Hey everyone, I’m changing my blog to the following URL: www.stewart-kirkpatrick.com/souralba. Sadly, wordpress.com won’t do a proper redirect so can I ask you to change your bookmarks. All the posts are the same at the new site and this one will remain but new posts will only appear at www.stewart-kirkpatrick.com/souralba.
Tag Archives: newspapers
Hurrah for the vicious, unforgiving, hilarious power of the vox populi!
I was sent a link to this Guardian Unlimited blog by a 19-year-old called Max who’s off on a trustafarianesque jaunt to India and Thailand. I won’t pass comment on the quality of the lad’s writing because the poor boy has been given a highly entertaining kicking by GU readers. Here’s just some of the very very negative responses.
Reallynay: Nil interest. Full stop.
teganjovanka: Bring back national service.
DaveWinters: Instead of setting off on yet another inane, identikit trip around Asia before you take up your place at Oxbridge (or wherever), why don’t you leave your family’s Highgate mansion FOR GOOD, cut yourself off from your father’s allowance, move into a council estate in Salford, STAY THERE, and then consider writing a blog about your experiences. Why does our society only grant a voice to those with nothing to say?
Calleprofunda: This has to be by far the least interesting thing I’ve ever stumbled across on this website. I mean, really? I’m sure Max is ‘an-alright-kinda-guy’ and he will have fun on his holiday (yes ‘holiday’, it’s funny how by labelling it ‘travelling’, people somehow attach some sort of profundity to their couple of months lounging and partying in the sun). He’ll make a few new friends, see some beautiful sights/ landscapes, take some fun drugs etc etc…exhilirating stuff. Seriously, is this guy’s holiday really worthy of a blog advertised on the main page of the website? Have you nothing better to put on your website. Shame on you guardian.co.uk
Realsocialdad: who, in God’s name, thought this would be a good idea?
Lameplanet: He looks like a cliche, talks like a cliche, and is about to embark on a monumental cliche.
IvorMarlow: I noticed a problem with the site: under every post there’s this: “Offensive? Unsuitable?” Then a report button. Except on the top one. You know, Max’s post.
Benulek: Oh Christ, this guy’s going to get an absolute hammering. [Guardian Unlimited] commissioning editors, you are cruel, cruel beasts. I almost feel sympathetic. Almost. Don’t forget, poverty is sad, but kinda authentic and like ennobling, mmmhmmm. Why does nobody go looking for themselves in Belarus?
Luwinta: Please take it down. It’s not fair.
Things really start to hot up when people notice that the 19-year-old wannabe wordsmith, one Max Gogarty, shares a surname with a journalist who had written for the Guardian on travel.
Cevicheater: …and who on the Guardian is he related to?
Madame: Well, given that Paul Gogarty is a travel writer for the Guardian, I guess that answers the question about who he’s related to …Aikers: It seems there is a Paul Gogarty who already writes for the Guardian Travel section. Coincidence? I think not.I like the Guardian usually, but sometimes, they don’t half get it wrong. Moneyed youngster goes travelling to the usual places to get drunk and meet girls? Well, bugger me, a stroke of genius.MacDonald: This is excellent stuff. Normally the Guardian, along with our other fine press establishments, manage to hide from their readers the fact that journalism is one of the most neoptistic industries in the country. The ‘work experience’ to children and friends’ children; the unpaid work you have to do to get in – – but now, true to its politics, the Guardie has blown the lid on all of that. Hats off to them, that’s what I say. May this be the start of great transparency – I suggest a weekly list of whose kids are benefitting from the paper’s largesse at that moment.
