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Content farmers’ harvest proves hard to collect

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Analysis by Tim Dawson

“When you pay nothing, you are the product” goes the saying.  As a truism it might pre-date the internet, but it is a sentiment whose perfect expression occurs in the relationship between content farms and their users. Cheaply-generated material on search-engine-optimized pages, surrounded by advertisements seemed, a year ago, as though their rolling progress would soon see them dominating the internet and reduce search engines to the status of satellite states.

In January, the biggest of these operations, Demand Media, was launched on the New York Stock Exchange with 8.9m shares successfully offered at $17 each.

On balance, that launch might represent the high-water mark of so-called content farms.  In February, Google announced that it was launching “a pretty big algorithmic improvement to our ranking”.  It quickly became evident that the target of these changes was “the proliferation of low quality sites”.  Of course the search giant did not specify which sites it had in mind – but it has become known at ‘the farmer update’, it immediately made it more difficult for low-quality pages to achieve higher rankings.

As it turned out, the farmer update was simply the first part of a year-long roll out of algorithm changes that Google has introduced throughout 2011 (known collectively at Panda), all intended to keep the search engine ahead of sites such as Facebook and the Twitter.  The search algorithm itself is one of Google’s most closely guarded secrets, and is thought to contain over a1,000 tests that can be applied to sites that it ranks.  At least 200 are thought to be applied to every search.

And Google were by no means the only organization that was beginning to cast a critical eye on content farms.  The Internet Content Syndication Council has been around since 2007 and includes such bastions of journalism as The Associated Press (US) Thompson Reuters and the Tribune Co.  It issued a press release saying: “an issue that is causing concern among its members: the rising tide of poorly produced informational content, specifically designed to score high on search”.

There was disquiet at the other end of the industry too.  Demandstudiossucks.com, started by Patrick O’Doare, a Demand Studio freelancer provided both a critical focus on the company, and a forum where others who worked for them but felt ill-treated could make common cause.  It is precisely the sort of initiative that on one or two occasions has allowed freelances to take control back of a negotiating situation in which publishers assumed that they held all the power.

That is not to say, of course, that a case cannot be made for content farms.  There are serious and successful journalists such as Julian Marszalek who argues that the crumbs of cash that can be made from content farms are a useful to generate income while you might otherwise be idle.  And, for anyone who has ever tried to do something as esoteric as change the brake light on a 15 year old Volvo estate (to take just one example), there are few things more useful than the answers to be found on sites such as Demand’s eHow.

Whatever one thinks of such operations, however, as the year end approaches, it is clear that they are no longer having it their own way.  Where once they appeared to be a column of tanks, inexorably pushing their way across cyberspace, they now look as though they will have to scrabble to hold their current position, just like everyone else.

As I write, Demand Media’s shares are trading at $7.90 each, having been as low as $5.24.  Not Stalingrad by a long chalk – but surely evidence that Google’s Marshall February is not to be dismissed lightly.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

December 5th, 2011 at 9:17 am

Local press: adrift without a compass and in danger of disappearing

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I met the editor of one of Britain’s oldest regional dailies at a social event recently.  We chatted about the worrying state of the media and with a resigned sigh he said:  “I am hoping that the paper will see me out”.  He is in his mid-50s and the title he edits has been published since the early days of Victoria’s reign.

It was not a carefully considered opinion, nor an official announcement – but I suspect that it tells you something of how adrift the management of Britain’s regional press has become.  Few seem to see any real future for their titles beyond getting out with their own nest suitably feathered.  Indeed, as I write dark rumours are abroad that one of the regional press ‘big three’ (Trinity Mirror, Johnson Press and Newsquest/Garnett) is about to announce the complete closure of some of its best known, and biggest selling daily titles.

Of course the nation’s attention is currently concentrated on the national media – although if you ask most MPs they will tell you that they are more concerned about the demise of their local papers than with the misdeeds of some of the nationals.   But in a few dark corners, some thought is being given to whether anything can save local media from their seemingly inevitable slide.

