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What was that about glasshouses and throwing stones?

The last item in the Media Diary in today’s Observer reads (sorry, I can find the link):

The Daily Express inteviewed Chelsea’s Sean Wright-Phillips last week, and included a blatant plug for the Nintendo games console he promotes in the story. Has the line between editorial and advertising now become so blurred it’s barely visible?

For the answer turn to page 20 of the Observer’s Business and Media section. Half a page of answer at that, headed “Dubai has the whole world in its sands” followed by a standfirst saying “Celebrities and the super-rich are snapping up new country-themed islands.” There is even a blob par at the end with the sales phone number.

Web ABCs: Guardian crows but Sun get more page hits

Not surprisingly the Guardian is crowing about the the first ABCe newspaper website figures which show they have nearly as many users as their rivals the Times (what has happened to the relaunch effect?) and the Telegraph (steady progress) have between them.

There is big blurb on the front page of the printed paper headed: “An end to web propaganda: now the first, official audited figures.” Willy waving?

Of course, it isn’t. Jemima Kiss denies the charge in the Organ Grinder blog writing: “… it’s about transparency, credibility and building trust with advertisers.”

While no print reader can be unaware of the figures, there is, oddly, no reference to them on the home page of Guardian Unlimited. But they are the second item on the Media home page.

Three other papers have come into the scheme for monthly publication of figures by ABCe — the Telegraph, Times and Sun (no comment on their sites yet).

The figures for March are:

Page impressions: Guardian Unlimited 146,979,741, Telegraph 69,559,359, Times Online 57,681,199, The Sun 151,438,441.

Users: Guardian Unlimited 15,093,058, Telegraph 7,392,803, Times Online 8,048,029, The Sun 7,797,032.

A table including user figures for February this year and March last year is at the Guardian.

It is not surprising that the Times Online users figure fell back from February when the relaunch of the site created a lot of interest, but 2.8m is a very big fall. There must be concern that the March figure is the lowest since June last year, raising questions about the relaunch.

The Telegraph has shown steady growth over the last year and the new figure is nearly 1.5m monthly users more than a year ago. The Sun must be pleased to be the largest newspaper website in the UK in terms of page impressions — the Page 3 effect.

Ultra-local news and England’s biggest selling regional

When it comes to understanding local news you have to listen to what the people at the Express and Star in Wolverhampton have to say. It has built itself into the best selling regional newspaper in England under its independent ownership.

So the thinking there about online and citizen journalism which is explored in an interview with the deputy editor, Keith Harrison, at journalism.co.uk is a must read.

Micro-local news, he says, is what is going to survive. To do that the paper will need 500 citizen journalists. The picture which Harrison paints suggests an online version of what a multitude of small weekly newspapers did until not all that long ago.

Harrison says ultra-local is definitely the way to go and continues:

If you promise ultra-local, you’ve got to be able to deliver it. The number of journalists we have [60] is huge compared with many other regional papers – but, even with that many, we can’t deliver ultra-local news all the time. To do it, we’re going to need another 500 reporters – we can’t take them on, they’re going to need to be citizen journalists. They want to get this information out there; we need to say “yes, we’ll be your electronic parish noticeboard, come give it to us and it will be in the Express & Star” – whereas, if you just set it up on your own, you’re only going to have a limited audience.

The only way we can do it is not by paying our full-time staff to do it but by giving our readers outside the opportunity to do it and for them to contribute and feel part of the newspaper.

I am increasingly convinced that he is right. It is not only about providing content it is about connecting with the community, maintaining a sense that it is their newspaper.

Harrison says that one man still sends the Express and Star the pigeon club report on postcards. That takes me back to my second job, on the Buxton Advertiser, and collecting various scraps of paper with reports of flower shows, the service at the Methodist Church, funeral reports and accounts of the most interesting object in a matchbox competition at the Women’s Institute meeting.

From there I went to the Western Daily Press which, under editor Eric Price, was the fasted growing regional newspaper at the time. He combined innovative design with a fairly brash approach to world and national news and intensely local, but lively, coverage. We wrote features on villages, found stories in dahlia shows and recorded golden weddings.

Some of the skills of that era of newspapers and a whole lot of new ones are needed to make a success of online ultra-local news. That raises a whole lot of questions about recruitment and training.

Fight between Google and MSM approaches

Roy Greenslade has picked up on Telegraph editor Will Lewis’s opening address at the 6th International Newsroom Summit and thinks it implies that the Telegraph group is going to follow other mainstream publishers into battle against Google.

According to ifra, Lewis called on newspapers to welcome transformation as a friend. The traditional business model would be replaced and he warned news organisations making the digital transition must both invest in training and be alert to attempts to cannibalise their material. He continued:

Our ability to protect that content is under consistent attack from those such as Google and Yahoo, who wish to access it for free. These companies are seeking to build a business model on the back of our own investment without recognition; all media companies need to be on guard for this. Success in the digital age, as we have seen in our own company, is going to require massive investment; [we need] effective legal protection for our content in such a way that allows us to invest for the future.

