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Monday, November 24, 2008

I love the BBC's 'World Without' documentaries

The radio documentaries, aired by the BBC World Service, look at what we would be missing if everday mundane things had never existed. This week they look at copper.

"Without copper there'd be no lighting, electrical power for lighting, no radio, no renewable energy systems, no working automobiles, air conditioning or refrigerators, no digital electronics, no computing, no safe drinking water distribution...

"We each have just under half a fingernail of copper in our bodies..."
The last documentary was about Cows and included a UK farm run on Hindu principles and the cow's crucial role in the discovery and development of vaccines, among other things.


In fact, BBC World Service Documentaries wins the RSS Feed of the Month award.

Sunday, November 23, 2008 partners with Wesabe on personal money management site

 has partnered with Wesabe (a site that got a positive mention in Nat Torkington's 'Privacy and the Cloud' presentation I pointed to earlier) on a co-branded site that lets users manage their money online.

Here's one of the Telegraph's personal finance reporters giving it a spin, and here's the announcement from Wesabe.

Privacy and the 'cloud'

This is a slide show created by Nat Torkington about privacy online in the era of 'cloud' computing. Wish I'd been at the presentation.

Friday, November 21, 2008

'Why the Drudge Report is one of web's best designed sites'

This 37 Signals post about why the Drudge Report is one of the best designed sites on the web is well worth a read.

Here's an excerpt:

Breaking news is breaking news

Have you seen “breaking news” on MSNBC or CNN lately? Almost anything can pass for breaking news now. “So and so speaks to the press about this or that” is now breaking news. Breaking news used to mean something seriously big and important or spectacular just happened. But the major news sites have watered it way down. When I hit MSNBC or CNN, and they have a “breaking news” bar (red/yellow usually), it’s easy to ignore because they’ve cried wolf one too many times. But when you see a big honking red ALL CAPS headline with the flashing siren on Drudge, you know it’s newsworthy.

So true.

One guy can run it

The site is run by Matt Drudge full time with help from an occasional part-time contributor. If the site was 5 pages or 10 pages or 30 pages, he’d likely need additional people and technology to manage it all.

Staying power

People talk about timeless design all the time. But most things people point to that are timeless end up being time stamped. The Drudge Report, on the other hand, has proven timeless. It’s generic list of links, black and white monospaced font, and ALL CAPS headlines have survived every trend, every fad, every movement, every era, every design do or don’t. It doesn’t look old and it doesn’t look new — it looks Drudge. It hasn’t changed since at least 1997, and I believe the design goes back even further. How many sites can survive — and thrive — unchanged for a decade? That’s special.

It’s straightforward

There are no tricks, no sections, no deep linking, no special technology required. It’s all right there on one page. “But it’s a mess!” you could say. I’d say “it’s straightforward mess.” I wouldn’t underestimate the merit in that.

It’s unique

When you’re on the Drudge Report you’re on the Drudge Report. There’s no question where you are. The design has become iconic. How many other news sites can claim that? If you pull the logo off some of the other major news sites/networks (CNN, MSNBC, FOX News, ABC News, CBS News, etc.) you may have a hard time distinguishing them from one another. They all sorta blend into the same standard news-site look and feel. There are a few standouts, but even the NYT and the WSJ aren’t that unique. Drudge’s design stands alone.

This is important

Many news sites have lost their balls. They’re afraid to really call out one big story. They may have a leading headline, but it’s not all that obvious or different from the others. It may be a font size or two bigger, but it’s not confident. They hedge. Drudge, on the other hand, says “this is the story of the moment” with a huge headline. This is what’s important in the news right now and nothing else even comes close. Drudge isn’t afraid to be an opinionated editor and his site design perfectly emphasizes that. It’s bold, it’s risky, and it’s pure Drudge design.

It’s good cluttered

The Drudge Report usually leads with a “font size=+7” ALL CAPS headline in Arial. Sometimes it’s italicized. Sometimes, for something big big, he’ll cap it off with the infamous siren.

After that you have three columns. Some headlines are sentence case, some are ALL CAPS. Some have photos, some are just a plain text headline. Sometimes more controversial or sensational headlines are colored red. There’s usually a big ad at the top and a few other ads sprinkled among the columns.

