWriteWeb put it:

"Podcast content is easy to digest. Most podcasts that are downloaded are usually short and focus on specific topics or genres, making it easy for people to listen to exactly what they are interested in and skip the fluff.

"Also, there is a much greater awareness and much more promotion for podcasting via large online news and media networks such as CNET, New York Times, and well-respected blogs [Ed: see our own ReadWriteTalk for example]. Podcasts have also become part of many people's daily lives thanks to Apple's iPod and iTunes."
All good points. And I, too, like catching up on missed radio programmes and interviews of interest when I'm pottering around online uploading pics, following links and so on.

But I can't listen and work at the same time - conversations distract me from reading and writing, my staple activities, so I have to be sparing with online audio.

And I've never warmed to podcasts as a way of delivering news. Partly for the distraction factor, and partly because I don't do much commuting, which is prime news-ingesting time. When I do commute it's in a car, which doesn't have an mp3 player in it (looking forward to the day) and I don't like driving with my iPod headphones in.

Even when I did commute by train, in London, I was seldom motivated enough to leap out of bed early, power up my laptop, plug in my iPod and download a few podcasts before running for the station. Instead I hit Shuffle and read the paper.

I notice that Stuff and the Herald seem to have avoided podcasts so far, and the Telegraph in London recently dropped its daily audio podcast - a news roundup with beat reporters sharing their thoughts on the main stories of the day - because the interest just wasn't there.

Video, without doubt, is king. But I think specific, well-edited audio interviews and features also have a place on news sites - allowing readers to grab what they're interested in to listen to on the run or while they're moseying around online (or an art gallery, say). It may be that newspapers don't need to manage all these audio features themselves but partner up with radio or specialist suppliers as required.

Any thoughts?

A rant about ...

What is it with these websites hooked on the dangling ellipsis? You know what I mean: a headline, half a sentence then...

Here's a classic from TVNZ's TV On Demand offerings:


21 Oct
Rawdon Christie presents the latest episode of New Zealand's most influential…

Most influential what? You think the ... is tantalising? You think it's going to make me want to read more? You think I'm going to click through just so I can find out whether there's anything worth clicking through to?

Hell no! I'm not going to click through unless you give me a reason to. I'm busy, easily distracted, have the attention span of a gnat and no loyalty whatsoever - in other words a typical digital citizen.

You want me to click, tell me why! I don't need much, just a little abstract that gives me information, like who Rawdon Christie is, or what's in this epsiode of Agenda, or what's so great about Agenda. is another prime offender. From today's homepage:
The grief-stricken husband of a woman left for dead for seven hours after a hit-and-run says his wife… More
Says his wife what? Tell me, so I know whether I want to read the story.
Supersized wine glasses putting drinkers over the limit… More
Okay, but why the ... More. There's enough information there already for me to decide whether I want to read the story.

Yep, I know, the little ... makes life easier because it's automated - the CMS grabs the first x number of characters from the story's intro. And staffing is tight so the more automation the better. Right?

Well... not necessarily. Not if it drives your readers up the wall - and ultimately away. It doesn't take long for a seasoned web editor to turn round a web-friendly headline and abstract, and it makes a big difference to readers.

In fact, there's no reason why reporters couldn't get into the habit of writing a web headline and standfirst on every story they file, is there?

Rant over.

London's Camden Market is on fire: anatomy of a breaking news story

9.30 this morning, NZ time:

News of a big fire in London's Camden Market reaches me on Twitter via a news feed from Netherlands-based BreakingNewsOn. They seemed to be getting information from Sky TV.

By 10am NZ time, the Guardian had a picture and good story up complete with eye witness reports. The Times had a smaller report and was asking readers to send in pictures. The Telegraph and Independent had nothing, nor did the Evening Standard.

By 11am, was running the story and asking New Zealanders living in London to send in pictures. Using a combination of Reuters reports, their own staff and TV coverage,they had a pretty good outline of the story. didn't have anything.

At 11.10am a couple of google searches brought up coverage by BBC, CBC in Canada, AFP, AP TV, Sky, Jerusalem Post (carrying an AP report) and plenty more. Conspiracy theories and other conversations were under way on Yahoo Answers, Neogaff, Suzy's photos and elsewhere.

