New Model Journalism

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Inspired union: strategies for journalism to flourish

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Fiona Cullinan, Christian Payne and Lucia Adams

Conference report by Tim Dawson

NUJ freelances displayed an innovative range of strategies to survive and prosper at a one-day conference.  A capacity audience packed the event to hear from more than twenty speakers describing initiatives including: instant-video documentary making, selling into new foreign markets, self-publishing via Kindle, and creating iPad app publications.

Other novel funding sources and work models included crowd-funding foreign photographic assignments, working as a journalist on behalf of brands, cross-funding journalism with authoring corporate ‘white papers’ and, a number of successful co-operatively produced publications.

The event, organised by the London Freelance Branch, aided by the NUJ’s Freelance Office, was held at the London Welsh Centre on 17 November 2012.  Open to all, in excess of 200 people attended, more than half of them women, many of whom contributed to the lively event with their own questions and experiences.

Among the highlights was photographer, Guy Smallman, who has undertaken numerous assignments in Afghanistan, most self-funded.  By entering the country as a non-embedded journalist he has been able to cover stories that were not accessible to colleagues who worked more closely with the military.  The reputation that he has built as a result has more recently enabled him to source crowd-funding larger projects.

Christian Payne (documentally.com) describes himself as a social technologist, multi-tasking communicator or blogger.  After a career as a staff and freelance photographer, he now blogs and makes video documentaries, some following his own interests, others as commercial assignments.

Payne’s total engagement with Twitter started when, after a car crash, he used the micro-blogging service to ask, ‘what do I do now?’  “It was the first point of using social channels when I wasn’t bragging about myself.  I showed some humility, made myself look an arse and loads of people came to my aid.  At that point I decided to embrace the networks and be a storymaker”, he said.

He subsequently made a video from photographs he had taken in Iraq.  When he realised that more people saw his pictures on YouTube than had seen the same photographs when they were published in national newspapers, he decided that he was on to something.  “Although I wasn’t being paid for my pictures, I was building this huge audience of people who were interested in me, and some of them started to offer me work”, he said.

Fiona Cullinan’s (fionacullinan.com) entré to blogging came during a slow spell while she had been booked to work for a contract publisher.  “I would suggest to every journalist that they blog – not necessarily to monetise what they are doing but as a digital playground and as a place to experiment and to show potential clients what you can do”, she said.  Using her blog as a hub, Cullinan started writing about how her working life was developing – particularly as subbing opportunities shrank.  Subsequently, six months emailing a digital agency where she wanted to work eventually bore fruit.

“Freelancing has been a rollercoaster – but it suits me”, said Hina Pandya (@hinapublish).  After a varied career, five years ago she decided to freelance full-time.  Since then, relentless networking and going with the flow of work have been her watchwords.  After becoming frustrated with commissioning editors who would not pay, she published her own travel guide as an eBook and said that sales, to date, have exceeded her expectations.  Commissioned by the Syfy tv channel to blog about a television program ‘Continum’, Pandya found that her related Tweets about the program gained a significant following.  The broadcaster subsequently agreed to pay her to publish in this way.  Her tips for aspirant freelances are to make pitches short and sharp, try to negotiate your fee upwards every time, and invest in your own training.

Huma Yusuf spoke about ‘Breaking the BRICs’ or the media markets in such emerging countries as Brazil, India, Russia and China.  “Media is booming in these countries”, she said.  “In India, newspaper sales are growing at a rate of 1.5% a year and the Times of India has a circulation of 4.3m”.  Much of the media is trying to operate 24/7 so there is a desperate thirst for content – particularly news about how their country is viewed abroad, how their countrymen conduct themselves or are perceived abroad or more general diaspora news.

To break into these markets, Yusuf suggested initially offering material to smaller titles – for example in India the magazines Caravan, the Far East Economic Review or Outlook.  With your reputation established in ‘the only market that matters – their own’, approaches can then be credibly made to larger titles such as The Times of India.  Happily, at least in the case of South Asia, editors tend to display their email addresses on their paper’s websites, and most are ‘addicted’ to social media.  Pay rates vary between $50 and $1,000 for 600 words.  The best way to up these rates, Yusuf suggested, is to offer ‘multi-media’ packages, as many Indian papers have very ‘snazzy websites’ that are perilously thin on content.

