New Model Journalism

Tracking the media-funding revolution

Irish journos up sticks to expose themselves

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A selfie stick, a smart phone and a bit of practice is all you need to make compelling, broadcast-quality video packages, enthused Aileen O’Meara. Then, with a cheap extendable pole braced to her side she thrust her phone towards audience members quick-firing interview-style questions. Moments later she deployed the same pound-shop technology to demonstrate how she records a link “to camera”.

“A good story will always have value and and in a lot of cases, this is all that you need to tell one”, the veteran television journalist and radio producer said. “The technology that matters is the kit that you have with you when you come upon something interesting – and for most of us, that means our phone”.

The afternoon workshop on mobile journalism (MoJo, insist the cognoscenti) was the concluding session at Dublin Freelance NUJ Branch’s Autumn Freelance Forum, a twice-yearly training-cum-networking event for NUJ members.

O’Meara was joined on the stage by Glen Mulcahy, (@GlenBMulcahy) RTÉ’s head of innovation who predicted a bright future for freelance journalists able to offer short exclusive broadcast-able clips. “User-generated content only has value where there is a real exclusivity. After that, the skills of a professional journalist reap benefits – thinking about camera stability, lighting and sound quality as well as dependable attribution – these are also essential skills if you want to work on our news staff as well”.

By way of example, event organiser Gerrard Cunningham showed off the dramatic camera phone footage he had taken of an air ambulance winching onboard a gravely ill American tourist from a remote Donegal hillside. “I was driving my mother home after a routine hospital visit when I spotted the flashing lights from Police cars and rescue vehicles. I made more money selling that clip than I have from any single piece that I have written in many years as a journalist”.

O’Meara’s technique is strikingly simple. She recommends post-producing and uploading from a smartphone – “editing on a laptop is easier, but I never seem to get round to it”. She tops and tails clips using inexpensive apps such as iMovie, Vidtrim of VidEditor and uploads to YouTube “unlisted”. Links can be sent to potential clients who can download what they want to buy. The only additional equipment she uses is a Rode Smart Lav microphone and an extension cable. Even this is expendable, though, iPhone headphones include a useable microphone on the volume controller that works perfectly well in extremis, she says.

Formerly RTÉ’s health correspondent, O’Meara suggests a basic checklist for smartphone journalism: clear your phone’s memory to create capacity for what you shoot, switch to airplane mode so that calls and texts don’t disrupt filming, keep spare power with you at all times, clean your camera before filming and always shoot landscape. A bit of practice before you hit narrative gold dust will also pay dividends.

Much of RTÉ’s news footage is now recorded this way and the channel has recently screened a hour-long documentary, The Collectors by Eleanor Mannion, made entirely on an iPhone. “She actually found the minimal, familiar kit made her subjects feel more relaxed”, Mulchay said. “The only special equipment she used was a gimbal to hold the camera steadily as she walked around filming”.

Mulchay, who organises MoJoCon, an annual event for mobile journalists, envisages this kind of reporting expanding and expanding. “5G will be the key to unlocking 4K”, he prophesies, describing the next-generation phone network and the latest standard of video quality. He also predicts a rising demand for video news and features as driverless cars expand viewing time.

Other sessions at the Freelance Forum revealed the demands of two newspaper commissioning editors, Ros Dee of the Irish Daily Mail and Esther McCarthy (@estread) of the Irish Examiner. The latter said that freelances who could offer video and social media support for their work were particularly appealing to those who commission features.

A morning session on sports journalism also revealed the recent phenomenon of sports clubs employing embedded journalists to provide syndicatable coverage of their matches. Just as former staff photographers often find that their subjects now foot the bills once paid by publishers, sports reporters may be experiencing something similar.

Will selfie sticks become ubiquitous reporters’ kit, alongside phones, notepads and laptops? Quite possibly. They do have the great merit of being cheap and accessible. Journalism has always been a craft where guile and graft are both entry standards and principal requirements of success. Evaporating barriers to broadcasting, hitherto our most rarefied medium, may well usher in scores of have-a-go hopefuls. Skill, patience and imagination, though, will remain the hallmarks of those who capture compelling stories using what some mockingly term the “narcissist’s wand”.

Written by Tim Dawson

October 21st, 2016 at 8:43 am

Cash from keystrokes: self-publishing for profile and profit

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After two decades as a journalist, magazine editor and author, Lorraine Wilson wanted to get away for a while.  She could not kick, however, the thought that her solo rail circumnavigation of Europe might make a book.  “I put up an appeal for crowdfunding on social media and was surprised to receive more than £2,000 – enough to meet most of my basic costs”, she says.

Facing Forwards: Europe. Solo. No Looking Back., the resulting volume, is just out on Kindle and Wilson has already been offered several ghostwriting commissions on the strength of the book.

She is one of many journalists and writers who are discovering new ways to market their work in self-published eBooks.  Peter Jukes created a 20,000 strong crowd-funding community to support his work live Tweeting the phone hacking trials.  Andy Leeks has sold tens of thousands of books written and ingeniously marketed while he was commuting. And, George Mahood has abandoned wedding photography on the back of the success of his eBook travelogues.

Their experiences all form part of a new book, Make eBooks Pay: Self-Publishing success strategies – including ten detailed case studies, available now from Amazon.