Stories aren’t grouped or organized except probably more interesting ones up top. And that’s it. Your eye darts all over the place looking around for something that looks interesting. The design encourages wandering and random discovery.

The site feels like a chaotic newsroom with the cutting room floor exposed. I think that’s part of the excitement — and good design.

How NZ business sites stack up

From John Drinnan's piece in the Herald today about BusinessDay moving under the Stuff umbrella, here's the latest NeilsonOnline uniques for NZ's business sites:

"Over the past 15 weeks Nielsen Online Market Intelligence counted the average weekly unique browsers to business sites. They were:

* 187,000
* Stuff Business: 136,000
* National Business Review: 37,000
* NZX (with some Fairfax Business content): 33,000
* Yahoo!Xtra Business: 30,000
* Scoop Business: 18,000
* 17,000
* TVNZ/business: 16,000
* BusinessDay: 12,000

"Comparing the average audience over the last four weeks to the average audience for the four weeks ended August 31, NBR grew its audience by 102 per cent compared with 17 per cent for BusinessDay.

"NBR's average for the last four weeks was 44,000 unique browsers, in March it was averaging 12,000. BusinessDay averaged 12,000 over the last four weeks.

"Both and Stuff have continued to grow their business audiences over the same period, peaking in the financial meltdown."

Thursday, November 20, 2008

PC Mag shuts print edition to focus online

PC Magazine's owners are closing down its print version in favour of focusing energies solely online. The Christian Science Monitor made the same decision earlier this year, and a number of regional newspapers in the US are trimming back on print, dropping one or two editions a week to save costs and free up cash for other development, including online.

PaidContent posted this story about the decision on PC Magazine:

Ziff Davis, the tech/gaming media company that recently exited Chapter 11 bankruptcy, is now taking the brave but inevitable step of closing down the print version of PCMag to focus its energy on its growing PCMag online network of sites, led by flagship The magazine, which was started in 1982, has a storied history, but its print base eroded over the years as its core brand of journalism—news you can use while shopping for computers—moved online. It cut back from bi-weekly to monthly earlier this year. PCMag, which literally invented the idea of comparative hardware and software reviews, at one time during the ‘80s averaged about 400 pages an issue, with some issues breaking the 500- and even the 600-page marks, according to this Wikipedia history.
Thanks to Steve Outing via Twitter for the link. Steve had this to say on the decision:

"This morning I posted a few words to my Twitter account about PC Magazine’s decision to cease print publication…

"Tom Regan, a smart and talented journalist and media thinker I know, posted what I thought was a profound comment:

'I have a feeling that with the (Christian Science) Monitor and now PC Mag going in the online direction, it’s just the start of a tsunami over the next two years. The current economic situation, more than any other factor, will accomplish what a decade worth of net evangelism has failed to do.

"He’s so right."

Yes he is right, the economic situation will force the hand of hitherto complacent news companies to invest seriously in their online development.

That said, it's hard to see any sign of that process in regional New Zealand, where shovelware still reigns supreme.

Monday, November 17, 2008

Pitfalls of citizen journalism

This is out of date but something I wanted to remember (and my blog's as good a place as any to store things I want to refer to later). It's a cautionary note on citizen journalism, and specifically on CNN's experimental iReport site, from Crowdsourcing author Jeff Howe.

"As many of you already know (certainly the readers of my book), I'm ambivalent about the usefulness of crowdsourcing in journalism. Today (October 3, 2008) proved my ambivalence isn't misguided.

"This morning a citizen journalist with supposed inside information posted a story to CNN's iReport site claiming that Steve Jobs had been rushed to the hospital with chest pains. Apple stock, unsurprisingly, dive bombed as a result, its fall only arrested once Apple spokeswoman Katie Cotton came out disputing the claim. (The story has been removed. Here's CNN's statement). (Update: Now the SEC has announced it will investigate the posting.) CNN wanted to give its viewers a voice. Instead it provided stock manipulators with one. Nice.

"I think the crowd make excellent sources and additional sets of eyes and ears, but I believe the future lies in carefully cultivated partnerships between professionals and their audiences.