The issue of credibility in foreign markets was also addressed by Max Glaskin (@cyclingscience1).  Specialising in engineering and technology, 20 years ago he faxed his details to 150 US magazines.  The replies were few, but made clear that a ‘as a Limey he was unlikely to be able to understand the complexities of American culture’.  Six months later, however, he received a fax from ‘Biophotonics International’ seeking a European contributor.  With credibility established at one journal he picked up work from publications in the same stable – and was then able to use those contacts to leverage work on other US titles.

Work in south east Asia came via a friend who moved there, that Glaskin nagged for work.  When his pal moved on, Glaskin stuck with the title and then made himself known to his friend’s new publication.  “I never pitch stories”, he said.  “I simply let publications know that I am here and that I can supply them whatever they want, so long as it interests me.”  Once his reputation was made with one or two ex-pat journalists, word of his competence was passed around.

Examples discussed at the event varied between techniques that have allowed jobbing freelances to reach new clients and extend their workbase, and more substantial business ventures.  The magazine that Una Murphy edits in Belfast certainly falls into the latter category.  View is a free-to-download digital magazine serving Northern Ireland’s voluntary and community sector.  Set up with Brian Pelan, like Murphy, a 20-year media veteran, the monthly magazine received modest grant support to get it established, but now survives on advertising from suppliers to voluntary organisations.  It is now generating more than £2,000 a month in revenue and is well-established in its target market.

Mark Watts, editor-in-chief of subscription investigative news service, Exaro (exaronews.com) said that although the traditional media model is breaking down, opportunities are also being thrown up.  “The real enemy of journalism is not Leveson, but accountants”, he said.  “Accountants told us that churning copy was more profitable than real journalism, and they were behind the budget cuts at the BBC.  But all over the place real journalism enterprises are springing up to meet real-news needs – so freelances should keep their eyes open, and if you can’t see what you are looking for, maybe do it yourself”.  Watts did warn, however, that freelance looking for work at Exaro should obey the old rule – check out the product first – and make sure that they have the right range of skills, experience and contacts for investigative journalism.

David Boyle the author of The Case For Media Co-ops described several publications that have enjoyed success anew, having adopted a co-operative model. The West Highland Free Press, for example, was bought by its 13 employees in 2009.  Today, they pay themselves well and, after servicing debt, make a return of two per cent on capital.

Marlborough News Online, in Wiltshire, was established as a workers’ co-operative by four journalists.   Providing news for a town without a newspaper, it already generates sufficient revenue to employ all four members for one day a week each and is ‘on track’ to increase this to full times jobs within five years, said Boyle.

At Ethical Consumer magazine, declining advertising revenue threatened the business’ survival.  An appeal to readers, however, raised an investment of £200,000.  The readers are now the magazine’s owners and receive a four percent return on their outlay.  “In the conventional media, the number of titles and reporters is down and so are circulations – but there are outliers where they are proving that local readers do want local content”, said Boyle.  “The great benefit of co-ops is that young talent is in the boardroom from the start, because all staff are involved”.

Alex Klaushofer, co-author of Help Yourself: New ways to make copyright pay, and joint editor of this site, (@alexklaushofer) highlighted a number of trends.  There is life yet in print, she suggested, citing The Blizzard, a quarterly journal of long-form writing about football.  The jury is out on advertising, with profitable hyperlocal news publications such as the Filton Voice (filtonvoice.co.uk) confounding predictions that the advertising model is definitively broken. Meanwhile, foundation and grant funding is supporting a range of new media from investigative heavy hitters ProPublica in the United States to village newsletter The Ambler, in Northumberland. But the States are considerably ahead of the UK in funding quality journalism, innovative practice and research into the changing media landscape, she observed.

Other initiatives mentioned at the event included Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s Downfall, the story of Glasgow Rangers’ recent travails that was spawned from a blog and has now sold more than 10,000 copies, the Berlin Newspaper Die Tageszeitung, which is owned by its 30,000 subscribers and The Bicycle Reader, a Kindle-only magazine whose first edition was produced with no capital and has already sold 1,000 copies.

Closing the conference, NUJ general secretary Michelle Stansistreet committed the NUJ to extending its services for freelance members.  “It is really clear to me that that this has been a fantastically useful day and as our industry is increasingly freelance, I know how important it is for you all to keep your skills up to date – but it is also good for me to hear from you what you need from the union”.  Stanistreet promised that contributions made during the day would inform the union’s work in the months to come.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

November 22nd, 2012 at 3:44 pm

OUT NOW: Free ebooklet for writers from New Model Journalism

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By Alex Klaushofer.