Neil Fowler, for example, the Guardian research fellow at Nuffield College, came up with a 10 point plan to save local newspapers – Jon Slattery republished it here.  It is not altogether without merit – although the idea of a debt write-off is a bit rich for companies that have treated their employees abominably while extracting returns on capital of as much at 30%.

More worrying, though, nothing that Fowler suggests would cure regional newspapers of the mixture of arrogance and flat footedness that they have made their trademark in recent years.  The most perfect example of this is in the success of thebusinesspages.com.  Johnston Press can’t really be blamed for allowing the The Yorkshire Post’s business editor to waltz out of the door and snatch a decent chunk of their market from under their noses – after all, it was a new and original idea that he had.

What is astonishing is that the publishers of the Manchester Evening News and the Birmingham Post sat back and let him do the same again, after his already well-publicised success in Leeds.

The ‘Confidential’ group of websites is another example of the kind of venture that newspapers themselves could be spearheading.   Regional newspapers used to have their commercial departments strangle at birth, any who had the audacity to try publishing under their noses.  Today they appear to adopt the attitude of a pensioner watching the local children steal all the apples from their garden with a shrug that says – ‘oh well, at least they are being eaten’.

There have been local news triumphs.  During the recent riots, Wolverhampton’s Express and Star saw daily visits to it website swell to 835,000 – which is pretty good for a town whose population is 240,000.  Archant’s Ipswich newspapers reporting of the Steve Wright/Ipswich murders trail saw teams of reporters covering the court case in short shifts so that the website could be updated hourly as the case proceeded.  But heartening as these examples are, they are both responses to a news challenge, rather than innovation in the business of journalism.

Declining sales and a tight advertising market make this a desperately difficult market in which to innovate.   But unless local papers do start thinking anew, they are on a certain course for catastrophe.  In 2009, Enders Analysis predicted that half of all local newspapers would shut within five years.  Sadly, not much has happened in the intervening period to contradict this view.  What a shame that in all the earnest attention that is being focused on the media as a result of the Leveson inquiry, almost none will consider local newspapers.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 21st, 2011 at 5:02 am

E-publish and be damned – emerging trends of the digital book economy

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Photo by thekellyscope (Flickr)


Analysis by Alex Klaushofer.

Those trying to follow the changing fortunes of book publishing in the digital revolution have had a tough time of it trying to discern the direction things are taking. But, finally, in the last quarter of this year, a few trends are beginning to emerge.

First fact: the long-predicted shift from physical to digital publishing is gathering pace: according to a survey by FutureBook, independent publishers are predicting that digital sales could account for 15% of sales by the year’s end.

The shift heightens the rather fraught issue of digital royalties which has been dividing authors and publishers since e-books appeared on the scene. Authors, arguing that the removal of printing costs should free up more of the book’s revenues to come back to the creator, have been seeking a cut of 50%, while publishers – maintaining that a fifty-fifty split fails to take into account the true costs of publishing – have tended to offer a maximum of 25%, a rate which has become increasingly standard across the industry.

However, it seems that the gap between the two positions is beginning to narrow, with the Society of Authors reporting that royalties paid out on e-books are increasingly 30-35%, a rise attributed to its general secretary Nichola Solomon to effective lobbying. Meanwhile, there are signs of a similar upwards movement in the US: The Bookseller in August reported that e-royalties were increasingly moving to 30-35%.

The differing perspectives of authors and publishers reflect the widespread ignorance about the new economics of e-publishing. In a clear-eyed breakdown of the costs in June this year, Tom Tivnan points out that the lack of transparency about the financial model underpinning e-books is contributing to the suspicion that publishers may be raking it in. Noting that publishing an e-book involves conversion to digital files and digital warehousing, as well as the usual labour-intensive costs of editing and marketing, he proposes a compromise royalty of 40%.

Part of the reason for publishers’ caginess about costs of e-books may be that, with the market price yet to settle at an agreed point, they don’t yet have a clear idea of the revenues they can generate. Other uncertainties include how far the new format affects what people are most likely to buy to read on-screen. There is some suggestion that popular genres are particularly suited to the medium: the US thriller writer John Locke claims to have made over £375,000 from online publishing this year, for example.