"Examples: I'm a huge fan of Talking Points Memo and their TPMMuckraker project, am bullish on my colleague David Cohn's crowdfunded journalism site, Spot.Us. Both let professionals work the phones and write the copy, but encourage the crowd to do what it does best (unearthing data and marshalling support for underreported stories, respectively).

"Here's my point: I'm much less enthusiastic about straight-up, so-called "citizen journalism," in which readers are asked to perform the same duties as their professional counterparts, without any support or guidance from them. CNN's iReport is a case in point.

"CNN threw up a shingle on their Website, and asked its viewers to contribute their own reporting. This both diminishes the contributions of the amateurs by ghettoizing it onto the back of the bus (metaphorically speaking), and fails to hold it to the sort of standards that professionals must adhere to. Like, say, identifying yourself before posting a story that could cost shareholders millions of dollars.

"Anonymity has its place on the Web, and it might even have its place on news outlet comment boards (though that debate continues to rage). It does not have its place in journalism, per se."

I'm inclined to agree with Jeff on this - news organisations involving readers in generating, sourcing and analysing stories makes sense; hosting unedited websites written by unaccountable authors doesn't.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

We're moving from news papers to news brands, says Rupert Murdoch

This is an edited version of Rupert Murdoch's Boyer Lecture, The Future of Newspapers: Moving Beyond Dead Trees.

TOO many journalists seem to take a perverse pleasure in ruminating on their pending demise. I know industries that are today facing stiff new competition from the internet: banks, retailers, phone companies and so on. But these sectors also see the internet as an extraordinary opportunity. But among our journalistic friends are some misguided cynics who are too busy writing their own obituary to be excited by the opportunity.

Self-pity is never pretty. And sometimes it even starts in journalism school, some of which are perpetuating the pessimism of their tribal elders. But I have a very different view.

Unlike the doom and gloomers, I believe that newspapers will reach new heights. In the 21st century, people are hungrier for information than ever. And they have more sources of information than ever.

Amid these many diverse and competing voices, readers want what they've always wanted: a source they can trust. That has always been the role of great newspapers in the past. And that role will make newspapers great in the future.

If you discuss the future with newspapermen, you will find that too many think that our business is only physical newspapers. I like the look and feel of newsprint as much as anyone. But our real business isn't printing on dead trees. It's giving our readers great journalism and great judgment.

It's true that in the coming decades the printed versions of some newspapers will lose circulation. But if papers provide readers with news they can trust, we'll see gains in circulation: on our web pages, through our RSS feeds, in emails delivering customised news and advertising, to mobile phones.

In short, we are moving from news papers to news brands. For all of my working life, I have believed that there is a social and commercial value in delivering accurate news and information in a cheap and timely way. In this coming century, the form of delivery may change, but the potential audience for our content will multiply many times over.

The news business is very personal for me. For more than a half century, newspapers have been at the heart of my business. If I am sceptical about the pessimists today, it's because of a simple reason: I have heard their morose soothsaying many times before.

The challenges are real. There will probably never be a paperless office, but young people are starting paperless homes. Traditional sources of revenue -- such as classifieds -- are drying up, putting pressure on the business model. And journalists face new competition from alternative sources of news and information.

So we have a steady stream of stories such as The Economist covers declaring that "newspapers are now an endangered species". That's quite ironic coming from a successful and growing magazine that likes to describe itself as "a newspaper".

My summary of the way some of the established media has responded to the internet is this: it's not newspapers that might become obsolete. It's some of the editors, reporters and proprietors who are forgetting a newspaper's most precious asset: the bond with its readers.

When I was growing up, this was the key lesson my father impressed on me. If you were an owner, the best thing you could do was to hire editors who looked out for your readers' interests and gave these readers good, honest reporting on issues that mattered most to them. In return, you would be rewarded with trust and loyalty you could take to the bank.

Over many decades in newspapers, I have been privileged to witness history being made and printed almost every night. Today I'd like to talk about what these experiences have taught me and why they give me confidence about the future.

My intent is to use my experience to illuminate the way we need to respond to the two most serious challenges facing newspapers today. The first is the competition that is coming from new technology, especially the internet.

The more serious challenge is the complacency and condescension that festers at the heart of some newsrooms. The complacency stems from having enjoyed a monopoly and now finding they have to compete for an audience they once took for granted.