Against the background of change and struggle that has afflicted the media and publishing in recent years, one strand of good news has consistently emerged. This good news story of the crisis in journalism tells of innovation and experimentation, of pioneering practices and the opening up of new frontiers, as writers of all kinds develop cutting-edge models to sustain quality work.

So we’re pleased to have the opportunity to gather together some of the best, and most distinctive, examples of this pioneering trend. Some of the case studies, such as Disability News Service and iPad magazine Sail Racing, are updates on initiatives we’ve been tracking for a while. It’s been great to see them going from strength to strength, refining their models as they do so.

Other experiments, such as community newspaper The Ambler or author Simon Winchester’s enhanced app Skulls, are new to us or have received little coverage in the British media press. Most are working as individuals or in small groups, and all are entrepreneurial – but not relentlessly so. Some are combining their new projects with other ambitions or commitments, fitting them into their own temperaments and particular circumstances. In every case, the innovators share the lessons learnt (so far), details of the nuts and bolts of their models, and offer ideas on how their models might be replicated by others.

The forthcoming e-pamphlet has been generously sponsored by the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society and supported by the NUJ. Freely available to members of both organisations, it is effectively a gift to the writing community. The hope is that readers will draw both inspiration and practical advice from its contents.

‘Help yourself: New ways to make copyright pay’, is available here.

Written by Alex

July 2nd, 2012 at 6:13 am

iPad sailing magazine trims its sails

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Update by: Tim Dawson

Eighteen months after launch, Justin Chisholm’s iPad magazine sailracing’s app has been downloaded 85,000 times and he is close to employing an advertising sales director.  Nevertheless, he has ascended a steep learning curve since producing his launch issue.

His first change off tack was the cover charge.  Initially, the magazine sold for £3.99 a copy through the Apple store.  Within a couple of issues, Chisholm had decided that a free model, supported by advertising, made more business sense.  “It is important to be able to show advertisers that I am reaching a big market”, he says.

He is also frank about the work load of running a magazine single handed.  “It seemed a lot easier to concentrate on growing one revenue stream – advertising – rather than having to keep on top of advertising and subscriptions.

It is not the only business streamlining that he has done either.  Originally he used a separate design agency to put the pages together.  For his next edition he intends to bring that work in house.  “It is amazing how much time can be soaked up in maintaining business relationships”, he explains.  “The designers were great, but tooing and froing with emails, trying to get changes made, and having a similar situation with contributors, just wasted so much time.  There will be a slight deterioration in quality when I take over the design, but the time saving will make a huge difference to me”.

He also plans to branch out from just producing an iPad edition.  That will remain his focus, but from having a shop-front website, his web presence will become more magazine-like, and he intends to make his material available via an RSS feed, so that it can be read via Instapaper and Flipboard.  “So far as the advertisers are concerned, the bigger the audience, the better”.

Until now, Chisholm has taken the lead with advertising sales too and this is set to change.  “I have looked for ad sales people before, but it has been struggle to find someone suitable who was willing to work on commission.  I have found  that person now, but it has required me to completely rethink my business relationship with ad sales”.

To date the magazine has comfortable washed its face, but the surpluses thus far generated have not been enough to give Chisholm a living.  He is confident with the soon-to-be completed restructuring, that the publication will become a lot more profitable.  “The advertisers have always been so positive, and we are the only magazine in our niche, so I am confident that the investment will pay off in the near future.”

 

Written by Tim Dawson

June 25th, 2012 at 11:18 am

Posted in iPad apps,Niche

New, print and profitable – a new model for hyperlocals

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

Print is dying, and hyperlocal websites notoriously difficult to make pay. But one recently-established community magazine is challenging these orthodoxies of the digital age.

Monthly magazine The filtonvoice is the brainchild of Richard Coulter, a former staffer on The Bristol Evening Post. Having taken redundancy from the struggling newspaper, Coulter looked around and noticed that Filton, a well-defined part of Bristol with a population of around 12,000, had local publications aplenty. And they were full of adverts. Yet the editorial material was poor or non-existent.

‘I thought, if I can tap into the commercial success but bring some of the skills that I have in terms of the content, there might be a model here”,’ he told NMJ.