The lessons included in the book are applicable to any self publisher, but the are particularly aimed at journalists.  eBooks are particularly suited to publishing longer-form journalism because of all the new formats in which journalism has appeared the past two decades, they are the only one that the consumers have shown themselves dependably willing to pay for.  Speed of production and the relatively short length expectations also make eBooks an ideal medium for journalists who are looking for a new outlets.

The book explains the technical aspects of eBook production as well as advising on pricing, advertising and publishing law.

 

 

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Written by Tim Dawson

February 10th, 2016 at 6:14 am

Posted in E-books

A sense of freedom: how FOI has reshaped journalism

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Originally published in the Jul/Aug 14 edition of The Journalist

Putting together a twentieth-anniversary nostalgia feature about the takeover of chocolate manufacturers Rowntree, gave Gavin Aitchison an idea.  The confectioner’s demise still has deep resonances in York, where the paper Aitchison news edits, The Press, is based.  The chocolatier once employed upwards of 10,000 staff in the city.

“I thought that local people would be fascinated to know what actually happened in the run up to the takeover, so I put in a Freedom of Information (FOI)  request to the Cabinet Office for copies of all the original correspondence and minutes relating to Nestle’s successful bid”, he remembers.

That was in 2008.  His request was refused.  Then in 2010, the BBC won and Information Tribunal case that secured release of Cabinet minutes relating to 1986’s ‘Westland helicopters crisis’.  The judgement set out explicit criteria in which Cabinet documents should be published, which Aitchison thought were sufficient to reopen the Rowntree case.

He applied again, and was turned down again.  He appealed and eventually, after two tribunal hearings and five years after his original request, the information was granted.  “We finally got the story last December”, he says.  “It might not have rocked governments, but from our readers’ perspective, many of whom still feel very emotional about the case, our effort was easily justified”.

Aitchison has a national reputation for his FOI reporting, but his story could have come from many UK newsrooms.   In 2013 more than 15,000 stories appeared in British newspapers that mentioned Freedom of Information requests – and that figure, based on a search of a newspaper database, almost certainly understates the overall picture significantly.  In that year – and these examples are plucking at random from the same source, the Daily Telegraph returns 799 stories that mentioned FOI, the Daily Mail 994, and the Yorkshire Post 259 – and this is just the print editions.  At the York Press, Aitchison estimates that he carries around 100 FOI based stories each year.

Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which campaigned for the legislation and continues to provide training in its use says that the scale of change that FOI has made to journalists, since it became effective in 2005, is evident from the number of requests that they put in.  “Around 40,000 requests a year are made, and we think that about a quarter of them are from journalists – it is a process that has become deeply imbedded in our news culture”, she says.

Aitchison agrees.  “All of York’s Press’ specialist reporters are FOI trained and I would guess that each of them is putting in a least one request each week.”  He is sceptical, however, that ‘FOI stories’ are displacing others from their general news mix.  “In many cases the stories we are covering are the same ones that we would run without FOI, but access to original documentation makes the stories themselves much better.   With access to original email correspondence we can see how a decision was reached and who did or did not fall out over a proposal.  Original material gives us more scope for adding authentic texture.”

For those wishing to emulate Aitchison’s success, he recommends a desktop copy of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – it covers UK Government matters, a separate Act of 2002 covers Scottish government bodies.  Aitchison also suggests that every request you make mentions Section 16 of the Act, which requires public bodies to ‘provide assistance’ to those seeking information.  “Keeping this section in people’s minds means that we sometimes get a phone call the day after we make an application suggesting, say, that we ask about figures for a financial rather than a callander year.   It is much better that waiting for the 20 days, only to be knocked back”, he says.

Happily since FOI came into effect, many organisations have started routinely publishing information that was previously only available via FOI requests.  Aitchison cites York City Council’s street-by-street parking fine statistics as an example.

Not all journalists are unequivocal fans of the FOI legislation, however.  Chris Wheal, veteran freelance, and, over the years, editor of numerous trade magazines, says that his experience FOI is that it is used to thwart enquiries,  more than facilitating them.  “I have usually been able to find a way to persuade civil servants, or whoever to give the documents or data that I need.  Sometimes persuasion alone does the trick, occasionally I need to ask several people the same question to apply a bit of pressure.  Since FOI, however, the stock response from civil servants has been – ‘if you want that you are going to have to put in an FOI request’.”

This, Wheal suggests is a ruse based on an understanding of the kind of deadlines to which journalists work.  The FOI legislation requires that request recipients must respond within 20 days of application (although the release of actual information may take longer, or they might argue that a request is subject to one of the exemptions that allow information holders to turn down an application).  Calculating that journalists’ work to more pressing deadlines, press officers refer enquires to the FOI is a means to keep information back.

Paul Hutcheon, investigations editor at Scotland’s Sunday Herald, has some sympathy with Wheal’s point.  “There is no question for me that press officers use FOI tactically.  They often turn down what they know to be legitimate requests because reference to the Information Commissioner could take twelve to eighteen months, thereby neutering a story”.

While Hutcheon says that more than 90% of his stories are generated by developing contacts and sources, FOI remains, what he calls, a vital golf club.  “FOI is like having a brilliant seven iron – but it is by no means the only club that I use”.

