Journalism Technologies: 16. How Journalism Is Being Saved (The Ending Will Shock You!)

After a couple of weeks spent examining legacy media companies and how they are adapting to digital journalism, this week’s focus in Journalism Technologies turned to the pure players in the scene: ranging from the long-established such as Yahoo and MSN, to the newer (and certainly more interesting for my audience) entrants such as BuzzFeed and The LAD Bible.

The latter is a particularly intriguing case study: not least because, in contrast to the US-dominated world of tech and media, it’s a company which emerged not just from the UK, but from the north of England. It’s also fascinating because of its popularity – it has almost as many weekly UK users as The Sun and ITV News websites, according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital Report – and the way it has pivoted in an attempt to shake off its reputation for, well, laddishness. Its hugely popular Facebook page, and accompanying website, have been virtually purged of the overtly sexist and misogynist content which were once its trademark.

The LAD Bible today. No cleavage anymore.

For fans of the genre, I must report that “Cleavage Thursday” is a thing of the past. Instead, clicking on even an old link to that ‘feature’ instead takes you straight to the very smart homepage, today being led with a story about Iraq. There’s still plenty of ladbantz going down on FB, but it’s clear The LAD Bible wants to be taken seriously now, and the display ads for well-known high street names suggest the strategy is making progress.

I turned to Mark Deuze and his notion of ‘liquid journalism’ for this week’s theoretical viewpoint. First coined a decade ago, Deuze used the term to describe the way in which journalists and media companies needed to change their ways of working, from the traditional methods to those better suited to the more fluid nature of modern society. Arguably, formats such as BuzzFeed’s listicles are an example of exactly this, which legacy publishers have sometimes struggled to match. In this week’s workshops the students have been working in groups to come up with competing lists using BuzzFeed’s Community feature, an exercise I’ve run successfully for many years with visiting school groups. I’ll see which  has got the most views in time for next week’s lecture.

Journalism Technologies: 15. Trinity Mirror

Ed Walker and Lauren Ballinger giving this week’s lecture.

We had two guests with us this week for the latest lecture in Journalism Technologies at the University of Huddersfield: Ed Walker and Lauren Ballinger of Trinity Mirror. Following on from last week’s session on the changing nature of business models, in particular for legacy publishers, I thought it was a good idea to invite two of the journalists leading the way in developing the way TM does things in its many local newsrooms.

Ed is the head of Digital Publishing at Trinity Mirror Regionals, while Lauren has been Executive Editor of the Huddersfield Examiner since last year. They both gave excellent talks illustrating some of the things they’ve been working on recently: Lauren took students through the Examiner’s online coverage of last month’s M62 police shooting, which featured a five-day liveblog and a huge increase in online traffic for January. Ed stressed the importance of the range of skills needed for the modern media professional. In particular, he highlighted the focus Trinity Mirror is now putting on video: a new recruitment round taking the number of dedicated video staff in TM’s local newsrooms from three just over a year ago, to 60 in the near future.

In many cases they were repeating lessons I’ve been trying to get across to the students already, in particular about professional use of smartphones and social platforms: but I’ve got no doubt they had much more weight coming from Ed and Lauren! So thanks again to them both for coming in on a Monday morning and giving such interesting insights.

Using Balsamiq In The Classroom

One of my final year students using Balsamiq.

One of the tools which I learned about during my recent visit to Arizona for the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute, was Balsamiq. It’s an online tool which allows you to create a mock-up – a wireframe – of what your planned website or app would look like. We used it when putting together our pitches, so we could give a flavour of what we were proposing without having to go through the actual process of knocking up even a basic version for real.

I found it easy to use, and so I’ve already incorporated it into my new final year module, Journalism Innovation. Students are working on their second and last assessment of the academic year, which is to work in groups to create a business plan for a proposed media start-up company. They’ve got formative pitches to do next month, and so I decided to use some class time both last week and this week, to get them doing a few Balsamiq wireframes, so they could include a couple in their pitch decks.

And it’s worked well. The software is easy to use and the students really took to it. Although it would be easy enough to get them to start websites for their projects (and many will anyway), it would be time-consuming, and also pointless if they’d rather do an app (which neither I nor they have the skills to create) or have an idea that lives on social platforms only. An added bonus: for the 30-day trial at least, it’s free. And for this sort of student project, the basic 30-day version is more than enough.

I’ve also made up a helpsheet, which can be downloaded here for anyone to use.

Journalism Technologies: 14. This year’s model

Having looked last week at how journalism was traditionally funded and how those models have been eroded (or, if you prefer, blown apart) by recent developments, this week’s Journalism Technologies lecture took the story on to the present day with an examination of what media companies have been doing to try to make money.

One thing that struck me about the material when delivering it, was actually how slowly some of the themes have moved in recent years. The Daily Mail and The Guardian are still pursuing a strategy of going for huge global audiences and trying to monetise those eyeballs, and while the former is still just about making a bit of money off the back of its sister Mail Online, the latter is, yet again, facing some kind of impending cliff-edge cash crisis. The Times’ paywall is holding firm and the paper just about makes a profit, while the Financial Times and The Economist continue to enjoy more success from their focus on the sort of quality that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.