Coulter persuaded the former ad manager of The Evening Post to sell ads on a commission-only basis. Local businesses immediately took space, and Issue One of filtonvoice, published in October 2011 with 16 pages, went immediately into profit.

The page length soon went up to 32, and eight editions later, the magazine hovers between 40-48 pages, depending on how many ads have been sold; since he is not charging for the publication, Coulter feels no obligation to commit to a certain length.

Around 5000 magazines are printed each month and delivered door-to-door by a small team, or left at pick-up points in local shops and community centres.

‘The feedback has been very positive,’ says Coulter. ‘People say it’s just what was needed. They are surprised how much goes on in the community.’

Meanwhile, the advertising revenue the magazine generates pays him a decent wage for the two-and-half-day week he spends on producing it – around 40% of what he was earning as a staff journalist.

In Coulter’s view, the experiment demonstrates that there is an enduring appetite for print publications serving local communities, as well as a market for the advertising to sustain them. He has no plans to go digital-only.

‘I’m not going to get to the point where we don’t need the magazine anymore,’ he says. ‘My view is that I simply do not see where there’s any revenue for news websites digitally.’

He prioritises print, publishing material online only after it has appeared in the magazine. No web-only advertising rates are offered, and so far only one client has requested an online advert.

The keys to success, Coulter thinks, lie in having a well-defined niche with the means to advertise, something that can be replicated by other entrepreneurial journalists in many areas and sectors.

‘Just plunge in and have a go,’ he advises. ‘There is a way of setting this up and being profitable from Day One.’

A fuller version of this case study will appear in ‘New Ways to Make Copyright Pay’, an ebook of pioneering practice that New Model Journalism is producing for the Authors Licensing and Collecting Society

Written by Alex

May 28th, 2012 at 4:29 am

Self-published reporting: journalism’s next frontier

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Interview by Alex Klaushofer.

Marc Herman couldn’t have been more surprised by the success of his Kindle Single The Shores of Tripoli.

‘The interest in the topic completely shocks me,’ he says. ‘I went over there to talk about Libya, and ended up being seen as something of an expert in electronic publishing.’

Within weeks, the book was in the top 300 of Amazon’s rankings, and Herman was being sought after as a speaker – not about inside story of Libya – but about the nuts and bolts of writing a short, journalistic book and selling it direct to readers via Amazon.

The deal, which was arranged with by his agent, gets Herman a royalty of 70% on a publication priced at $1.99.

‘That’s a fair price,’ he says. ‘I don’t expect someone to spend more for one story than an entire magazine. You can sell 99c bagels or entrees at $30. My tendency is to sell bagels.’

The ‘bagel approach’, as we might now call it, has obvious attractions for a time-poor but world-curious reader with only a couple of hours to spend reading about a conflict in a far-off country.

For the journalist, Herman thinks he has discovered the makings of a model that – while not being able to fund an entire living – forms a viable element of a portfolio of projects covering foreign stories. Three months after publication, the book has earned out its research costs and, with new sales every day, is now paying its writer a retrospective wage.

At the same time, the simplicity of the new publishing model is refreshing after the rigours of traditional publishing: ‘We didn’t have to hack our way through New York or London,’ says Herman. ‘A lot of the appeal is that it’s an alternative publishing culture you can try.’

Yet, while journalists are desperately seeking new ways of funding their reporting, and the publishing world is conducting a lively conversation about the implications of going digital, Herman doesn’t see much dialogue between the two: ‘It feels a bit like the right and the left hand are not communicating with each other.’

So could his success herald a new breed of journalists working entirely independently, as growing numbers of authors are now doing?

Herman doesn’t see much future in a journalist going it entirely alone. ‘I’m not sure it’s necessarily going to produce good journalism, because you can’t do everything at the same time,’ he says. ‘I think it’s more likely that small groups get together to work in teams – that’s really exciting.’

From his base in Barcelona, he is already working with another two other journalists on a documentary project looking at the youth unemployment in Spain, which is now approaching 50%. In line with the trend towards ‘enhanced books’, the project will be multi-media, offering readers pictures and a video as part of the package.

He anticipates that, in time, the group will become a kind of coop along the lines of the small agencies formed by photographers when they realised they were better working together rather than (competitively) alone.

And, as the models of digital publishing get more established, creators will need to protect their interests in the face of giants such as Amazon, he adds.

