Tag Archives: media

Three cheers for Rab McNeil

Robert McNeilWell played, Sir Robert of McNeil, who has apparently seen off a wealthy person who was offended at his comment that “the rich are leaving and good ruddy riddance to them”.

Carol Høgel – who hails from a place called Chicago in one of the former colonies – also referred to The Scotsman columnist as a “destructively spiteful philistine“. This is a plainly untrue as Rab is a devotee of the poet-warriors in green and white who grace this Earth under the name Hibernian Football Club. He thus demonstrates delicate artistic sensibilities that make Ovid look like Stephen Frail.

At the risk of being “spiteful”, I note that Ms Høgel is an heiress. Perhaps if she had had to make her money herself she wouldn’t have so thin a skin. In the hope that Rab can keep this up, I have sent him a list of people that I think Scotland would be better off without. Sadly, he has not replied to my pleas.

More seriously, Rab is one of the very, very few writers in Scotland who is provocative. I’m sure that rich people prefer paeons of praise – such as they might hear from desperate fundraisers after some dough – but that is not what real journalism is about. Too much of what fills our papers is tepid, timid, predictable and corporately approved.

Thank God for the Rabs of this world who remind us that proper journalism jars, surprises and – yes – offends. Let’s hope the Carol Høgels of this world see the art in that.

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Bad news for papers: the public sector wins

For eight years I plied my trade as an online journalist. My mission, should I have no choice but to accept it, was to attract readers to pages where adverts were served. For every 1,000 page impression a piece of content received we could expect something like £10 (plus any sponsorship for the relevant section).

That’s a lot of work to get a lot of traffic for not much cash. That’s a key problem for commercial publishers online. Another key problem is the way that online has moved in the past two years or so.

Thanks to the phenomenon known as Web 2.0, the focus has shifted to individual items of content not to where they are displayed. Blogs, RSS feeds, widgets, wikis, social network and umpteen other phenomena take content out of its context and share, manipulate and distribute it in more ways than seem possible. If the content is interesting enough, that is.

This presents a bijout problemette for commercial content producers. While it’s great to have lots of people reading their stories or watching their videos it’s hard to generate revenue unless you can drag those users under an advertising banner or beside a sponsor’s logo. This mission is not impossible but it is damn hard.

But this is all great news if your aim is not to make money from attracting people but simply getting a message to them. And this is where the public sector wins big, especially when it comes to delivering public service messages.

Online is now about distribution and content. If you can embed your message in interesting content then the natural flow of the web will take it to the people for you.

(Also posted on w00tonomy.com.)

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Web 3.0: the future is now, says Tim Berners-Lee

For those of you who are still struggling with what this Web 2.0 thing is, I’ve some bad news (though really it’s great news): Web 3.0 is just around the corner, according to the man who invented these tangled Webs.

Tim Berners-Lee says in an interview with Paul Miller that the Semantic Web – a crucial part of the Web 3.0 vision – is open for business.

“Wow,” I hear you say. “Web 3.0. The Semantic Web. Great … Err, what the **** does that actually mean?”

Well, the sainted Sir TBL puts it this way:

Web 2.0 is a stovepipe system. It’s a set of stovepipes where each site has got its data and it’s not sharing it. What people are sometimes calling a Web 3.0 vision [is] where you’ve got lots of different data out there on the Web and you’ve got lots of different applications, but they’re independent. A given application can use different data. An application can run on a desktop or in my browser, it’s my agent. It can access all the data, which I can use and everything’s much more seamless and much more powerful because you get this integration. The same application has access to data from all over the place.

Now in my view all data is content. What we are looking at is a future where you will be able to access all data (or content) from any device or any application anywhere. But that does not mean that the Facebook Vampires application will stalk you to the toilet or “private personal enhancement medication” emails will start tumbling out of your iPod. One of the key characteristics of what’s known as Web 2.0 has been the organising of data (content) to enhance relevance. As technology allows the universal sharing of data this trend towards completely targeted relevance will become even more pronounced.

It’s good to know that TBL believes William Gibson’s oft-quoted dictum: “The future is already here, it’s just unevenly distributed.”

(Also posted on w00tonomy.com.) 

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From journalist to content marketeer

I am very proud to be a journalist and, coincidentally, have long admired the late great Bill Hicks. I especially enjoyed his assessment of those trod “the other side” of the media line:

By the way, if anyone here is in advertising or marketing, kill yourself. Thank you, thank you. Just a little thought. I’m just trying to plant seeds. Maybe one day they’ll take root. I don’t know. You try. You do what you can. Kill yourselves. Seriously though, if you are, do. No really, there’s no rationalisation for what you do, and you are Satan’s little helpers, OK? Kill yourselves, seriously. You’re the ruiner of all things good. Seriously, no, this is not a joke. “There’s gonna be a joke coming…” There’s no fucking joke coming, you are Satan’s spawn, filling the world with bile and garbage, you are fucked and you are fucking us, kill yourselves, it’s the only way to save your fucking soul. Kill yourself, kill yourself, kill yourself now. Now, back to the show.

So part of me is bewildered to find that I have set up a “content marketing” agency called w00tonomy. Yup, I now work in marketing, though I still consider myself a journalist. A journalist who is hibernating until the current great winnowing is past and the good times come back.