The limitations and opportunities of on-screen reading are also leading publishers to experiment with length, commissioning work written specifically for e-consumption. The idea that people can only absorb bite-sited chunks of information via phone or computer has been beating a retreat in journalism for some time, with longform articles finding a ready audience. Now the publishing world is following suit, with initiatives such as Brain Shots, a series of short monographs aimed at the ‘time-poor’ reader published by Random House,
and Collca, a publisher producing e-books for phone apps that can inform the reader on a given subject in an hour.

It’s easy to see how the lack of transparency about the financial benefits of the e-book, combined with the difficulties besetting traditional publishing and the openess of the digital world is fuelling the newly-respectable trend of self-publishing. Some authors are wondering whether signing up with a traditional publishing house is worth all the bother, with a few established writers such as Stephen Leather taking the indie route online while maintaining a deal with publishers for the physical versions of their books. This kind of pragmatic approach gives authors the possibility of earning royalties of up 70% on Amazon while putting pressure on the publishing world to prove it is genuinely adding value.

And, with the Christmas exchange of e-readers giving a further boost to electronic reading, these trends look certain to accelerate in 2012.

Written by Alex

October 17th, 2011 at 7:08 am

Leveson v. the moguls – can the lawyer who let Ken Dodd slip, outwit Murdoch?

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Review by Tim Dawson.

The British press has rarely been in such a fix.  During two weeks in July, apparently unshakeable pillars crumbled to dust.  News International was humbled, the company’s BSkyB deal collapsed, the News Of The World closed and several senior officers of the Metropolitan Police resigned.

Buffeted by its own proximity to the Murdoch empire, the government has initiated an inquiry which will consider what ails British journalism, and what can be done to improve matters. It will be chaired by The Rt Hon Lord Justice Leveson whose prosecution of Ken Dodd for tax evasion famously failed, despite an otherwise impeccable legal career.

Sadly, in all the fulminating about the evil octogenarian emperor, relatively little has been heard from journalists themselves about what the think ought to be done.

So the publication of the submission from the Campaign For Press and Broadcasting Freedom A Chance For Change is welcome.  Not so good, however, is that its invective is informed by a critique of the media that dates back to the Wapping dispute, and today is more museum piece than rallying cry.

At its heart is a staggering failure to understand the nature of newspapers.  “Is the press, and not just News International, above the law, beyond regulation and accountable to no one but itself?” it asks rhetorically and then, to no great surprise, answers in the affirmative. “If democracy is to survive, this situation needs urgent remedy,” CPBF fulminates.

British newspapers are unusual in a numbers of ways, as consumer products and by way of international comparison.  The vast majority are purchased daily from newsagents.  If the buying public don’t like what their paper is saying, they have the most immediate remedy imaginable – they can keep their money in their pockets.  Or they can buy an alternative.  There is more choice of national newspapers in the UK than in nearly any other county.  This is the basic means by which newspapers are held to account, by millions of people, every single day of the week.

CPBF, of course, would have you believe that newspaper buyers are dupes, fed wicked subliminal messages by malign owners and their henchmen in the editor’s chairs. It is a tired insult, born of a dislike of the politics of much of the press and a rather lofty disdain for ‘ordinary people’. As anyone who has worked in newspapers knows, the buying public are highly sophisticated consumers who are wooed daily with products that require enormous imagination, talent and investment.  Far more effort goes into figuring out how to make newspapers chime with readers’ interests and proclivities than in promoting the proprietor’s agenda.

What particularly irks the report’s authors is that the most successful newspaper stables in the UK are News International (for whom I undertake on-going freelance work) and Associated (publishers of The Daily Mail).  Not only are they generally right wing, but neither recognises independent trades unions.  Like it or not, however, both also produce the most successful newspapers available today and, to judge from September’s ABCs, their consumers have demonstrated an extraordinary degree of loyalty, despite the scandals.