Hutcheon should know – having taken arguably the biggest scalp yet with an FOI-related story.  In 2005 he received a tip off that David McLetchie, then leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament, was claiming taxi fares for travel between his home and the legal practice where he had a second job.  Hutcheon made a request to see the receipts.  This was turned down on the grounds that it would compromise the politician’s security.  An appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, however, went in Hutcheon’s favour.  The resulting scandal forced McLetchie’s resignation.

At that time, Hutcheon was celebrated in FOI circles as the ‘Captain of the trawler men’ – journalists who made numerous, wide-ranging requests, the results of which they devoted hours to combing.  His victory with McLetchie’s receipts led to nearly all Scottish parliamentary expenses being published on the web.  Since then, Hutcheon has become more targeted.

“I don’t want to waste public servant’s time”, he says.  “With rights come responsibilities and I need to feel that there is a good public-interest case for my requests”.  He says that his best questions come when he has been guided by anonymous sources.  “I will often approach a contact in an organisation and get them to help me out with my wording.  They might say, if you ask in this or that way, you will produce better results.”  He keeps a close eye on the Information Commissioner’s judgements too – for fresh ideas for lines of enquiry and to see the precedent’s they create around exemptions.

Despite the enormous use that journalists are making of the Act, there is always a potential threat to its operation.  The Prime Minister who delivered the legislation, Tony Blair, famously rued his decision.  Writing in his autobiography he said: “The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.”

It is a paradoxically candid assessment for a man who was famed for his persuasive skills.   Be assured, however, FOI has plenty of opponents in high places who would dearly love to find some means by which to undermine these rights.

“The most obvious way to restrict the Act would be to introduce charges for making requests”, suggests Gundersen.  In the Republic of Ireland, Freedom of Information legislation was enacted in 1997.  In 2003, however, the legislation was amended to introduce changes for information requests.  From that point on, the number of requests fell by 50%, despite the relatively modest Euros 15 charge.

UK governments have continued to make noises about ‘reforming’ the UK Act ever since it started operation.  But, Gundersen says, having handed journalists such an effective tool, ministers are likely to find the opposition to change is vociferous.    “It is no cause for complacency” suggests Gundersen, “but Governments don’t generally enjoy pitting themselves against the entire media.”

Whether Rowntree chocolate workers felt any less bitter about control their destinies transferring from Yorkshire to Switzerland all those years ago is hard to say, of course.  Hopefully the knowledge that they had so doughty a campaigner as Aitchison in their corner was at least a modest sweetener.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

July 31st, 2014 at 9:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Seeing is believing: web video now basic news currency

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Last summer, Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha got wind of plans to unveil the world’s first synthetic beef burger.  With $250,000 grand funding from one of Google’s founders, Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University, had grown fibers in a lab that he was now offering to serve to the world in a bread bun.

“I knew that there was going to be a big launch, which in the normal run of things, I would have attended and written a slightly piss-takey colour piece”, Jha remembers.  “But I thought that there was a potentially far more interesting story if I could get into his lab”.  After negotiations with PRs, Jha and a video producer were invited into the labs where the ‘frankenburger’ had been created. To those pictures they added reactions from food writers and a farmer.  “The package that we made was only six minutes long, but took the story to a whole new audience – some of whom might have also read the 2,000 word analysis piece that I also wrote”.

The Guardian is, of course, just one of many papers that are increasingly asking its reporters to contribute video, as well as text.

This marks a profound change that is underway in the media, according to Pat Younge – until a few months ago the BBC’s chief creative officer, and before that President of Travel Channel Media in the USA.  “All the emerging money is around web video, which is what all of the papers want now – so if you are going to cover a story, why wouldn’t you film it as well?  And with an interview, the very least you can do is audio record it and make that available – audio is underused”.

Younge’s proudest boast, as a digital storytelling pioneer, comes not from the BBC, where he was in charge of 3,000 program makers, but in his previous role.  “We needed video content for the Travel Channel website, but could not afford the kind of budgets that we had for network programs.”  His solution was to set up the Travel Channel Academy – a video production ‘boot camp’ on which participants paid $3,000 for a four-day course.  “We taught the basics of storytelling and clearances and at the end of the course, we would offer the best students paid commissions.  Those who did not make the grade, we gave exercises to do at home to get their work up to our standard.”

Over a couple of years, the academy built up a small army of videographers – many of whom went on to significant industry jobs, others remained on the fringes of the Travel Channel, picking up freelance work.

The Travel Channel approach has been replicated all over the world – with much of the teaching provided by Michael Rosenblum, the author of iPhone Millionaire (a guide to low-tech video production that is far better that its get-rich-quick title suggests).   Rosenblaum’s message is that anyone with a smart phone, editing software and a little imagination can make the kind of short packages that Jha and Younge are enthusing about.

It is a move that has seen many media outlets using video in place of still photography.

At New Jersey’s Star-Ledger (nj.com), whose journalists were nominated for a clutch of Emmy’s for their video content recently, for example, much of their coverage of college sporting contests is now presented in short clips.  Shot with a single camera – it works better with basketball that outdoor sports – and then edited to the most dramatic two minutes of play – they provide a respectable overview of matches that could only otherwise be seen live.

Traditional broadcasters have also got in on this low tech approach.  RTE News has recently used packages in its news programs shot entirely on smart phones.