The condescension that many show their readers is an even bigger problem. It takes no special genius to point out that if you are contemptuous of your customers, you are going to have a hard time getting them to buy your product. Newspapers are no exception.

I became an editor and owner well before I had planned. It happened when my father died and I was called home from Oxford. That was how I found myself a newspaper proprietor at the age of 22.

I was so young and so new to the business, when I pulled my car into the lot on my firstday, the garage attendant admonished me, "Hey, sonny, you can't park here."

That paper was (Adelaide's) The News. Its newsroom was a noisy place. But it was noise with purpose. The chattering and pounding of typewriter keys reached a crescendo in the minutes before a deadline that was stretched beyond breaking point by gun reporters determined to get the latest, freshest version of a story.

That background music created an urgency all of its own. When the presses began to run, everyone in the building felt the rumble. And when the presses were late, the journalists felt me rumble.

READERS want news as much as they ever did. Today The Times of London is read by a diverse global audience of 26 million people each month. That is an audience larger than the entire population of Australia, an audience whose sheer size is beyond the comprehension and ambitions of its founders in 1785.

That single statistic tells you that there is a discerning audience for news. The operative word is discerning. To compete today, you can't offer the old one-size-fits-all approach to news.

The defining digital trend in content is the increasing sophistication of search. You can already customise your news flow, whether by country, company or subject.

A decade from now, the offerings will be even more sophisticated. You will be able to satisfy your unique interests and search for unique content.

After all, a female university student in Malaysia is not going to have the same interests as a 60-year-old Manhattan executive. Closer to home, your teenage son is not going to have the same interests as your mother. The challenge is to use a newspaper's brand while allowing readers to personalise the news for themselves, and then deliver it in the ways that they want.

This is what we are trying to do at The Wall Street Journal. The Journal has the advantage of having a very loyal readership -- a brand known for quality -- and editors who take the readers and their interests seriously. This helps explain why the Journal continues to defy industry trends.

Of the 10 largest papers in the US, the Journal is the only one to have grown its paid subscriptions last year.

At the same time, we intend to make our mark on the digital frontier. The Journal is already the only US newspaper that makes real money online.

One reason for this is a growing global demand for business news and for accurate news. Integrity is not just a characteristic of our company, it is a selling point.

One way we are planning to take advantage of online opportunities is by offering three tiers of content. The first will be the news that we put online free. The second will be available for those who subscribe to And the third will be a premium service, designed to give its customers the ability to customise high-end financial news and analysis from around the world.

In all we do, we're going to deliver it in ways that best fit our readers' preferences: on web pages they can access from home or work, on still-evolving inventions such as Amazon's Kindle (a wireless book reader), as well as on (mobile) phones or BlackBerrys.

I do not claim to have all the answers. Given the realities of modern technology, this very radio address can be sliced and digitally diced. It can be accessed in a day or a month or a decade. And I can rightly be held to account in perpetuity for the points on which I am proven wrong, as well as mocked for my inability to see just how much more different the world had become.

But I don't think I will be proven wrong on one point. The newspaper, or a very close electronic cousin, will always be around. It may not be thrown on your front doorstep the way it is today. But the thud it makes as it lands will continue to echo across society and the world.

Published in The Australian
Thanks to Adrian Monck for the link.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Timewise, I'm motivated to embus (and other frowned-upon words)

Every now and then newsrooms receive edicts banning overused phrases and ungainly words.

The use of access and impact as verbs springs to mind - something we were on constant guard against on the Business pages of the Daily Telegraph when I was there a few years ago.

Apparently, this is nothing new. The NZ Herald in its 1966 Manual of Journalism exhorted its writers thus:

"In recent years, without making them pass any sort of entrance examination, we seem to have admitted dozens of words which usually have little excuse for appearing in a newspaper. Some examples:

'Few air services operated yesterday because of fog.' Why not: 'Fog stopped most air services yesterday.'

'The Royal New Zealand Air Force will airlift food toIndia.' Why not: 'The Royal New Zealand Air Force will fly food to India.'

'The house is situated in Jones Street.' Why not: 'The house is in Jones Street.'

'The food position in India is desperate.' Why not: 'India is desperate for food.'

'The men were transported to Taihape Hospital.' Why not: 'The men were taken to hospital.'