Somewhat unsportingly, one reader compared a quote from Max’s post to an article his father had written about taking him to Thailand half a decade ago:
Sonofagun: “every one I’ve spoken to is making no secret of the fact that Thailand should be pretty damn decadent.” Max, you were only in Thailand five years ago when your father wrote an article about your trip for this very newspaper. Cast your mind back to that holiday. That’s what Thailand will be like. The link is here, in case you’ve forgotten: http://www.guardian.co.uk/travel/2002/apr/06/bangkok.thailand.familyholidays
But fair play to the Graun, they’ve left a large number of the posts up there. And there’s even this post:
Hello everyone, I’m the editor of the site. Thanks for all your comments. Just to clear up a couple of points. Yes, well spotted, Max is the son of Paul Gogarty, who has written a few travel pieces for the Guardian over the years, though he isn’t a Guardian employee. Max got in touch with us because he writes occasionally for the TV programme Skins. He wants to write an honest account of what teenagers get up to on their travels, and we hope you might be able to give him tips about what to see and do when he’s in Thailand and India – how to make the most of it, what to avoid… Plus, if you’ve seen other travel blogs you’d like to recommend, do send links for us to add. Some of you have mentioned that you’d like to be given the chance to write about your travels. We’re always looking for good writers, so feel free to drop us a line at email@example.com.
Afterthought: It occurred to me during the long watches of the night that this sums up the dilemma of online publishers. Traffic is governed by the iron rule of the power law distribution. Because of the famed long tail associated with this content sites need to have as many bits of content on them as possible to A) serve niches and B) increase traffic. The long tail means that every piece of content has its place, that it will be of interest to somebody. The secret to high traffic is to have enough of these items to appeal to as many niches as possible. Someone, somewhere will be interested in Max’s holiday (even if it’s just his dad and chums) so the GU is serving a niche in a way. But at the same time it’s pissing off its core readership. Aye, there’s the rub.
What I’ve read
The Grauniad, The Herald (my wife bought it), The New Statesman, Private Eye (late on returning from hols), National Geographic. I find buying the dear old Hootsmon too painful these days… (Do books count? I’ve just finished Peter Green’s Alexander of Macedon and Primo Levi’s If Not Now When. Both excellent though I have to confess to being drawn to the former because the author shares his name with one of Edinburgh’s best wine shops.)
What I’ve watched
Half of Blackburn vs Arsenal. (Realised I didn’t care about the result). The first few minutes of Where The Buffalo Roam. It’s a Bill Murray film about my hero Hunter S Thompson. It’s pitifully shite – don’t bother. The Thick Of It on DVD – brilliant. Aside from that, the news and whatever’s on Channel 4 at 9pm after the kids are in bed.
What I’ve listened to
BBC5 Live’s Fighting Talk, BBC4’s In Our Time and From Our Own Correspondent, Dan Savage’s terribly humane and sensible advice column Savage Love – all on podcast. I’m still trying to get into the Guardian’s football podcast but as (QPR aside) I have no interest in English footie, this is proving elusive.
What I’ve surfed
Anything and everything on Hibs, especially Hibeesbounce.com, which has tragically been down of late. For work (I’m an content consultant, which means I advise on content rather than am content), I have RSS feeds of favoured sources on key topics so I dip in and out of them. The usual new media suspects are there but Vin Crosbie and Neil McIntosh are especially worth a read on journalism. I always check Penny Arcade – masters in making money out of content. B3ta.com’s Question of the Week is a must-read as well, primarily cos it’s funny. Aside from that Facebook, when I feel I’ve not been invited to become a vampire enough.
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.
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.
Farewell, old friend, farewell.
Scotsman.com, the site I edited from 2001 to 2007, is about to undergo a comprehensive redesign, in much the same way as a beloved pet undergoes a comprehensive redesign when taken to the vet for the very last time.
You can see what the future holds on the new scotsman.com beta site.
What I would like to do at this point is to carry out a forensic, line by line analysis of which is the better site and why. However, I am slightly biased towards the version created when I was Editor. And, in any case, too many people like to take all-too-predictable pops at The Hootsmon – a fine Scottish institution and a vital part of our national life – and I am not going to administer a metaphorical swift kick to its happy sacks by giving yet more ammunition to its detractors.
So I have come to praise Caesar, not to bury his successor up to the neck in keech. For the record, lest these things become forgotten after the redesign, scotsman.com 2001-2007 vintage achieved great things:
Traffic increased tenfold to four million unique users a month. The site became one of Google’s top 30 worldwide news sources. The site won the Newspaper Society’s best daily newspaper site award three times. In the Newspaper Awards, it was listed ahead of papers like the FT. Our original online content saw scotsman.com shortlisted for several national and international journalism awards. Mediaweek rated it as the sixth biggest news site in the UK. Hitwise said it was the eighth.