The Wall Street Journal has applied a similar model to its international correspondents.  Two years ago, the paper trained more than 400 reporters to create short clips entirely on their iPhones.   “Our video viewership has more than doubled in the past six months to over 20 million streams, and the creation of this video blog is a milestone in the expansion of video at the Journal,” said Alan Murray, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “Our reporters are demonstrating the opportunity that technology has given them to capture powerful images that enhance their great journalism. We now have the opportunity to deliver that video more quickly and efficiently for use in our rapidly growing video operation.”

The result is not in itself a lush, multi-textural approach to storytelling, but a huge collection of short bursts of footage – a little like Twitter, but comprising only video news footage.  Since its launch, the WSJ has boasted that it is now attracting ‘premium’ advertising rates around its video footage, and the technology that underlies the WSJ’s initiative – tout.com – has been taken up by CBS, Fox, NBC Universal, WWE, New Corp and Conde Nast among others.

The prospect that this kind of material will become the main fibre of the web, rather than text-based ‘pages’ is one that is now common currency – at least among crystal-ball gazers.

Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter’s essay  “The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It” – argues that the web’s old metaphors ‘pages’, ‘desktops’, and ‘bookmarks’ are all destined for history’s ‘recycle bin’ or ‘trash’  .

“The space-based web we currently have will gradually be replaced by a time-based worldstream,” he writes. “This lifestream – a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream – arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the ‘flatland known as the desktop’ (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a representation of time”.

Geletnter envisages a seamless web of information and images that flow before us until we actively request that they stop.  The contribution of journalism to this seems likely, as least in its front-page form, to be in short videos.

Jha for one, is optimistic about the way in which these forces will shape journalism in the years to come.  He sees boundaries between different types of media and the outlets though which they are consumed blurring.   “Ten years ago, when I was getting started, all I thought that I would do was write, today, if you try  to tell stories without video and graphics, it would be like doing it with one hand tied behind your back”.  He also notes that the young journalists alongside whom he is now working are enthusiasts for technologies that are every bit as alien to him, as the web was to his editors when he first joined the newsroom.

Jha anticipates that boundaries between print, television and the internet will continue blur until it is no longer clear to the consumer which channels started out on which legacy platform.  It will never deflect him from the medium that he calls his first love, though.  “Funnily enough, the challenges of working in video have made me a much better writer”, he says.  “I now think much more visually, and particularly in longer pieces, think of how one scene leads to another.  Writing will always be what I enjoy doing most.”

 

Written by Tim Dawson

May 20th, 2014 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Spain is different: Iberia’s new-media Spring

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Spain’s media landscape is being fundamentally reshaped by journalist-run new media start ups – according to research by Asociación de la Prensa de Madrid (APM), the country’s professional journalists association.  Since the start of the financial crisis, nearly 300 web publications have been launched – some of which are now employing more than ten staff.

APM’s research shows that these endeavours cover interests as broad as the traditional newsstands, with sites providing international, domestic and local news, as well as sports, travel and ‘women’s interests’.  Most are websites, but at least 19 are new print publications.  The majority are backed by newly formed companies or coops, although some have been launched by associations and individuals.  Web advertising is the predominant revenue model, although there are also instances off crowd-funding, subscription services and not-for-profits.

Luis Palacio, who carried out the research for APM says: “A strength of many of these operations is that they have been launched by journalists, working together as a group.  Too many of these projects are still looking for ways to finance themselves, however.  It is interesting to see that there are attempts to get resources directly from readers but not via subscription basis.”

Palacio sees considers that one of the biggest challenges that they face is appreciating the different skills of journalism and management. Too many of these new media need a more professional approach.  To build strong journalist ventures you need well managed companies, commercially oriented and technologically updated.”

A recent article in The Guardian suggested that the impetus behind the blossoming of new media initiatives is a growing disenchantment with Spain’s establishment and national media.  Over the past five years, papers such as El País, El Mundo and La Vanguardia have appeared to be uncritical, for example of banks that many blame for the country’s economic meltdown.

Here is Luis Palacio’s selection of the most interesting of the new ventures.

Elconfidencial.com.- It is a website launched by journalists in 2000. In 2012 its turnover was €5.6 million and it has an operating profit of €0.5 million.  It has now a diversified shareholders group. Its founder and first editor lift the company four years ago to launch a new media (Vozpopuli.com). In December 2013 Elconfidencial.com had 2.3 million of unique users a month according to comScore data.

Jot Down is a lifestyle magazine with two editions: digital  and print. Launched in 2011, its income comes from cover price, advertising and other products (books). In the founders group there were not journalists. Financial data is unknown.

Eldiario.es is a digital daily of general news and information.  Launched by a group of journalists and other professionals (for instance, the former CEO of a Spanish media group, Grupo Zeta). Its editor and main leader is Ignacio Escolar, former editor of Publico, a now closed newspaper). In its first year (2013) its turnover was of €1.5 million, with a small operating profit. In December 2013 Eldiario.es had 1.0 million of unique users a month  according to comScore data.