Newspapers offer scores of such examples, and usually they reflect lack of thought or a limited vocabulary.

Some journalists go further. They, or the persons whom they report, invent new words without thought for the need, the look or the sound.

Examples are hospitalise, for admitted to hospital; embus or emplane, for board a bus or aircraft; a rental, for rental car; non-availability, for not available; motivation or motivated, for caused or driven or a similar word; upgrade, for improve; motorise, for by motor vehicle; weatherwise, hotelwise, publicity-wise, and goodness knows how many more wises. And goodness knows what they mean!
Back in 2008, here's the UK Daily Telegraph's current list of banned words, which include:

epitome of
fall pregnant
fighting for his life
frail grannies
green light
hit series
gunned down
hike (when we mean a rise)

Monday, November 10, 2008

Get a leg-up by linking out

As a user, I love websites that point me helpfully in the direction of more information on the topic I'm reading about - maps, documents, background articles, related blog posts/news stories, definitions, how-tos, Wikipedia articles on economic theories etc.

News sites are often reluctant, however, to point people away from their websites, preferring to link to previous stories on their own site or, at a pinch, an external government document.

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 has been having a blitz on the value he sees for news organisations in linking out. He's published a string of posts on the subject recently and is also tied up with Publish2.0, a tool for link journalism which lets you save links (related to your round, say), and share and publish those links. It looks interesting.

In the spirit of link journalism, then, here are a bunch from my recent reading...

The first of Scott's recent posts to catch my eye was this one:

There are two main reasons why news sites are reluctant to send readers away by linking to third-party content. First, you shouldn’t send people away or else they won’t come back to your site. Second, a page with links that sends people away has low engagement, which doesn’t serve advertisers well. But if you actually look at the data, both of these assumptions are completely wrong.

How Newspapers Abdicated the Front Page's Influence and How They Can Get it Back by Linking

The front page of the newspaper used to set the news agenda. Extra, Extra, read all about it! But that influence has steadily waned through the TV and Cable News era, and the web now threatens to obliterate it entirely. So who sets the news agenda now?
Link Journalism in Action: Vols Game Coverage Roundup Most Viewed and Commented on

Yeah, fine, so Drudge gets lots of traffic for links, but we’re not Drudge, so it won’t work for our news site, right? Wrong. Here’s a case example from’s sports site roundup of links to coverage and commentary on the Vols’ loss to Florida was the MOST VIEWED article today on

Why Every News Site Should Put a Continuously Updated News Aggregation on the Homepage

My post on Drudge beating all other news sites on engagement was an aha for many, which is interesting because the lesson of Drudge has been around for a decade. But the lessons of web publishing are all so utterly counterintuitive that I suppose they take a while to sink in.

Mainstream News Organizations Entering the Web's Link Economy Will Shift the Balance of Power and Wealth

The New York Times published an article this week about mainstream news organizations embracing link journalism and news aggregation. Gawker and others scoffed that they are late to the game, which they are, but that misses (predictably) the BIG story.

Guardian Launches Full RSS Feeds, First Media Company Not To Suppress RSS Adoption

And you can't go pass Jeff Jarvis for more insight into the link economy.

The link economy v. the content economy

Links can be exploited and monetized; get links and you can grab audience and show ads and make money. Content is becoming a cost burden, what you have to have to get the links, but in and of itself, content can’t draw value without an audience, without links.

The imperative of the link economy

1. All content must be transparent: open on the web with permanent links so it can receive links. It’s not content until it’s linked.

2. The recipient of links is the party responsible for monetizing the audience they bring. In the old content-economy model of syndication, the creator sells content to another and the one who syndicates has to come up with the ad or circulation revenue sufficient to pay for it. Now in the link economy, it’s reversed: When you get traffic, you need to figure out how to benefit from it. As Doc Searls said at the event: this is a shift from “making money with” to “making money because.”

3. Links are a key to efficiency. In other words: Do what you do best and link to the rest.

It's a link economy, stupid

In part two of his seminar to the Guardian, as part of the Future of Journalism series, Jeff Jarvis argues that links are worth more than content. (Guardian video)

Friday, November 7, 2008

Are you a good news ant?