In the meantime, it’s clear that these pioneering days carry all the excitements and disappointments of experiments in early air travel:

‘I feel like I’m in the films of all those people who were trying to invent aeroplanes before the Wright brothers, and struggled to get them off the ground. I’m one of those guys.’

Written by Alex

March 5th, 2012 at 7:29 am

Posted in E-books,News,Niche

Cycling polemicist strikes viral paydirt

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Case study by Tim

Writing his Bike To Work book, Carlton Reid’s intention was to produce a conventional printed tome.  A trade publisher of 25 years experience, his business model was simple – sell sufficient advertisements to pay for the book and then give away the product.   Creating an eBook was an afterthought.   Nevertheless, in the two years since it was published, it has been downloaded more than 350,000 times and generated around £25,000 worth of advertising revenue.

Reid wrote, edited, designed and laid-up the book and took all but ten of the photographs.  “I am self-taught in publishing in the round”, he explains.  He also identified the advertisers, but the deals were all closed by his long-time business associate – his father.  “Being one-person removed from the selling keeps me (editorially) clean”.

When the book took longer to complete than he expected, he put the finished product online first – it went viral, and print was abandoned (save for a print-on-demand edition).

The book has appeared in many versions – some being distributed by third parties like the London Cycle Campaign.  But digital distribution is all though Issuu, the Danish self-publishing platform.  Reid generates a final pdf and then loads in on to Issuu’s server.  Conversion into a format that can be read on computers and tablets such at the iPad and the Kindle happens automatically.

“I was one of the first UK publishers on Issuu and they did publicise the book at first, which was a great help.  It is still the best platform, as far as I am concerned, and everything they do is free”, he says.  One of the many appeals of their service is the diagnostics.  Of course they show how many times the book has been downloaded, but they also track how far into the book people read.

“There is a huge spike in the first ten pages, as you would expect”, says Reid.  “But you can also see how many people have actually opened up every page.  You can show advertisers that, say 15,000 people have viewed your advert.  That is something that no newspaper can do, and I think that it has actually converted a lot of our advertisers to eBooks as an advertising vehicle.”

So successful has the Bike To Work been, that Reid has turned down conventional publishers who offered to take on his next venture.  To be published in the early Spring, Roads Were Not Built For Cars will be a history of roads and road improvements in the decades before the motor car.  As with his previous book, Reid’s intentions are more polemical than commercial.  Nevertheless, the early signs are that he has found another successful niche.  An eight-page sampler has been downloaded 11,000 times – in part generated by an energetic Twitter campaign.

Although he has been in business his entire working life – he set up and subsequently sold the trade magazine Bike Biz – Reid’s philosophy is decidedly non commercial.  “I don’t factor in my own time at all, because I enjoy what I do and I would be doing it even if it did not make a bean”, he says.  He is by no means the first inadvertent capitalist – but unlike many he seems quite content to pursue his own projects while his commercial interests thrive in an apparently parallel universe.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

December 19th, 2011 at 8:45 am

Come the revolution, Sister – if we can afford it

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Report by Alex Klaushofer.

My last blog reported on the curious absence of women among the pioneers of digital journalism – a regressive trend seen by some as symptomatic as an emerging form of e-patriarchy.

But hang on, isn’t the beauty of the digital age the new opportunities it opens up, the way it affords everyone, including those historically with the least access to the means of (print) production, to have a voice? In theory, the digital revolution should bring us a new era of protest and debate, in which old hierarchies can be challenged and more powerful, inclusive forms of campaigning created. At the very least, you get a few good feminist websites.

Let’s head over, virtually speaking, to one such. Run by a team of volunteers, The f-word started as a forum for reviews in 2001, becoming a collective blog several years later. Yet ten years on, the team is only just starting to think about a business model, and are finally putting together a funding committee to look at ways of bringing in revenue.

With the only revenue raised so far having come via an appeal on a blog for donations to cover the costs of a re-design, attempts at income generation have been ‘slow-going’, admits music review editor Holly Combe.

But looking back, she goes on, it would have been almost inimical to the spirit of the project to think in cold commercial terms.

‘A lot of women have come together to do something that’s almost anti-organisation, and anti-business model,’ she says. ‘Gradually they do more and more, and then they start to wonder how they’re going continue to do it, and earn a living.’