The BBC, in inimitable style, had a full report, pictures, video of eye witnesses and the scene, links to related sites including the fire service, Camden Council and Camden market, and was asking readers for information, pictures and video. (Shame international viewers have to sit through an insurance ad before the video footage plays, kills the sense of immediacy somewhat).

By 11.45am, Guardian had really fleshed out the story, as had Sky and BBC. Times had added three pictures and NZ Herald one (all agency pics). Telegraph had nothing, Stuff was running Reuters copy and pic, the Independent had PA copy with no picture and the Evening Standard was running a headline on the ticker. TV3 was running APTN copy and video, TVNZ had Reuters copy with no footage.

Notably, search for 'fire', 'camden' and 'london' on YouTube brought up nothing. Am I missing something? No sign of ugc on any of the news sites yet, all agency footage and eye witness commentary gathered by reporters on the scene.

Saturday, February 9, 2008

Day in the life of a Second Life reporter

Eric Krangel is a Reuters reporter covering a technology beat - with a difference. Eric is based in Reuters Headquarters in Second Life, the virtual world. (He also reports about Second Life). You can see Reuters' Second Life news centre here. They also reported from Davos.

Beat Blogger's David Cohn interviewed Eric to find out how he goes about it. It's an interesting read. He makes the point that he's not there to report on werewolves attacking vampires or other such fantastic aspects of life in the virtual world. He focuses instead on more familiar issues for a financial reporter:

"There are SL banks and stock markets, and one company will try to take over a second one or another will have an IPO release. My coverage has not really been about what Second Life stock is doing well, or who is competing with another, but about the fact that this is all happening. I try to see the forest from the trees. So I write about what it means that there is a Second Life stock exchange. Is it safe? Is this a place where you can or should put real money? How does it work? What safeguards are there? That's more the type of journalism I am doing."

He says reporting in a virtual world is not so different from anywhere else:

"The first thing I do any day is probably similar to any other beat. I have any number of blogs or news feeds that I read. There are tons of Second Life blogs. Some are very silly, some are very heavy about the Second Life fashion industry and what designers are hot. Others help bring me up to speed on what is going on.

"I watch Linden Labs [creators of Second Life], they have an official blog and lots of news breaks from there. That's the ground level - it puts my foot in the door and gives me a superficial understanding of whats going on.

"Beyond that, it's real journalism. It's virtual shoe leather. I'm listening to Twitter. I have office hours every week. One hour every week I'm in the Reuters SL office and anybody can come and tell me what they think or what a great story that I'm missing. Or what we should be covering. I try to make myself accessible through SL and email as much as possible."

It makes good sense for Reuters to have people on the ground in Second Life. I don't know how many competitors they have in there but more are sure to follow. Virtual worlds may seem like fringe activities now, but they're growing in popularity and children are growing up with them.

I think that, just as news organisations need to learn how to use social networks and collaborative tools to stay engaged with their increasingly mobile online audiences, they also need to start wrapping their heads around the technology of virtual worlds. Where audiences go, they must follow.

Assigning a technology reporter to do what Eric's doing seems like a simple enough starting point: set up base in Second Life, get comfortable with the technology, start telling stories and establishing a presence. Now that's a beat I'd almost be tempted to go back to reporting for.

Anyone in New Zealand already have a reporter in SL?

Dear BBC, thanks for letting me help

Wow. That was quick. I noticed a typo earlier on a BBC story and decided to see if they had a way for readers to contact them about howlers. Sure enough, click on Contact Us, then Website, and you get this:

So I sent in the typos. Sure enough, 5 minutes later when I checked the story again, the changes had been made. Deeply impressive. Even more impressive was that I'd mistakenly referred to the story as being about Argentina when I meant Venezuela, and they were kind enough not to point that out to me. Admirable restraint.

The process could be a bit simpler - you have to open the story in a second browser tab so you can copy and paste the typos and the story's url into the feedback form - although no doubt there are plenty of pointy-headed typo-spotters like me who will be sufficiently motivated to do so. It would be better, though, if they could make the feedback form automatically open in a new window.

I've written about this before and have no doubt I'll do so again. All news sites should make it easy for their users (and fellow staff) to send in typos and mistakes they've spotted. Users get to feel involved and valued and you get free proofreading. It's a no-brainer.

It's also not that difficult to do. Just set up a group email address which all relevant web editors are copied into. Duty web editors take responsibility for monitoring and responding to feedback on their section. Simple but effective. Or am I missing something?