Those achievements are pretty amazing given the site was run by a small, regional publisher with sod-all resources and a sometimes far from affectionate attitude from some newspaper colleagues. (All of whom are now, I’m sure, true believers in online journalism – or unemployed.) Compare that record to the other Scottish titles and you see quite how remarkable the soon-to-be-former scotsman.com was.
The success did not come from the repurposed newspaper content we put online. It came from what the small dotcom team did to that content and the additional online-only material we created. And it came from the close cooperation between the different parts of scotsman.com – editorial, operational, development, design, even *gasp* those grubby commercial types.
What we built back in 2001 looked nice but that was secondary to how it worked. The old scotsman.com was a model of usability. It was built with an unrelenting focus on getting the reader to what they wanted as quickly as possibly. And it was built to be easily put online by one person.
The old scotsman.com was innovative – look at our early adoption of tags (themes or topics), RSS, video podcasts and user comment. And it was put together by a remarkably talented team, who by our results could be justifiably described as world class. Most of us have left Scotsman Publications. (Many ended up at The List – an Edinburgh listings mag with a dramatically improved online presence.) However, some remain at The Scotsman – bringing their professionalism and considerable talents to bear on implementing the redesign – always a major task.
Ah yes, the redesign, well, you can have your say on it thanks to this survey on scotsman.com.
As one who believes in high-quality niche content, I’ve long been a fan of of the video game comic/commentary/community Penny Arcade. (In fact, I keep trying to slip John Gabriel’s Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory into presentations to clients curious about user interaction.)
I was therefore heartened and impressed by this post from the aforementioned Gabe about their attitude to advertising on the Penny Arcade (apologies for the lengthy quote, it’s worth it):
Other game site out there takes ads for whatever game they can get. It doesn’t matter if it’s a pile of crap, if the publisher pays for the spot IGN or Gamespot or whoever will run the ad. That’s fine but that’s not how we do it and the news posts you just read are part of the reason why..
No matter how early the build we tell the publishers that unless we can see it played in front of us or play it ourselves we won’t run ads for it. Obviously a lot can still go wrong during development but we make the best decisions we can. We do not think of the ads you see on our page as ads. They are recommendations and we try extremely hard to insure that anything we put over there is worth your time.
When Prince of Persia 2 came out and we saw that it was crap we said as much on the site. Ads for the game appeared right next to those news posts slamming it. Needless to say Ubi wasn’t very happy and Robert got some angry phone calls but our loyalty is to our readers not the people paying the bills.
We explained to Ubi that the reason our ads perform better than any other site out there is because our readers trust us and that means we have to admit when something we advertise doesn’t turn out as good as we hoped.
How great is that? How sensible is that? They regard ads as part of the content of their site and they vet products before they carry ads for them. If they then carry negative reviews, the games companies just have to suck it up. And why do these powerful organisations suck it up? They suck it up because ads on Penny Arcade out-perform ads on other sites. And why does that happen? Because Penny Arcade’s users trust what they see on the site. And they trust the ads precisely because the products are vetted and honestly reviewed.
Penny Arcade’s been around a long time and is a huge success. They really know what they’re doing. In that one post, Gabe and Tycho demonstrate far more commercial nous than many advertising people I’ve encountered.
Imagine similar conversations at a newspaper: “You want a full-colour wraparound advertising your ‘crack cocaine for kids’ casino open day? You want it to look like it’s the real front page of our paper? You want to spend £200? No way, we’re a respectable family publication. Oh, you said £2,000. Hey, sure, no problem. We’ll throw in the editor’s mum posing nude with a donkey as well.”
Let’s focus on Gabe’s key phrase: “Our loyalty is to our readers not the people paying the bills.” Maybe if newspapers had the spine to adopt that attitude their sales wouldn’t be going down the toilet.