Yorokobu is a lifestyle magazine with two editions: digital and a monthly print magazine. Launched in 2010 by a group of three journalists and a partner with a commercial background.  Admired for its design,  Yorokobu´s publishing company (Brands&Roses) now works for other companies (for instance, it currently makes the in-flight magazine of Vueling, a Spanish   air company). In 2012 Brands& Roses has a turnover of €1.3 million and small operating losses of €0.02 million.

Weblogs.- It is a blogs company launched in 2005. In 2012 its turnover was 2.5 million euro and an operating profit of €0.1 million. Weblogs´ blogs are technology (Xataka), cooking (Directo al paladar) or cars (Autopasion). They have a combined traffic of 5.1 million of unique users last December accodring to comScore data.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

May 7th, 2014 at 5:14 am

Subs rising: the NUJ at Eastbourne

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“Welcome to the NUJ – this part of the world’s most successful private-sector trades union”, said union president Barry McCall, welcoming journalists’ representatives to their biennial conference in Eastbourne.  Extravagant as the claim might seem – it appeared to encapsulate a new confidence and bonhomie among the trade union’s activists.

The four-day conference, which ended on Sunday 13 April, was entirely lacking in the bitterness that marred the union’s get together two years ago, and delegates seemed generally willing to back their national executive and general secretary Michelle Stanistreet.

For many members the most significant motion passed was probably the one that will see their subscriptions rising – to £15, £18 and £25 a month – depending on a member’s grade.  A new minimum rate of £10 a month was also voted in.  A majority of delegates also approved a proposal to start a transition to subs levels based on each member’s income.  The motion failed to receive the required two-thirds majority, but given the closeness of the vote, the idea is likely to remain on the union’s agenda.

Delegates to the meeting also decided to scrap the elective post of Deputy General Secretary.  In perhaps the most voluble debate of the entire conference, veteran Northern Irish Trotskyite Eamonn McCann delivered an explosive denunciation of the Executive’s plans, to enthusiastic applause.  With defeat for the proposal apparently certain, however, Coventry’s Chris Youett was next up on at the ‘opposition’ rostrum.  “This proposal is intended to do just one thing – to prevent me from becoming the union’s DGS”, he said.  This argument, from the candidate who has generally polled bottom in the many NUJ elections in which he stood, convinced sufficient doubters for the reform to be voted through.

In another surprisingly heated session, NUJ representatives from the BBC successfully called for the rejection of any pay and grading structure for the Corporation that allows managers to be paid over £150,000.  Whether the NUJ will be successful in pushing director general Tony Hall’s salary down from its current £450,000 level remains to be seen, but agitating for a wage cut will doubtless be a novel experience for the union’s negotiators.

Much of the rest of the conference was spent adopting entirely worthy ‘motherhood-and-apple-pie’ positions, in favour of pay increases, against job cuts and for a more pluralist media.  The leadership will also take heart from the decent sprinkling of young delegates in attendance who are new to union activism.

Tempers nearly frayed in the conference’s closing moments, however, when delegates considered a call for the union to campaign for a Boycott of Israel.  Stanistreet was first to the rostrum to argue that the motion should be rejected, where she was joined by a queue of more than 20 speakers.  After a lively exchange, the motion was overwhelmingly rejected.

Adam Christie and Andy Smith, the union’s outgoing job-share vice presidents were elected to the union’s presidency.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

April 15th, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

European unions advocate entrepreneurial journalism to beat austerity

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Mette Schmidt Rasmussen (far right) explains how the Danish Journalists Union recruits students

The biggest threats to professional journalism across Europe are: competition from non-journalists, threats to authors’ rights and the ageing profile of practitioners.  These were among the findings of a survey of 62 journalists’ unions from across Europe that were presented at a seminar in Vienna on 20 March.

The research – Confronting Austerity, Financial And Employment Models In Journalism In Times Of Crisis – revealed an enormously varied response to the media’s recent travails.

In many former Warsaw Pact countries, for example, trades union organisation is in its infancy and has achieved almost no industrial traction.  “There is little understanding of trades unions in Georgia, since the country has no such culture”, according to IAGJ, the nascent journalists’ organisation in the country.  By contrast, in Austria, where 95% of all workers are covered by collective agreements, a new deal between media employers and unions has just been signed that covers online journalists for the first time.

Some of the French journalists unions are skeptical about even organising journalists other than those who are employed, and traditional freelances.  By contrast, unions such as those in the Netherlands and the UK provide specialist training for members who wish to become “entrepreneurial journalists”.

The challenges of this route were highlighted by Professor Jane Singer of London’s City University.  Her study of entrepreneurial journalists highlights the challenges inherent in this type of work.  “The skills of understanding your audience, finding advertisers and thinking about journalism as a business model are not just difficult for many journalists, they are areas of expertise that most of them have almost deliberately not give any consideration, up until now,” she said.

Successful models considered by meeting included a football blog that spawned a best-selling book, Peter Jukes crowd-sourced funding of the ‘News International’ trial and, David Parkin’s thebusinessdesk.com.

The seminar – which was organised by the European Journalists Federation (EFJ) – also highlighted fault lines among journalism advocates – not least on the subject of Google.  “Google is pushing out other media, it is already taking 90% of the advertising revenue and it will destroy our democracy”, said Gerald Grunberger, General Secretary of Verband Osterreichischer Zeitungen (the Austrian Newspaper Association – which represents media employers).  His sentiment was approved by Martine Simonis of the Belgian Association des Journalistes Professionnels, in whose country a recent legal action settlement now governs how Google lists stories from that country’s papers.