It would seem to be an obvious step for publishers to follow those who have reached agreements with the secretive Google company. It is difficult to build a picture of what is happening but Lewis’s speech follows one earlier this month by Samuel Zell, new owner of the huge Tribune group in the US .

In a speech (Washington Post) at Stanford Law School he said newspapers could not economically sustain the practice of allowing their articles, photos and other content to be used free by other Internet news aggregators.

He asked the question: “If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?” and provided his own answer: “Not very.”

Associated Press has an agreement with Google and a copyright case brought by Agence France-Presse was settled recently. In Belgium cases have either resulted in settlement or a finding against Google.

As Greenslade points out these are piecemeal agreements and, “Globally, publishers and news agencies need to get together to reach a sensible, comprehensive, macro agreement with Google and Yahoo.”

It will certainly be a big fight. As Business Week pointed out recently: “Google is ground zero in a battle among traditional media and tech industry leaders and startups alike for the hearts and minds of the world’s consumers—or at least their eyeballs and wallets. ”
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Video help needed at Reading

Guardian Media Group has a lot of expertise in doing online video so it’s a pity it is not shared around all their papers. A bulletin by the Reading Evening Post’s sports editor, David Wright, is a “new contender for the worst newspaper video” according to Paul Bradshaw, who teaches online journalism at the University of Central England.

One can only pity the people involved who have obviously had no, or inadequate, training. Bradshaw sees a lesson in how not to do online video and provides eight rules which are so basic they should not be needed.

I have doubts about the value of reporter on camera bulletins with a few stills, but surely GMG has someone who could help the people are Reading do it better.

Why don’t printed papers get promoted on websites?

Journalism students at Bournemouth University are asking a very relevant question: Why do newspaper website in the UK so so little to promote the printed version on their websites?

The students examined newspapers and web sites for encouragement to use the other version. In a Times Saturday edition they found 101 directions to timesonline but on the website not a single exhortation to buy the paper.

The picture was similar at the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Sun and orther papers they compared. Peter Jackson, the students’ lecturer writes about their investigation in the Independent.

If you visit any US newspaper you are likely to find encouragement to take out a subscription for the paper at the top of it’s website’s home page. So why not something similar here? OK, the distribution systems are different but there should be a way round that problem.

The rights and wrongs of cyber-doorstepping

Every big story that affects a community has brought complaints of press intrusion by reporters who descend on the place or use the phone searching for accounts and opinions. It has always been so and is again with the Virginia Tech killings.

Yet there is a difference: the internet. Not only are people blogging and putting personal accounts and pictures on social media sites, but the numbers of reporters looking for a piece of the story is multiplied.

What we will never know is how many people complain about intrusion and how many welcome the chance to tell the world of their experiences. Some reporters behave insensitively pushing people who clearly do not want to talk.

The new issue is the use of blog and social media material and the cyber-doorstepping that goes with it. Once you had to be there, camped outside a house but now now anyone can do it.

Papers and broadcasters covering an overseas story had to wait for whatever their own staff and agencies could provide. If it was big enough a fireman would be flown in.

One of the people looking for new information from a computer terminal in the UK was the BBC’s Robin Hamman. He has reflected sensitively on what he did both on his own blog and in comments made to Media Guardian which devotes two pages to the debate today:

BBC new media journalist Robin Hamman discovered a blog entry, claiming to be an eyewitness account, and was asked to verify its accuracy. He chose to approach the author by instant message, but as the day wore on many journalists – including one from the Guardian – simply added comments saying “talk to me, please, here’s my number”.

The onslaught angered many other surfers, who saw the torrent of media requests as invasive. The reaction made Hamman reconsider his objectives. “My approach was, I think, professional and sensitive,” he said. “But now, after seeing the way the press descended upon him, I wonder if I should have made that approach, primarily for confirmation purposes, at all.”

The Media Guardian spread asks: “Were reporters were right to solicit information from students’ web pages? Patrick Barkham answers “Yes” in the first part of the web story followed by Jeff Jarvis saying “No”.

Barkham, a Guardian feature writer, justifies the approaches writing:

In terms of invasiveness, asking questions on a blog is the equivalent of a reporter approaching a group of people having a conversation on a street by the site of a tragedy. A blog is not a private home; posting questions or invitations to talk further is not as intrusive as knocking on a victim’s door.

Many bloggers don’t realise that the fundamental reason for asking questions on blogs, or on streets, is to better establish the authenticity of eyewitness accounts. There are plenty of fantasists and hoaxers in the real world and online. Sometimes witnesses agree to talk to us; at other times we retreat in the face of these familiar “vulture” jibes.

And he concludes:

To those bloggers, I’m sorry: big media is here to stay online – for as long as audiences want information created by the rigorous questioning and testing for truth undertaken by responsible professional journalists.