From Everything is Miscellaneous:

The ecology of news works like this: Someone posts a bit of news on some site. That snippet may well come from a mainstream source, or it may not. But like a greasy crumb dropped on the sidewalk, it’s instantly swarmed by ants. The ants — that’s you and me, sister — point at it, link to it, explain it, deny it, make fun of it, connect it with something else, and send it or what we’ve made of it around the world. The morsel is gone, digested, appropriate. The ants are the media.

The mainstream are only noticed if they’re doing as good a job at being a news ant as the rest of us.

Monday, November 3, 2008

The Country Calendar guide to storytelling

A week or so ago Frank Torley, the executive producer of Country Calendar, came to Hamilton to speak at Wintec's Media Bites function.

Here's what he had to say on why the programme's so successful and how the team go about telling stories:

"I don't know... I'd like to believe that the New Zealand public recognises quality.

"The beginning of that process is research. If anybody says 'Why is Country Calendar successful?' -- research, research, research. Keep doing it, find the story. What is the story, what are the people like, what else can we do?

"Having diagnosed, if you like, this is a good story, then we are the spoilt brats I suppose in so far as they do give us the budget to enable us to put the time and effort into making the programme.

"From the time of 'here's a story idea' to 'let's go and shoot it', may take a period of two or three weeks while we really look at it and make sure it all works.

"We then don't leave it to chance, we do have it mapped out. We write up those research notes so the producer can get a decent handle on the story and not just airy fairy 'oh, yeah, I reckon it'll work'. It's got to work, and it's got to be seen to work.

"And then comes a treatment so that you've got an outline. Planning, if you like. PPPPP as our production manager calls it. Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

"And then we are given the opportunity to spend the time and ...we get the wonderful co-operation of getting top cameramen and sound recordists."

I'll try to pull out more from his talk a little later. It was really good.

Saturday, November 1, 2008

Figuring out the building blocks of news communities

The prospect of (some) journalists becoming community managers over time continues to appeal to and intrigue me.

By that I mean journalists opening up the news gathering, reporting and analysis process to readers, allowing communities to develop around areas of interest - enabling people with expertise and views to contribute material for news stories on, say, how health is administered in the Waikato, or pest management in the Waitakere ranges. The journalist becomes a community manager as well as news gatherer and news writer.

Building communities, however, doesn't necessarily come easy. There are plenty of examples of companies that have started intranets which failed to inspire users; wikis introduced into classrooms that never got used. iYomu, a New Zealand based social network, failed to gain traction despite considerable resources. This StartUp article looks at iYomu's demise and at what makes another local example, Geekzone, successful.

So what of news communities? I like keeping an eye on the beat bloggers, a group of US journalists experimenting with using blogs and other social web2.0 tools to develop their beats, to see what they're learning along the way.

And I've just read a useful passage in Clay Shirky's Here Comes Everybody. In a chapter looking at wikis, and particularly at why Wikipedia works as well as it does, he says that people have to care about the content to want to edit it.

Wikis provide ways for groups to work together, and to defend the output of that work [against vandals], but these capabilities are available only when most of the participants are committed to those outcomes. When they are not, creating a wiki can be an exercise in futility, if not an outright disaster.

One notable example was the Los Angeles Times 'Wikitorial' effot, in which the content of the paper's editorial pages was made available to the public. The Times announced the experiment in a bid to drive users there, and drive them they did.

A group of passionate and committed users quickly arrived and set about destroying the experiment, vandalising the posted editorials with off-topic content and porn. The Wikitorial had been up for less than forty-eight hours when a Times staffer was told to simply pull the plug.

The problem the Times suffered from was simple: no one cared enough about the contents of the Wikitorial to defend it, much less improve it.

An editorial is meant to be a timely utterance of a single opinionated voice - the opposite of the characteristics that make for good wiki content.

A wiki augments community rather than replacing it; a wiki will suffer form the Tragedy of the Commons, as the Wikitorial did, as individuals use it as an attention-getting platform, and there is no community to defend it.
There's a community development workshop running at Webstock in Wellington next February which I've signed up for - not because I'm managing a community or am likely to in the immediate future, but because it's hard to see how I can go on being involved in news and journalism education without understanding more about how successful communities work. I'm looking forward to it.