Happily, CPBF’s three-fold prescriptions are slightly more grounded than their analysis.  Media ownership should be regulated in such a way that newspaper owners with a national market share of 20% or more should be limited to a 20% stake in any broadcast media in which the are involved.  There should be a statutory right to the correction of factual inaccuracies with financial penalties for newspapers that fail to satisfy the aggrieved and there should be tighter regulation of contacts between government ministers and media executives.

All worthy enough, but it is worth considering what would be the consequence of enacting any of these might be.  Rules on density of media interests sound laudable – but were CPBF’s model to be applied, it would almost certainly reduce overall investment in the media.  Perhaps that is a price worth paying for a more pluralistic society, but I suspect that it would also mean a significant reduction in the number of journalists in reasonably well-paying jobs.

A statutory version of the Press Complaints Commission might improve standards.  Funnily enough, though, in the cases about which CPBF professes to care the most – ordinary people about whom untrue stories have been written – my personal experience is that the PCC provides an effective remedy.

On those few occasions when complaints have been made about my work to the PCC (none of which have been upheld, I might add) I have been required to present my case, and my notebooks to the managing editor and the lawyers. My work was then scrutinised in an atmosphere of chilly seriousness that left me thinking that I would be out of the door if I could not provide watertight justifications for everything that I had written.  Statutory penalties, over and above the libel-law lottery, can only make newspapers more cautious and journalists’ lives more difficult.

The case for routine recording of contacts between ministers and the media is obvious – although, no amount of paperwork and oversight will remove the unofficial means by which politicians and the media cross-pollinate.

The most glaring admission in CPBF’s manifesto is any clear sense of what the media of the future might be like.  Indeed, given the speed at which the public’s attention is switching away from printed media, in years to come it may seem that the entire Leveson enquiry had more to do with the past than the future.

I share CPBF’s enthusiasm for more plural media ownership and control, but what is needed is some idea of how that might happen, be it levies on broadband providers to fund local news, for example, or tax concessions for owner-operated news services.  Fond as the left is of refighting the wars of yesteryear, figuring out how a new media model might work is a far more fruitful undertaking than trying to settle old scores.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 10th, 2011 at 5:53 am

E-publishing provides ‘alternative avenue’ for journalists

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Amid all the gloom about the difficulties the digital age have brought both the media and publishing, Dan Franklin is almost Tiggerish about the liberating possibilities of the e-book for journalism.

As digital editor at Random House, Franklin is in the vanguard of a small group of publishers who are developing the e-book as a form – depending on which industry you view it from – of long-form journalism or short-form publishing.

Brain Shots, launched by Random House some fifteen months ago, is a series of five to ten-thousand word monographs which aim to capture the essence of a book for readers who are ‘time poor’ and ‘on the move’, but keen to get up on a subject in an hour or so. Priced at a ‘sweet-spot’ of £2.99, the series has so far included contributions on the student riots by Dan Hancox and international organised crime by Misha Glenny.

‘The idea is that you can start to conceive of projects that normally you feel would be commercial suicide.’ says Franklin. ‘It lets us do more current affairsy-type publishing which are close to the times.’

Clearly aware that speed is industrially-relative, he quickly adds a caveat: ‘I’m not going to pretend that we can do breaking news. We’re working in the in-between space when you don’t want to do the full-on 100 000-word definitive book, but want to do something on a subject in some length, and at some depth.’

With traditional journalism in crisis, he anticipates that the form could provide ‘a solution to a problem’, acting as ‘a service to journalists’ struggling to find outlets for their in-depth work.

And given their facility with social media, it seems that journalists are becoming increasingly attractive to publishers. ‘Freelances are really used to putting themselves out there and getting everything they can,’ says Franklin. ‘There’s a real hunger there. All authors need to be like that.’

So what about the money? Is short-form publishing likely to be a worthwhile avenue for cash-poor journalists?

