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.
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.
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.
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 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 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.
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.
It’s just over a decade since Jawed Karim stood in front of some elephants at a zoo in San Diego and mumbled into his friend’s camera for 18 seconds. It was the first video uploaded to YouTube, which Karim co-founded along with two other former employees of PayPal. A year and a half later, it had already grown to become the fifth largest website on the internet, and was sold to Google for $1.65bn – a fortune at the time, but cheap at the price considering its continued impact on the media landscape.
This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies took in the story of YouTube’s rise and rise (there still hasn’t been a fall), by way of its various battles with the old big media companies, angry at how their content was being shared and shared again. YouTube, with Google’s help, was ultimately able to resist years of legal pressure and avoid going the same way as Napster. The final irony is that YouTube has become much more like broadcast television – a home for professionally made content rather than the ‘broadcast yourself’ homemade videos on which it made its reputation – while any TV station you care to name has a platform which somewhat resembles YouTube, not least the BBC’s iPlayer.
For a theoretical approach, I turned to Spreadable Media, a 2013 book by the father of participatory cultures, Henry Jenkins, along with Sam Ford and Joshua Green. Explaining the way certain videos spread on YouTube, they draw a contrast with sticky content, a term popularised by Malcolm Gladwell in his memorable book The Tipping Point. Jenkins and the others say that no matter how good – sticky – a piece of content is, these days it still needs people to share, recommend and remix it to their networks, so it can reach a large audience.
The practical sessions involved getting students to actually make quick and easy YouTube videos, using the platform’s basic in-built editor and some of the copyright-free footage and music available on there. Despite being big consumers of YouTube, only relatively few students in the groups had ever uploaded anything themselves before. At least now they know where all that tinkly music so beloved of vloggers comes from!
“How many of you in the room have a Flickr account?” asked my colleague Caroline during her lecture on photo sharing in Journalism Technologies this week. Not a hand went up, other than ours. An indication of how selfies, filters and apps have taken over this space, since the days a decade ago when putting pictures on the internet meant looking at those familiar blue-and-pink dots.
The stories of Flickr, Tumblr and Instagram took up much of Caroline’s lecture. The key concept she introduced was that of mass amateurisation, memorably applied to the social web by Clay Shirky. Because reading lists don’t always have to feature readings, we made his 2005 TED talk on the subject required viewing this week. The workshop featured a bit on how to take your own smartphone photos and embed them, before some guidance on searching Google Images and, yes, Flickr, for Creative Commons images.
Getting journalism students to keep their heads up and look out for interesting things in the world around them is a perennial challenge. When you’re a journalist, all sorts of things can seem like potential stories – from the planning sign pinned to a lamppost, to all those posters on the community noticeboard. The next homework task is to get them to take just such a picture while walking around Huddersfield, do a bit more research into the story, then write it along with the embedded image in their blogs. I’m looking forward to seeing what they all find.
Back then, I used to say then that while Twitter probably wasn’t going to remain the key journalistic tool it had become, it was something students had to learn to be successful in 2011. And I can still say the same now. Despite Twitter’s many boardroom battles and other business woes in the years since, it’s still an essential part of a media professional’s daily life.
That corporate strife was a theme of much of the lecture I gave on Monday. The origin stories of these major tech companies can be instructive about the sort of operations they have become: Apple at the intersection of technology and art like Steve Jobs, and Google where engineers like Larry and Sergey are king. For Twitter, it’s a confused mess, with a group of bickering rivals who stumbled on a remarkable communications tool with a user base which developed most of its key strengths (from the @ reply to retweets) while its creators fumbled through trying to turn it into a business.
The Public Sphere was the week’s key theory, important not just because it’s a concept which helps explain Twitter’s centrality to modern public life, but also as the students had already looked at Habermas in another module in week two, and this was a timely refresher for them. But alongside a discussion on that, the workshop featured some quick practical tasks as we ran through more advanced Twitter features including Advanced Search, Lists and Followerwonk, as well as embedding tweets and making your own personal profile look a bit more professional.
Jim Crowley and Freddie Tylicki being attended to. Steve Drowne and Ted Durkan walked into the weighing room.
One of Monday afternoon’s classes with a group of Sports Journalism students coincided with the horrific pile-up involving four horses and jockeys at Kempton. Quickly, I was able to show the students how to use the location filter on Advanced Search to track down a journalist tweeting from the course. It’s yet another new important skill, in a career more full of them than ever before.
Meanwhile, it’s congratulations to Journalism first year Maria Ward-Brennan, who won a £10 app store voucher in a little competition I ran during Monday’s lecture. I challenged the students to find a creative way to use Twitter while I was talking, and to post their entries on #journotech. Maria won for this, which was annoyingly accurate.