Participants from other countries questioned this approach.  “Has the Belgian slaying of the Google monster led to a renaissance of traditional media in that country”, asked one participant from the National Union of Journalists in Britain and Ireland.  “No”, was the Belgian’s answer.

Other initiatives mentioned during the seminar included: the training academy for continuing professional development run by the Dutch Union, NVJ; paid student recruiters who sign up nearly all relevant students at the three Danish universities where journalism is taught; and, an ongoing suite of training webinars provided for the German union DJV for its members.

Several unions run web-based services to help freelances to market their services; in Norway and Sweden specific training is provided to help staffers become self-employed; and in the Netherlands NJV offers psychological testing to try gauge journalists’ aptitudinal suitability for freelancing.

Closing the seminar, EFJ President Mogens Blicher Bjerregård summed up its sentiments:  “Innovation in journalism goes hand in hand with new business models. Freelancers should be the driving force of the new business models that help create more jobs, more flexibility and more security in the future of journalism.”

Written by Tim Dawson

March 23rd, 2014 at 2:07 pm

Can eBooks save journalism?

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Recent trends in non-fiction eBook publishing, by Tim Dawson, originally published in the December 2013 edition of The Journalist.

Five years ago, Rupert Colley was a librarian in Enfield with a long-standing dream of creating a series of popular histories that could be consumed in sixty minutes.  After a decade puzzling how he might realise his plan, in the Autumn of 2009 he published a 10,000 word account of the Second World War as an eBook.  Today, his ‘History In An Hour’ imprint has sold over 250,000 bite-sized digests of everything from The Reformation, to Ancient Egypt and The Cold War.

“There have been times when it was manic, but the level of the success of the series has been overwhelming”, he says today.  “My hunch was that there was a real appetite for easily digestible histories, maybe in subject areas that people felt they ought to know about, or in anticipation of a holiday.  ‘History for busy people’ was the slogan I had in my head.”

He is by no means the only person who has found ways to harness the possibilities of eBooks.  Literary publicist Richard Foreman launched Endeavour Press with journalist Mathew Lynn a year and a half ago.  Specialising in genre fiction, history and collections of journalism, they produce eBooks at a rate of eight a week.  ‘Name’ journalists such as Simon Sebag-Montefiorie, Rachel Johnson and William Dalrymple and among their stable; and sales currently run at upwards of 15,000 books a month.

In the US, where the market for short eBooks, or long-form journalism, is more developed, several writers have earned more than £100,000 from ‘Singles’ – Amazon’s short book brand.  Mishka Shubaly, for example, scored an unexpected hit with Shipwrecked (Kindle Single), a true account of a near fatal yachting disaster that he could not fit for any of his regular magazine clients.  He has gone on to write several more successful Singles.

The success of these short eBooks appears to rest on three, related factors: a general thirst for shorter books; ‘cup-of-coffee’ pricing; and technology that brings writing, publishing and purchasing much closer together.

Traditional publishing contracts have tended to insist on 100,000 words for works of fiction and 150,000 for non-fiction – the length of eBooks is immaterial.  And, a little like the market for smart-phone apps, there appears to be a willingness to pay among consumers – so long as the price is negligible.  According to Amazon’s figures, nearly 75% cost $4.99 or less.  Authors typically receive 50 – 70% of the cover price of eBooks, and as the process from finished manuscript to product on sale can take less than an hour, it is easy to see the appeal.

The experience of Rupert Colley, however, suggests that you can’t necessarily expect riches the second that you add your work to Amazon’s vast catalogue, however.  “I started by putting up free-to-read articles on my website to generate some interest”, he explains.  “It took four months after I published my Second World War book before I sold a single copy, though”.  During that time he was busy building interest on his site and through social media.

A year later, however, sales were so strong that HarperCollins offered to buy him out, and retain him to run History In An Hour on behalf of the publishing giant.  Among the more surprising ways that professional backing has helped has been in the development of audio versions of his titles.  Consisting of an actor, reading an abbreviated version of the 10,000-word titles, the resulting products have sold tens of thousands through iTunes.

“Initially I just wrote about what interested me – that is why I did a lot of contemporary history titles,” says Colley.  “I also went with what people offered me – so long as they were competent writers.  Since HarperCollins involvement, I have become more anniversary-driven, but writers still get the same basic percentage of sales revenues”.

Endeavour’s ambitions are even larger.  Foreman happily contemplates the day when his imprint overtakes Penguin.  “We are selling to a global market – a third of our sales are in the US”, he says.  “Of course there is no reason why authors should not publish themselves – but we have expertise in marketing titles and working Amazon’s algorithms to maximum advantage”.  Their greatest success to date has been Foreman’s own, ‘Augustus Son Of Rome’, one of a series of novelisatons of Roman history.  It has sold 12,000 copies to date.  The publisher is also actively pursuing out-of-print works into which he can breathe new life.  AJP Taylor’s War By Timetable has been a recent success.