It’s hard to tell. Beyond saying that authors get the advance-plus-royalty deal traditional to publishing, Franklin is, perhaps understandably, cagey about figures. ‘At the moment we’re not really making much money on Brain Shots,’ he says. ‘We’re going to wait till the end of the year to make a judgement call on whether it’s profitable.’

In a further warning against seeing the new form as a panacea, he adds that digital publishing only saves printing costs by 10%, leaving the publisher to find the usual editorial, production and marketing costs.

While waiting for the numbers to emerge, Random House is concentrating on establishing Brain Shots as a brand in the mind of potential customers. The next series, says Franklin, will feature some ‘headliner names’, with contributions from well-known journalists and a more general topic selection. The series will continue to exploit the zeitgeist, with something on the London riots and a piece on the Egyptian revolution in the pipeline.

Beyond that, Franklin predicts that the new opportunities afforded by the e-book are likely to be short-lived: ‘I think it will settle down and become more rigid and regimented soon, but at the moment everything’s in the mix.’

Written by Alex

September 19th, 2011 at 6:22 am

Digital subscriptions – no investment, no sales

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Comment by Tim Dawson.

The publication of the first audited circulation figures for digital magazine sales did little to make the case that online subscriptions are the future.  Only two magazines have sold more than 1,000 subscriptions – Men’s Health and Hello!  And neither of them had sold enough to give much cheer to those who mourn the forests of trees needed to feed the UK’s magazine habit.

While these figures do demonstrate that magazine buyers are unlikely to migrate to digital subscriptions unprompted, I don’t believe that they are conclusive evidence that there is little or no market for such products.

Anyone who has ever worked in a magazine subscriptions department knows what hard work it is making sales.  Direct marketing campaigns are poured over for their response rates; staff are deployed up and down the country to pursue ‘product sampling opportunities’ and the postal details of ‘prospects’ sifted from muddy streams of personal data like nuggets of gold.

It is hard to find a single magazine in the UK that has deployed similar efforts to sell their digital editions.  Indeed, most appear only to have been drawn to the notice of readers when ‘house’ advertisements were needed to fill empty space. 

Very few fingers are needed to count the number of publishers that have put much effort into their digital editions.  The vast majority are selling facsimile editions produced and sold by third parties on their behalf. 

There are two consequences of this state of affairs.  The first is that the market remains wide open.  Anyone who thinks that they could make a decent fist of online magazine sales should either get into the market now – or be knocking on the doors of the big publishing houses to make their pitch.

The second is that, for the time being, News International’s paywall remains the only seriously resourced attempt by a mainstream consumer publisher  to create a product that is good enough to persuade consumers to part with any money.  Looking at The Times iPad edition the other day, I was reminded of what a brilliant product it is.  Whether it is paying for itself, as some at News International suggest, is hard to say.  It is such a pleasure to use that for the time being it is the benchmark.

No doubt we will be consuming printed magazines for many years to come.  It is hard to believe that the sector will not continue to witness a slow decline in sales – particularly on the newsstands, which appear to have been particularly hard hit in recent times.  If publishers want to see their titles really thrive in the future, they will have to find new ways to make sales – and that will require imagination, hard work and investment.

Digital ABCs at August 2011

Men’s Health ; Natmag Rodale : 1,746

HELLO! ; Hello! Ltd : 1,165

Stuff ; Haymarket Consumer Media : 981

Esquire ; Hearst Magazines UK : 825

Harpers Bazaar ; Hearst Magazines UK : 622

Wired ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 622

GQ ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 574

Tatler ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 359

House & Garden ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 351

New Scientist – US/Canadian Sales ; Reed Business Information Limited : 349

Autocar ; Haymarket Consumer Media : 348

Cosmopolitan ; Hearst Magazines UK : 259

Vogue ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 185

Four Four Two ; Haymarket Consumer Media : 178

World Of Interiors ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 168

Conde Nast Traveller ; Conde Nast Publications Ltd : 102

Written by Tim Dawson

September 12th, 2011 at 3:51 am

Taking the news out of the papers – can the UK’s media empires survive?

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Analysis by Tim Dawson.