At the opposite end of the spectrum is a stellar example of a website run by and for women. With revenue of £3 million this year, Mumsnet can hardly be accused of not being business-like. And, with 1.7 million unique users a month, it uses its considerable influence to campaign on behalf of women, raising everything from the over-sexualisation of girls to the impact of night car parking charges on women.

Yet the path to success was hardly a clear, or even a thought-out one. For the first few years, according to co-founder Justine Roberts, the aim was simply to provide a forum for parents to exchange ideas and support each other. The site’s campaigning voice first emerged when an advert about Madeleine McCann advert caused an outcry among Mumsnet members. As time went on, politicans started to take notice of this vocal constituency, but it wasn’t until the ‘Mumsnet election’ of 2009 that the company finally decided to invest in some dedicated campaigning staff.

‘We didn’t start off with the intention that we would be a campaigning website,’ says Roberts. ‘We became large enough and attracted the interest of politicians. We thought it would be remiss of us not to use that access.’

Even more compellingly, she admits that the first business model she drew up in 1999, based on e-commerce, ‘wasn’t worth the paper it was written on’. But while its contemporaries over-invested in costly infrastructure, Mumsnet survived, thanks to a low-cost, slow-grow approach which enabled it to gradually build large numbers of engaged visitors. Running the site was effectively a voluntary job for years, with its founders relying on the family income earned by their partners. (Roberts is married to Guardian deputy editor Ian Katz.)

Yet – and here comes the paradox at the heart of the Mumsnet model – Roberts acknowledges that the site’s success depends on, well, its success. ‘Having a voice that people will listen to means that you have to have scale,’ she says. ‘The only way your voice will be effective is to have scale. You have to have a business model that works. It’s chicken and egg.’

The Mumsnet secret, it seems, boils down to a blend of hard graft, patience and something that its more idealistic counterparts lack – a canny willingness to identify and act on commercial opportunities. The site is now entirely sustained by advertising, to the point where even media folk wanting to access its membership are sent to a Worldpay page charging £30.

In July this year, the site launched the Bloggers Network, a scheme allowing contributers to take a share of revenue based on the number of page views their work generates. ‘It doesn’t feel right to take people’s work and publish it without sharing the potential revenue,’ says Roberts. ‘The Huffington Post model didn’t feel right for Mumsnet.’

But, the almost serendipitous success of Mumsnet aside, the problem of how to sustain campaigning websites remains. Courtney Martin, editor of
Feministing, a US blog started in 2004 and run entirely by women in other full time jobs, puts it starkly:

‘So I’m sitting here, mindful of my own legacy and very struck that what one might reasonable argue is the most robust, powerful medium for feminism today is being created in a truly unsustainable way,’ she writes in a post earlier this year. ‘I start to daydream about all of the amazing things we might be able to do if we actually had the funding, space, and time to do more than keep our heads above water.

‘I just can’t shake the feeling that one of the biggest mistakes my own generation is making is accepting the status quo of an unsupported blogosphere and losing the opportunity to make an even larger impact,’ she adds.

Written by Alex

December 12th, 2011 at 5:33 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

Download tools – an online newservice for the labour movement

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Report by Tim Dawson.

Trades unions have not always been the quickest to adopt new means to communicate, in part because of an institutionalised ambivalence to technological change.  It perhaps explains why reporting this sector is one that that has attracted relatively few online operations.

Into this gap step two recent past presidents of the National Union of Journalists (in the United Kingdom and Ireland) with a mission “to apply strong news values to what we do, but with our maxim of ‘investigate, collaborate, agitate’”.

Union-news.co.uk combines daily trades union news with video packages, features written by trades unionists and labour-movement campaign news.  It is the work of Tim Lezzard and Pete Murray. The former is based in the south west, and is a former regional newspaper reporter.  The latter worked for many years as a journalists and producer for the BBC and is based in Glasgow.

Launched a couple of weeks ago, Murray says that they have been pleased with the numbers they have attracted to date.  “We had about 3,000 visitors in the first week, and we have had very encouraging responses from the unions that we have worked with”.

Revenue comes from advertising – mainly from trades unions themselves, although their model is rather different to a consumer magazine.  Some unions are placing banner ads as an act of solidarity, and to help the venture get up and running – it is an idea that has a long history in the labour movement.  In return for such help, Union-news will run advertorial style features on some union’s campaigns – a current example being the postal workers’ union’s demand for fresh dangerous dogs legislation.