And Endeavour is not the only one combing back catalogues.  In the US, several publications are now actively republishing classic long-form journalism, among them the New York Review Of Books and The Atlantic.  The latter has been experimenting with eBooks since 2010, says Kimberly Lau, general manager of Atlantic Digital.  “Our focus has been to leverage assets that are unique to The Atlantic – generally best-in-class writing and editing.  Our audience has a seemingly endless appetite for high-quality content”.  Lau won’t disclose sales figures, but says that Daniel Rauch’s ‘Denial’ has ‘significantly exceeded original forecasts”.

The common thread through all of these successes, of course, is Amazon, the global behemoth from which 1.5m eBooks are available and through which 90% of eBook sales are sold.  There are alternatives, of course – iBooks, Nook and Smashwords, for example.  But whatever view you take of Amazon’s corporate practices, selling eBooks without them would be a hard slog.

The mechanism of self-publishing is childishly simple.  Set up an account at Kindle Direct Publishing, and upload a Microsoft Word file of your words – and the job is all but done.  Many of the biggest journalism-eBook-success stories, however, are ‘Kindle Singles’; long-form journalism, published by Amazon itself.  The series editor in the UK is Andrew Rosenheim, a novelist and former managing director of Penguin books.  He advertises that he will consider any original work, between 5,000 and 30,000 words in length as well as reviewing all material that is already published via KDP, with a view to adopting it as a Single.  The royalties split for the author does not change, if your work become a Single – generally speaking you receive 70% of the sale price.  Being a Single, does, however, mean that an eBook is given a lot more profile on Amazon.

Whether the mail-order giant will forever dominate eBook sales is impossible to know.  It would require a wholly unpredictable market shock to reverse the eBook tide, however.  Indeed, pretty much all publishing soothsayers predict that eBooks will be snatching market share from their ink-and-paper counterparts for the foreseeable future.  That may not be unqualified good news.  But for those journalists and writers who do exploit the advantages of ePublishing to sell their work, this a developing market of huge potential.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

January 4th, 2014 at 8:16 am

Posted in E-books,US

Brand new gag: the hidden war on press freedom

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Article originally published in the October/November edition of The Journalist

On Thursday 1 August this year, investigative journalist Andrew Jennings noticed that his website transparancyinsport.org, was not accessible.  Jennings, who has done notable work for Panorama, World in Action and Sunday Times Insight maintains the site as part of his ongoing research into corruption in world football.  He called his service provider, GreenNet.

They were having problems too, admits system administrator, Ian Macdonald.  “I assumed that the cable that brought the internet into our office and connects us with our servers must be down, but a call to our provider, revealed that their systems were down too.”  They were not alone.  A massive, internet-based assault on a single page of Jenning’s site was underway.  At its peak, it froze a substantial chunk of the UK’s web traffic and is thought to have affected, for several hours, up to half of all the internet traffic coming into the UK from abroad.

It took five days for GreenNet to get its services back on line, by which time it was clear that a colossal ‘botnet’ attack, involving thousands of computers, had been mounted by computers in Russia, Belarus, Ukraine and China.

“I have had all sorts of threats from over the years, from crooks, lawyers and corrupt Police officers among others, but nothing like this cyber attack, the intention of which was clearly to try and shut me up”, says Jennings, from his home near Penrith, in Cumberland.  “It was utterly cowardly – but happily, it will take a lot more than that to get me off a case”.

“A botnet is created by criminals to harness lots of other people’s computers to their own ends”, explains Macdonald.  “People often unwittingly let their computers become used in this way by clicking on some kind of a link”.  Once the botnet has been created, its operator can direct all the computers under their control to make tens of thousands of requests to a particular website.  The result is much the same as all the pedestrians in a city suddenly turning in their tracks to walk towards a particular shop.  In seconds, the shop in question would be besieged – soon an entire area of the city would be gridlocked.

Jennings believes that this particular attack came from someone close to an international sports governing body, and has now made a complaint to the Swiss police.  It was accompanied by a separate attack on his WordPress blog and several anonymous ‘fishing’ emails that he received, that included zip files which purported to contain damning internal documents from the organisations that are in his sights.

But his experiences are just one of an increasing range of digital-age threats to freedom of expression.  “Anyone who thinks that ‘new media’ outlets are not being monitored by the state and the Police – as well as other even less savory types – is in cloud cuckoo land”, says Julian Petley, professor of media at the University of Brunel and chair of the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom.  “Governments, and others, have not been slow to exceed their authority when trying to control new media, either”.

Given that in the past 12 months, more editorial space has been devoted to ‘freedom of the press’ than at any time in the previous decade, the surprise is that its focus has been so narrow.  Look beyond Leveson, however, and botnets are by no means the only bogeymen.

On 7 October 2004, a still unidentified person, with a warrant to authorise their actions, walked into the London offices of Rackspace, a Texas-based company that rents server space.  Two computers, both used by the pioneering open-platform news service Indymedia, were removed from the building, with the result that 21 Indymedia sites, from Belgrade to Venezuela went off-line.   Quite who did this, has never become clear, save that it appears to have been undertaken ‘pursuant to Mutual Legal Assistance Treaty’.  The Metropolitan Police and the Federal Bureau of Investigation both issued statements to the effect that it was nothing to do with them.