Might British newspaper be beacons of innovation and experiment in a news market convulsed with technologically-led change?  Or are they venerable, but doomed dinosaurs whose death agonies are causing them to perform extraordinary convulsions it a final, futile attempt to adapt to a new environment?

One could happily reach either conclusion considered the dramatically diverging paths that newspaper groups are taking in response to declining sales and a tough advertising market.  Last week, The Guardian announced that it was moving towards a ‘digital first’ strategy and a day later confirmed that its record losses (£134 million over the last four years) were on-going.

Quite what ‘digital first’ will actually mean was slightly opaque, suffice to say that the printed newspaper will recede in importance, and pagination will be reduced.  Breaking news will increasingly appear online, and the paper, for so long as it continues to be printed, with lead with comment.  Inevitably, there will be job losses.  For the plan to succeed, The Guardian needs to double its revenue from digital operations from the current figure of around £47 million per annum.

Across London at News International’s Thomas More Square offices, hopes are pinned on the paywall behind which online editions of The Times, The Sunday Times and The News Of The World now reside.  In March the company announced that it has sold 222,000 digital ‘products’, among them 79,000 online subscriptions to the papers.  Separately, the iPad editions of the broadsheet papers are understood to have 25,000 and 22,000 readers.

To commentators schooled in the expectations of page impressions my the million, News International’s sales figures appear derisory.  Some routinely dismiss the paywall as an abject failure.  The company, meanwhile, insists that sales are ‘on target’ and that, unlike the millions of impression received by some papers sites, they are at least collecting a decent sum of real money.

NI and The Guardian’s executives are regularly set up in pugilistic opposition, scrapping over the relative merits of free-to-view and paywalls, but there are no less interesting developments elsewhere.  The Independent now offers a full-content newspaper alongside a 20p ‘lite’ version.  And London’s Evening Standard, which is now given away, is thought to be close to profit.

Naysayers might easily detect death-throes in all of these moves, but my bet is that that, while some of the corporate contortions through which newspaper publishers are twisting themselves are painful, they are unlikely to be terminal.  Whether at the end of them these companies will remotely resemble their current incarnations is another matter entirely. 

Looking at other sectors, there are plenty of examples of organisations whose forced evolutions have left their previous forms hard to recall.  Western Union, for example, grew to become a telecommunications giant by sending telegrams.  It endures as a money transfer company, and has not processed a telegram in five years.

On current trajectories, it is quite possible to imagine The Guardian upping sticks to become the United States liberal conscience (it has form, when it comes to relocating, don’t forget), or to foresee a time when NI’s newspapers become news brands available only to Sky Televisions 10 million subscribers.  To some, either of those end points is the equivalent of death, to others a potent sign of renewal.

Written by Tim Dawson

June 20th, 2011 at 6:22 am

Hard data shatters hyperlocal dream

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Crystal Palace transmitter by Lancey (Flickr)


Report by Alex Klaushofer.

When hyperlocal publisher Chris Thomas was casting about for a topic for his postgraduate research, he decided to investigate some of the claims about the rise of hyperlocalism, and come up with some hard data about who is using them, and why.

‘There’s a lot of hype about hyperlocals, but there’s very scant research,’ says Thomas, who has just completed an MA in e-commerce at the University of Wales Trinity St David. For his dissertation, he decided to take a close look at how far such websites have succeeded in replacing more traditional local media, and the profile of their keenest users.

The London suburb he chose for his case study – which happens to be the much-loved habitat of your correspondent – was a rich source of material. Known for its strong community spirit and villlagey feel, Crystal Palace has a healthy range of hyperlocal media, from long-established community website Virtual Norwood to the celebratory local lifestyle mag the Transmitter. Thomas himself runs the online edition of its predecessor the palacemag

He first conducted a survey, leaving paper forms in the local library and cafes and inviting online responses via his website. Almost two hundred people responded, and the findings were then supplemented by a longitudinal study, conducted in February this year, of the ways in which people use Virtual Norwood and the community website for the neighbouring area Sydenham Town.