Jarvis, who is a journalism professor at New York’s City University as well as a Guardian columnist and blogger, believes the journalistic wish to verify will become increasingly impractical in the new architecture of news where anyone can publish. He writes:

Increasingly, they will share what they know on their own sites – often intending not to publish to the world but simply to inform their family and friends. Because this is on the public web, we get to listen in; we learn more.

Yet it’s doubtful that these witnesses will want to – or should have to – field challenges from scores of reporters, each exercising his journalistic duty to vet, or his business reflex to negotiate exclusives.

He continues:

It will become increasingly difficult to vet every story, link, or source. And it’s rather anachronistic to believe that the press can verify and edit all news, when the public can and does go around the press to find sources directly – via links and searches – on the web.

He advocates linking to blog posts which have not been vetted. I find the Jarvis approach disturbing. It is consistent with his belief that readers will become media literate enough to find their own way though large volumes of unmediated material.

Last week when I challenged his view that exclusives were no longer important, he responded that I was “looking at this from the perspective of the journalist rather than the readers.” On the verification of material from blogs I also take the perspective of a journalist. It is that while some readers may wish to plough though unchecked raw material, most still want news which has been vetted by a trusted media organisation. To start linking to web sites with the warning “We have no idea whether this person even exists or whether what they say is true” would only confuse the readers and viewers and undermine trust.

Hybrid alternative to freesheet war

Could the Manchester Evening News’s paid/free model provide a way out of London’s increasingly futile-looking battle of the evening freesheets for Associated Newspapers? Peter Preston puts it forward in his Observer column today, writing:

Why go through the sweat and cost of producing a 64-page Standard (for 50p) and a 42-page Lite (for nothing) when you could give away real Standards in the West End and City, knocking off the cover price inside a fixed area and delivering hundreds of copies to selected office blocks? To an extent that happens already: the Standard adds 62,000 bulks on top. But a more coherent mixed offering of 500,000 Standards, free and paid, would surely have more clout (and advertising allure) than an ailing 50p paper and a separate freesheet running second to Rupert.

Warming to his theme, he applies lateral thinking to the Guardian, pointing out that technology allowed both the Times and Independent to produce tabloid and broadsheet editions at the same time. So the Guardian could follow American models and produce a half-price digest tabloid aimed at busy young readers on the train.

Monty’s UK approach to European newspapers appeals to investors

Scandinavian journalists who feared the introduction of a British newspaper culture when David Montgomery’s Mecom business bought Orkla Media last year are being proved right.

The evidence is in a glance at Mecom’s preliminary announcement of results (link to pdf) for 2006 — a loss of £21m. The second slide shows the empire in creation in an arc from Norway, through Denmark, Germany and Poland to outposts in Lithuania and the Ukraine. The objectives are spelled out in four bullet points:

  • To optimise performance using techniques tested in the UK
  • To replicate the benefits of consolidation seen in the UK and elsewhere
  • To exploit our 1.4 million strong subscriber base to generate new revenues
  • To accelerate the growth of online revenues

The next slide includes an approach to business which will strike fear in the heart of every journalist: “Improving profitability through short-term cost reduction.”

To investors who have put another £580m into Mecom’s coffer (share placing and 7 for 10 open offer announcement on April 12) this is music. They are seeing the possibility of the high levels of profitability achieved by British regional paper groups becoming available in Europe.

Journalists in Britain remember Montgomery’s time running Mirror Group. When he faced opposition from journalists in Germany last year a Guardian report included this paragraph which sums up what many British hacks feel about him:

Montgomery is used to such antipathy. Andrew Marr, in his book My Trade, quotes a former editor of the Independent, which was owned by Montgomery’s Mirror group, as saying: “What he [Montgomery] did showed a breathtaking disregard for keeping his word and a merciless savagery unheard of even by Fleet Street’s blood-soaked and hypocritical standards.” Marr adds, with tongue only partially in cheek: “Some of us would put it a little more strongly than that.”

This week Montgomery suffered a slightly bruised nose when his freesheet in Denmark, Dato, merged with Urban: A sensible decision in an overcrowded market where the speculation now is over which will be next to go (via Kristine Lowe).

In both Denmark and Norway journalists are up in arms about redundancies with Danish staff striking. Tastes of the Montgomery approach or, as Kristine Lowe puts it, “Journalists feel something is rotten in Mecom’s Danish and Norwegian fiefdoms…”

Getting that first job in journalism

It is the time of year when journalism students are looking for jobs. So advice on putting together a CV and supporting material is timely. The best I have seen comes from Mindy McAdams who teaches in Florida.

As well as her advice there are links to examples including a well laid-out one page CV. English English speaking students just need to know that résumé = CV, and clips = cuttings. Every graduating student looking for advantage in a tough job market should read what McAdams has to say.