Neither are expecting to make a living from the site initially – Lezzard works part-time for the South West TUC, Murray hopes to work as a film-maker and trainer for trades unions on his own account.  Nevertheless, they are committed to posting daily news and hope to take at least some income from the site in the fullness of time.

With a focus on UK trades unionism, Murray believes that their main competition comes from the Morning Star’s website.  “Our videos are already better than theirs, though”, he says.

The sector they are covering is one that has endured, even if it is a shadow of the force that it was during the 1960s and 1970s.  In those days, most national newspapers employed an ‘industrial desk’ of up to half a dozen reporters covering trades union affairs.  Today, many newspapers don’t have a single industrial correspondent.  With six and a half million members, however, trades unions represent arguably the largest civic body in the UK.  Whether they represent a community of interest, however, is another matter.

“The vast majority of trades union members don’t have much care for their union save when it directly affects their live – because of a pay deal, or if they are facing redundancy”, said one senior official of the Unite union. 

“And most trades union activists are only really bothered about what is happing in their own union,” he added. “Good luck to Union-news if they can make it work, but I suspect that like so many websites, the will struggle to keep up the interest”.

Lezzard and Murray also face some formidable reporting challenges.  They are committed to providing coverage in an unbiased and balanced way.  The unions for which they depend for their income, however, can be quick to take offence if things are not written up as they think that they should be.

Nevertheless, with their extensive contacts in the movement and track record as journalists, they stand a better chance than most of grafting a living from the movement.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

September 26th, 2011 at 2:45 am

Niche both a help and hindrance to online start-up Bookbrunch

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Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

When Nicholas Clee and Liz Thomson were casting about for a new job, with full-time staff jobs behind them and freelance opportunities on the wane, a digital solution seemed obvious. Between them, they had over fifty years experience in writing about publishing and the book trade: Clee was a former editor of the Bookseller, while Thomson had edited Publishing News until it folded in July 2008, and both had published widely elsewhere.

So, on Thomson’s suggestion, they joined forces and embarked on a publishing (ad)venture, creating Bookbrunch, a website and daily online newsletter covering the book trade. Nearly three years on, the site is proving a sustainable business which provides a partial living for both of them.

The revenue model was decided from the outset. The site would have a free-to-view blog and opinion section, but readers who wanted access to the daily news would have to become subscribers, paying £99 a year or £55 for six months. It would be supplemented by only a modest amount of advertising.

‘We thought that the only way to make money is through subscriptions. – trade advertising was shrinking fast and there was just two of us doing all the day-to-day work; neither of us was a sales person,’ says Clee.

In the event, the erection of the planned paywall took longer than anticipated, coming some nine months after the site launched in October 2008. By then, it was pretty well established among publishing professionals; Clee and Thomson capitalised on their contacts in the industry, and worked hard, sending ‘lots of emails’ and ‘putting ourselves about a bit’.

It seemed there was room in the market place for a trade publication apart from market leader the Bookseller. Instead of going into direct competition with its rival, with had a 12-strong editorial team, Bookbrunch concentrated on developing a distinctive approach based on its editors’ personalities and particular takes on the industry they had known so long. As a result, the editorial places a strong emphasis on opinion and gossip, running plenty of coverage of the people and events that drive the book trade.

Bookbrunch’s reputation soon translated itself into figures, with 500 of the 5000 people on the mailing list becoming paying subscribers. ‘We’re quite pleased with that, but given the opportunities in the book trade we’re not going to triple that any time soon,’ says Clee. ‘The size of the booktrade is both a help and a hindrance.’

As a result, both partners can draw an income which just about covers the half-time job that the site demands, leaving them free to take on other work – although, as Clee readily admits, there is a perennial danger of the work expanding to fill the entire week – some days they produce over 20 stories, and the site already has an archive of over 9000 articles. But, thanks to a recent partnership with data firm BDS, the more time-consuming, technical tasks have now been farmed out.

Meanwhile, the experience gathered along the way adds to the growing body of evidence that the web, far from killing off the in-depth article, is a hospitable place for long-form journalism; Bookbrunch publishes articles up to 1500 words long.

‘It used to be thought that what people wanted online was short, punchy news stories,’ says Clee, with satisfaction. ‘What we’re discovering is that they actually like opinions, and they like to engage online, so some of the long pieces we run get a good response.’

Written by Alex

July 25th, 2011 at 2:54 am