The key findings suggest that people see hyperlocal media as one small part of the information sources available to them about what is going on locally. ‘Users interact wtih hyperlocal media primarily for their information needs – they’re not looking for entertainment, or community interaction,’ says Thomas.

And it seems that digital media lags behind good old-fashioned word of mouth communication. Person-to-person communication ranked top of the list of thirteen channels delivering local news and information, with social networking sites such as Facebook and Twitter coming in the bottom five.

Other results are somewhat disappointing for those who hail hyperlocals as the means for a new wave of citizen-based community activism. Just 3.8% of the members of the community websites were responsible for all contributions to debates, a finding which rather debunks the idea that the web is bringing about a new form of participatory democracy.

Meanwhile, the demographic of those taking part is narrow, with the under-twenties notable in their absence. The standard of users’ education was unusually high – more than double that of the 2001 census data and 22% higher than the average person in the research sample.

‘Hyperlocal websites are affected by an extremely narrow social demographic, middle class, middle aged and highly educated,’ says Thomas. ‘This is far higher than is seen in general web use and much higher than in general society. This lack of diversity could mean that similar opinions are being made by similar voices.’

Shrewdly, Thomas also uncovered some hard data to evidence the dynamics of local politics by asking whether fear of negative reaction put people off contributing to discussions: some 61% of respondents said they had hesitated in posting something due to fear of criticism.

The anecdotal responses that emerged en route were particularly revealing. ‘Some members of the forum complained of pettiness, and people hiding behind their avatars,’ he reports. Other respondents suggested that some posters used multiple screen names to launch attacks on people with opposing views.

‘It seems that participation inequality is higher in hyperlocal websites than in forums in general,’ says Thomas. ‘This could be because people are more passionate about their own locale, as what happens there affects them directly. This is particularly the case in areas such as planning, crime, shops and services. When key local campaigners get involved in postings they will have their own agenda and try to influence others as much as they can.’

So what should media-watchers conclude from these findings? At this early stage in the digital revolution, such research is as valuable as it is rare. But rather than throw out the baby with the hyperlocal bathwater, we should perhaps use it as a reality check, a reminder that the claim that new media alone is capable of opening up a brave new world, should be treated with caution. It’s still the old world, with all its human failings, and a bit of new technology thrown in.

Written by Alex

June 13th, 2011 at 5:01 am

New pay-what-you-want mag shows appetite for longform journalism

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Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

This week sees the dropping onto doormats of Issue One of The Blizzard – a quality, quarterly football magazine offered to readers on a pay-what-you-like basis.

The digital edition of the magazine came out on Thursday in a launch timed to come ahead of the Champions League Final at the weekend. Founded by sports writers disenchanted with the superficial, sensationalist coverage of football, the digital-print publication showcases long-form articles on the beautiful game, and is aimed at ‘the thinking fan’.

According to editor and co-owner Jonathan Wilson, the initial plan was to publish a print-only magazine. But the idea of producing a PDF version for advertising purposes morphed into a combined digital and print publication for which subscribers would pay what they thought it was worth, either on a regular or one-off basis.

Issue Zero, launched in March this year, went unexpectedly into profit, selling almost 8000 downloads. ‘I tweeted once. We had no advertising at all,’ says a surprised-sounding Wilson.

But anyone getting carried away with the idea that a single tweet can launch a thousand mags would do well to reflect on the constituents of The Blizzard’s success. As football correspondent for the Guardian, Wilson has over 17,000 followers on Twitter, all of whom make up the target market for a magazine on the sport.

The collective of contributors who writes for the Blizzard form a stellar cast of sports journalists, bringing names with brand-recognition to a niche-readership.

Nonetheless, The Blizzard’s early success demonstrates that, if get the product and readership right, there is categorically an appetite for in-depth journalism. The print edition of the magazine – described by Wilson as ‘almost Victorian’ in its presentation – is unashamedly text-centric, and features articles up to 13,000 words long.

‘The idea of The Blizzard isn’t that you would skim through it on the bus, but that you sit down and read it with a cup of coffee or glass of wine,’ says Wilson. ‘It occupies that middle ground between a magazine and a book.’