In the meantime, sorry Bill.

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A belated ‘Merry Christmas’ to all our readers

This festive yuletide season, I kept a pledge that I made to myself a long time ago, when I  used to work in newspapers.

I did not buy a paper on Christmas Day. I did not buy a paper on Boxing Day.  I did not buy a paper on Ne’er Day. I did not buy a paper on 2 January.

I did not buy a paper on these days because I remember how bloody miserable it is to work in a newsroom over the festive season. I clearly remember the lonely misery of having to work Christmas Eve, Christmas Day and Hogmanay when every normal person is having fun and relaxing. The misery was made pointless by the knowledge that sales on the festive days are pitifully small.

And I remember harbouring a seething hatred for those selfish morons who created the demand by deciding that what they really, really wanted on Boxing Day morning was to buy a very, very thing newspaper filled with wire copy and half-assed tales scrimped and saved by the newsdesk since October.

Ho ho ho.

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SMG’s new new media boss

“Mad pr0pz” (as the young people say) to my old scotsman.com partner in comedy, Alistair Brown, who has been appointed head of new media at SMG, a job not without challenge.

Despite supporting Kilmarnock, Broon has a fine mind and can sniff out an online business opportunity at 400 paces. He’s also a tough negotiator. Well I remember the stream of would-be suppliers who would ply their wares to scotsman.com when he was head of operations/general manager. After 30 minutes of sales pitch, Broon would say: “I really like your product but I want you to give it to us for nothing.”

A suprisingly large number agreed.

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Steve Outing’s lessons on user-generated content: ‘the overall experience was weak’

I have long had reservations about the hype surrounding user generated content. Let’s be very clear here that I’m talking about the hype surrounding UGC here. Along with the flight to “hyperlocal” it has been touted as the salvation of journalism (in conjunction with “hey, let’s do video”). It’s not.

My reservations do not spring from my not trusting my user but from my experience of achieving success by following the user. And in my bust-to-boom experience of online journalism I’ve not seen much in the traffic figures that suggests that the users are interested in pure user generated content in the journalistic context.

Some important caveats: Of course, there’s a huge appetite for pure UGC elsewhere on the web (yes, I’m aware of YouTube) and UGC can be a potent ingredient in the news-gathering process (yes, I’m aware of the footage of the London Tube bombings: nothing beats video from somebody at the scene of a major news event). And UGC in terms of carrying on a conversation about the news on a news site is a wonderful thing.

UGC is most definitely a vital part of the answer. But it has been for centuries. What newspaper has not relied on readers calling/writing in with tip offs? Without journalistic input UGC is not the answer for news sites. And I’ve always been suspicious of ventures that claimed it was.

This last belief has not always made me popular. At the ONA conference in New York a couple of years ago, I mischeviously asked a panel of worthies if they would like to be operated on by a citizen brain surgeon. There were gales of laughter from the audience and I got umpteen beers bought for me (score!). But I got an online slap in the wrist from none other than Sir Jeff of Jarvis. And the representative from pure cit-j play Backfence dismissed me as patronising.

I note with interest that Backfence is now in the toilet. And in some ways that is not surprising. At that ONA session, Susan DeFife (FaeFife?) kept banging on about a wonderful financial investigation that proved their whole concept. Everyone nodded sagely at this great breakthrough in Cit-J – apart from one very experienced US journalist who sought me out afterwards to point out that he had looked at this article and it was “totally unreadable”.

Backfence died because the content was not strong enough. And the secret truth of strong content is here: the skills required to uncover and identify important or relevant information and present it in a way that is coherent, ordered, interesting and grammatical are restricted to a tiny proportion of the general population – and not enough journalists.

News sites live or die by the quality of their content. By and large, with some honourable exceptions (such as OhMyNews), such quality content comes from (some) professional journalists and (some) bloggers who are so good they are effectively professional journalists. (EDIT: Actually, as Neil McIntosh points out below, OhMyNews employs dozens of professionals.)

But don’t just take my word for it. The widely-respected US journalist Steve Outing believed so passionately in Cit-J that he put money where his mouth was and set up a business based on it.

It failed. In a brave and honest piece in Editor & Publisher, he explains why. Here’s what he has to say about UGC:

In hindsight, I think we tried to rely too heavily on user submitted content. Even though a lot of it was really great, the overall experience was weak when compared to, say, reading a climbing or a mountain biking magazine filled with quality professional content throughout.

We believed that having a core level of professional content –- from our site editors -– would be enough to attract a loyal following even if the user-submitted content wasn’t enough on its own. But I think we didn’t have nearly enough of that. If I had any money left to throw at the business, I’d hire more well-known athletes and adventurers, so that the core was a larger pool of professional content — and I’d mix that in with the best user content.

I’m not saying that user-submitted content isn’t worthwhile, let me be clear about that. I am saying that I think you can’t rely too much on it. And you need to filter out and highlight the best user content, while downplaying the visibility of the mediocre stuff.

It’s all about the quality of the content. It’s all about giving the users what they want. And here’s the rub: your economic circumstances do not affect the users’ demands. If all you can afford to publish is purely amateur reporting (or for that matter low-quality video produced by professional text journalists) it does not necessarily mean that there is any demand for that.

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