Indymedia’s activist-news approach to news might not be to all tastes – indeed, since its 1999 foundation, even fans concede that it has peaked.  Nevertheless, the extraordinary seizure of its servers is illustrative both of the mind-bending complexities of multinational law, and the array of high-tech approach to undermining free expression that are now available.  The digital equivalent of smashing a printing press requires not so much as breaking into a sweat.

“People generally assume that the law is a set of rules, when in fact it is a game of poker”, says Mike Holderness, the chair of the European Federation of Journalists Authors Rights Expert Group, who followed the Indymedia case closely.  “When you are handed a warrant, issued by a court in Texas, on behalf of an unnamed sovereign state, even the largest, best-staffed organisation might struggle to find the resources and legal understanding to put up a fight.  For a small, independent publisher, it is all but impossible – as whoever initiated these proceedings surely knew”.

Wikileaks, publisher of leaked documents, experienced another form of attack.  In December 2010, after the publication of a huge tranche of US diplomatic cables, Visa, Mastercard, Bank of Americal and PayPal suspended the transfer of public donations to the site.  An official of the later company was reported as saying that its decision came after a letter from the US State Department warning that WikiLeaks was holding documents illegally.

It was catastrophic for WikiLeaks.  A statement at the time stated:  “We are forced to temporarily suspend publishing whilst we secure our economic survival.  For almost a year we have been fighting an unlawful financial blockade. We cannot allow giant US finance companies to decide how the whole world votes with its pocket.”  A two-year long legal action forced Mastercard to resume payments to Wikileaks in July 2013.

The challenge to Jennings, Indymedia and WikiLeaks might have been shadowy – that to the News Of The World could not have been more public.  In the early summer of 2011 the paper was already facing a storm of bad publicity.  The revelation that a private investigator who worked for the title had hacked missing school girl Milly Dowler’s phone messages started a chain of events from which The News Of The World would not recover.

On 4 July 2011 Melissa Harrison (@the_Z_factor) started a discussion about practical ways to damage the title.  She directed Tweets at the paper’s advertisers.  Soon others joined in – one created a site that automated the process of tweeting companies.  Another launched a web page containing the email addresses of the chief executives of the firms concerned.  The initiative snowballed and soon blue-chip clients like Ford, Vauxhall, Proctor&Gamble and, Virgin Holidays announced that they would withhold their advertisements from the paper.

On 7 July, News International (as it then was) announced the paper’s closure.

Some, understandably cheered, and while the Twitter campaign was by no means the only factor in the paper’s demise, it was clearly significant.  Whatever one might think of the 168-year-old tabloid, however, the means by which it was dealt its final blow clearly has implications for press freedom. Some in the industry have targeting rival’s advertisers for years, of course, to maintain local monopolies.  The difference here was that it was conducted in public and by a section of the public.  With the model established, a determined, self-selecting group could target any publication that it considers to have breached acceptable standards.

This catalogue represents just some of the more dramatic challenges to freedom of the press in the UK.  Elsewhere in the world, websites and broadcasters are routinely blocked – as al Jazeera’s broadcasts to Egypt have been in recent months.  Prosecutions in the UK for various, little-understood ‘communications crimes’ are rising steeply.  And, David Miranda’s detention at Heathrow, of course, had all the hallmarks of real old-school impediments to press freedom.

None of these threats will disappear anytime soon – but that is all the more reason for journalists to shout about them, suggests Julian Petley.  “What we need is a culture where the first instinct of reporters, and the newspapers, websites and broadcasters for whom they work, is to defend freedom of expression – and to expose those who try to undermine that freedom.  We might not always agree about how this is best achieved, but challenging cases like these should always to top of the media’s agenda, whether we love or loath the affected publications”.

If, as practitioners, we take his advice, ‘press freedom’ might just generate as many column inches in the coming year as it did in the last.  If we don’t, a time may come – when it really does matter – when there is no one left to speak up for us.  By then, of course, will have only ourselves to blame.

 

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 22nd, 2013 at 9:50 am

Posted in Press freedom

Life maternal: coaching for mums is a business winner

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Lisa Pearson, aka mummywhispererblog.com, started blogging for fun, but won the ‘best business’ category in the ‘The Mad Blog Awards’ in 2011. Concentrating on strategies to make parenting fun and effective, her first posts were written as much for cathartic effect as anything else. Fortuitously, she started to find her voice just as her husband lost his job and consequently decided that a more commercial approach might be appropriate.

“I tried advertising, with Google ads, but the returns were not great”, she says. “The easiest way to make money, I found was with sponsored posts”. These are a little like advertorial features, in that manufacturers generally approach bloggers with products that they want reviewed. Some simply offer the product, in return for coverage. Blogs with decent traffic, such as mummywhisperer, command fees of around £100 a post. Pearson’s approach was laudably ethical – not sparing her critical judgment, and always signposting sponsored posts. Elsewhere in the blogosphere, things are not quite so cut and dried. Some bloggers keep quiet about what they have been paid to feature, others hide the sponsored posts.

With 300 – 500 daily visitors, however, Pearson has recently decided that her brand is better served by concentrating on writing books, which can be sold from her site. Her first, ‘Six Steps To A Sparkling You And Enjoying Being A Mum’ she self-published on Kindle and is currently selling enough copies to generate around £50 a month. On the strength of this, she has been commissioned to write a second book by a commercial publisher.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 11th, 2013 at 9:53 am

Posted in Blogging

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