‘Would people be prepared to read that much on screen?’ he adds rhetorically. ‘It appears that they are, which came as a slight surprise to me.’

With sales already ahead of the curve the owners had initially envisaged – they anticipated making nothing in Year One – the future of the magazine looks sustainable. It may even turn out to be fairly right-on in the way it treats its writers, as it has pledged to pay everyone a share of the profits.

‘At the moment nobody’s making a fortune,’ says Wilson. ‘But in the long term we’ll hopefully be paying above the market rate, and at least not too far below.’

Written by Alex

May 30th, 2011 at 5:43 am

Sex, death and celebrity – the other enemies of quality journalism

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Photo by Je@an (Flickr)

Comment by Alex Klaushofer.

It’s one of those stories behind the story – the fact that alongside the well-worn narrative about the crisis in financing journalism runs another tale of a cultural shift which, over the past decade, has led to the British media becoming less and less receptive to serious reporting.

In the interview I did with him last month, editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism Iain Overton explained that his main challenge lay not so much in finding the money to do in-depth investigative reporting, but the media outlets prepared to publish it.

‘Persuading the gatekeepers of mass media to allow us space to explain complicated issues is our biggest difficulty,’ he said. ‘The problem is not so much doing quality journalism, but trying to translate it into someting that sells in today’s media landscape.’

Overton described a commissioning culture in which the sensationalist and the simple pushes out stories seen as dry or complex as editors and publishers compete, in a fast-moving and fragmented media scene, for ‘as many eyeballs as possible’.

His comments vividly called to mind my own experience of trying to place foreign stories. When I published a book on Lebanon a few years ago, I got a call from the features editor of a high-circulation woman’s magazine wanting an article. Initially, I demurred – I couldn’t produce the kind of ‘gang-raped in Rwanda’ piece the magazine tended to run, but the editor insisted that something gentler, more human was wanted, and we discussed variations on ‘love in a warzone’. At her request, I then wrote a detailed proposal about the difficulties facing couples marrying across Lebanon’s sectarian divide.

But the idea was vetoed higher up for failing to contain any honour killings, which don’t generally happen in Lebanon. ‘Flip-flops by the concrete, that’s what they want,’ explained a chastened-sounding editor. ‘A woman’s got to die, or nearly die, as a result of her marriage, or we can’t run it.’

I had a similar experience with a national newspaper that should have known better. In the summer of 2006, Israel was busily bombing Lebanon, and the British navy was sent to rescue the Brits resident there. Among the several thousand British nationals who were shipped away were a small number of Lebanese who, by a quirk of history and family, held British passports and used them to flee the fighting. They were being housed in temporary accommodation at Essex University courtesy of the council, and I was commissioned to write a feature on them.

The exiles were a diverse group of all ages and religions, some bewildered and without much English, others educated and enterprising. They were, in fact, a microcosm of the society I had come to know in Middle East, now bizarrely transplanted onto a British university campus, the latest instance of the diaspora that characterises the Lebanese condition.

A few days later, I was surprised to see, in the same paper, a feature on Lebanon telling the story of a Shia woman killed in the bombing. The picture that accompanied it showed a female corpse splayed over rubble, the head encased in a hijab – an image neatly confirming the western stereotype of Arabs as Muslim and dead, preferably by violent means. The commissioning editor no longer wanted my story of displaced Lebanese because, he said – I’m quoting verbatum – ”they’re not dead, and they have accommodation”.’

I won’t bore you with the numerous other instances I could cite. But such examples seem to illustrate, as do Overton’s travails in remedying the gap in investigative reporting, a threat to quality journalism as great as the lack of money.

It’s all too easy, when we focus on the financial side, to forget that the problem is not just about money – it’s about how money affects attitudes and behaviour. But if journalism is to fulfill its raison d’etre of telling the truth about the world rather than distorting it, it’s essential to remember the complex interplay of cash and culture.

Written by Alex

May 9th, 2011 at 3:48 am