I remember mentioning most or all of this stuff to students when I first did some university teaching five or six years ago, and it feels as though we’re still waiting to see how it’ll all be resolved. If there was ever going to be a silver bullet to solve traditional journalism’s funding crisis, the fact it still hasn’t been fired rather suggests it never will be. This great list of 52 potential money-making ideas for local journalism by Josh Stearns offers as good a roadmap as any to the variety of ways in which digital publishers will have to raise revenue now and in the future. I’m slightly more confident than I was before that when it comes to hard cash, quality journalism might end up offering better prospects than the alternatives.

My Week At The Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute 2017

It’s me.

So, I spent the first week of 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, as a fellow of the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute. There were 15 of us taking part, with 12 lecturers drawn from around the US, one each from the UAE and Mexico, with me rounding out the group. We’re all either in the early stages of, or about to start, teaching a class in journalism and entrepreneurship, and the week was all about making connections, sharing best practice, and learning from thinkers and trendsetters in both education and journalism.

Prof Jeff Jarvis appeared via Skype.

The event was overseen by Prof Dan Gillmor, and he invited a range of excellent speakers to participate in person or via Skype. There was a particular focus on the role of verticals – that is, digital media companies focusing on a niche, rather than attempting to match the broad scope of the legacy organisations and some of the better-known pure players such as BuzzFeed.

The great man’s famous sign-off.

Steven Levy, veteran Silicon Valley journalist and now Editor of Backchannel, delivered a keynote address with the hopeful conclusion that high-quality reporting could just be the very thing that eventually sustains business models for more publishers. From a UK perspective, The Economist, the Financial Times and, to an extent, The Times have all demonstrated the possibility of this. But on the other hand, The Sun’s paywall was a failure. The Blendle model which has worked so well in Holland, has in its favour the fact that there is little global competition for Dutch language content.

Which arguably brings us back to verticals. One of the week’s most interesting sessions was courtesy of Rafat Ali, the one time founder of Paid Content, and now the person behind travel site Skift. For shame, I’d not heard of it, but it already employs more than 30 people, with a mixed revenue model consisting of paid-for insight reports and conferences, alongside a focus on more traditional forms of distribution including e-mail newsletters. Doing things that others can’t or won’t do, and to a level that customers are prepared to pay for, was a key theme of this and other talks.

The Cronkite School, early on a mild winter morning.

The week finished with all of us having the chance to pitch our own ideas to Dan. One of the most useful aspects of that process was being introduced to Balsamiq, a tool which allows you to create wireframe mock-ups of apps and websites. I’ve already incorporated it into my teaching on the Journalism Innovation class here at Huddersfield, and students have found it a very helpful bit of software. The connections I made with all of the other fellows are due to continue over the next few weeks too, with a series of webinars hosted by Michelle Ferrier of Ohio University, so the benefits of the Institute didn’t stop when I left Phoenix.

All that’s left is for me to record my thanks to all of the fellows, the Scripps Howard Foundation for picking up the tab, the University of Huddersfield for my flights to the US, as well as Dan and Joanna Sanchez-Alvillar at the Cronkite School for all their hard work organising the week.

Journalism Technologies: 13. Disruption!

Christmas has long since faded into the background and we’re well into the second term of the academic year at the University of Huddersfield. The Journalism Technologies module resumed on Monday with a change of focus. The first term was all about looking at different social tools and online platforms each week in both the lectures and workshops, whereas the classes now look much more closely at the response of the journalism world to those significant technological changes.

I’ve found in the past that students have only a sketchy idea of how the career they want to pursue is actually funded, so the opening lecture of the term was all about traditional business models in journalism, and how those have been disrupted. Looking back at the development of commercial media companies in the UK, I couldn’t resist including this classic ITV Yorkshire Calendar report on the opening day of Radio Aire in 1981, fronted by none other than Richard Madeley, and featuring an interview with news editor Mike Best (later of Calendar himself, now a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University).

The sheer concept of a ten minute news bulletin at 7am and 8am on a local commercial radio station is quite something. These days only Today on Radio 4 manages that.

In the middle part of the lecture I got into the decline in classified advertising, and lamented the failure of newspapers to capture very much of the market for digital classifieds. Rightmove, established in 2000 as a partnership between four leading property agents, successfully cornered the market in property, and now has a market capitalisation of (wait for it) £3.8 billion. Trinity Mirror, the UK’s largest newspaper publisher, is on £280 million. Here’s what you could have won, as Jim Bowen used to say.

The session finished by introducing a classic business theory, the Innovator’s Dilemma, first coined by Clayton Christensen. Applying it to some well-known examples from technology, I highlighted the failure of Xerox to capitalise on the incredibly innovative computers it developed in the early 1970s but never released, and then the fall from grace of Kodak. Posing the question, have newspaper companies suffered from the innovator’s dilemma, I left the students to do a bit of reading in time for next week. The spoiler alert is, of course, that they pretty much have.

The Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute 2017

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. (picture: Cygnusloop99/Wikipedia)

The Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at ASU. (picture: Cygnusloop99/Wikipedia)

I’ve been chosen to take part in next week’s Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute, at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School in Phoenix. Hooray!

All the details are here. There are 12 lecturers from around the US, plus representatives from Mexico and the UAE, and me.

Part of the deal is that attendees are obliged to either be about to begin, or to have just started, a course in journalism entrepreneurship. I started my final year Journalism Innovation module in September, and with 52 students it’s taken up a lot of my time so far this academic year. But it’s been great fun, and I’m hoping next week’s sessions will really help me along the way with it. I’m actually holding two hackdays with the students not long after I’m back, so it’s pretty timely.

Journalism Technologies: 12. The Everything Store

The first term of our Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield draws to a close this week as students submit their learning logs, written on either WordPress, Blogger or Medium, reflecting on what they’ve looked at so far in the lectures and practical workshops. The last lecture of the series was on Monday and was about a company a little different from the others in that it has traditionally been all about retail: Amazon.

However, it’s more than just The Everything Store these days. Amazon dominates cloud computing through Amazon Web Services with a third of the market (Microsoft is next, languishing at 9%), and the beginning of The Grand Tour – enjoyed by many of my students taking advantage of a free six-month Amazon Prime trial for those in education – is in biggest move yet into content creation. There’ll be more to come, too. Amazon is now firmly one of the ‘big four’ media and technology companies, alongside Google, Apple and Facebook.

The theory attached to this lecture was Chris Anderson’s The Long Tail, first outlined in this memorable piece in Wired magazine in 2004. Part of the theory states that hits are becoming smaller as it becomes easier for consumers to find niche products more to their taste. Re-reading the book before the lecture, his section about hits notes that *NSYNC’s record for the fastest selling album in US history, set at the music industry’s peak in 2000, was unlikely to ever be beaten. Well, eventually it was, by Adele in 2015. I suppose you could even say she said Hello to the record, forcing *NSYNC to bid it Bye Bye Bye. But perhaps you’d better not.

Journalism Technologies: 11. brb

Journalism Technologies moved on this week to direct messaging, encompassing everything from texting to an area of much less familiarity to men in their 30s like me: Snapchat. In the lecture, I noted some notable similarities and differences between the developments of these particular technologies, compared with those looked at in previous weeks. As is so often the case, universities were involved: whether M.I.T. as with the Compatible Time Sharing System back in the 1960s, or Stanford (alma mater of Google and, at a push, Apple) through Evan Spiegel’s Snapchat.

One interesting difference comes with texting. Never a big deal in America, this was initially conceived by a Finnish engineer, while the first SMS was sent between two British engineers in 1992. The Finns helped popularise it though, thanks to all those almost-indestructible Nokia handsets which were everywhere from 1999 onwards, when users began to be able to text friends on different networks. Even though Twitter was initially designed as a form of public text messaging, some in the office hadn’t even heard of texting when the idea was first mooted there in the mid-2000s.

Even now, the world’s biggest messaging platform, WhatsApp, is not an especially significant player in the US. Only 7% of American internet users have the app, while that figure is a third in Europe and significantly higher in Africa and the Middle East. That last point, its penetration in areas which in many cases missed out on the desktop computer revolution almost completely, helps explain why Facebook paid such big money for it back in 2014.

This week’s theory was UGT: Uses and Gratifications Theory. It’s a body of scholarship which examines why we use particular forms of media, and what we get out of it when we do. A classic example is a 1949 study of newspaper readers, deprived of their daily read by a strike, who told interviewers that it was the ritual of reading the paper they missed, rather than the actual content of the articles. An interesting 2016 study by Vaterlaus et al applied UGT to Snapchat, asking students at an American university why they liked it so much. Something well worth presenting to my own first year students, I thought, especially as many acknowledged in the workshops that it was at least rivalling, if not surpassing, Facebook and Twitter as their social platform of choice.

Journalism Technologies: 10. Audio

We’ve been looking at audio and podcasting in Journalism Technologies this week. My colleague Caroline Pringle delivered Monday’s lecture, which explored the origins of platforms including Soundcloud and Audioboom, as well as how podcasts including Serial and Radiolab have led to a renewed interest in longform documentary-style journalism.

The workshops involved getting students to record and upload a basic piece of audio to Audioboom using their phones, but also listening to a podcast. This was something that a small group of students had never done before. By contrast, some were keen podcast listeners (my three groups of Sports Journalism students had a lot of love for Joe Rogan’s UFC podcast), but most had only dabbled occasionally in podcasting. Often it was simply that they didn’t know where to start, and needed a recommendation or two.

I aimed to provide that by picking out a podcast for each course group for them all to listen to and review on their blogs. The Sports Journalism students got a recent one from FiveThirtyEight, for Music Journalism it was a vintage episode of This American Life, Broadcast Journalism students are listening to one of Malcolm Gladwell’s recent Revisionist History episodes, with Journalism students getting the classic opening episode of Serial series 1. I’m looking forward to reading what they all think.