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Like a phoenix from liquidation – mag experiments with partnership model

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Case study by Alex Klaushofer.

When the numbers fail to add up, the publishers of most small magazines take the simple, expeditious step of simply folding the thing. But when weekly regeneration magazine New Start was deemed no longer viable, it embarked on a new direction which could point the way for other, similar publications.

The magazine, launched in 1999 when public sector journalism was burgeoning, quickly carved out a niche for itself among its professional, policy-oriented readership. Being small, it was sufficiently fleet-of-foot to move from London to Sheffield in 2002 and – when the going got really tough – to relaunch as a monthly at the beginning of 2009.

But by October 2010 the costs of print and distribution had finally become prohibitive, and New Start Publishing Ltd went into liquidation. Yet instead of disappearing, the title was acquired by the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES), a think tank based in Manchester.

The thinking behind the take-over was that, with both parties sharing a common audience and values, each would benefit from joining forces. A model was evolved which combined affiliation to the organisation with subscription to the magazine, and CLES membership and New Start subscriptions became part of a single package, with readers-members simultaneously sold a magazine, a platform for debate, and access to research, training and consultancy.

At the same time, the move cut editorial costs, since the magazine – which had lost its freelance budget and now had only two members of staff – was able to source much of its copy from non-journalist experts working elsewhere in the organisation.

With the last print edition appearing in October 2010, the magazine is now entirely online. A website offers a mix of free and paywall content, while a designed e-zine is sent to subscribers once a month. The dual online format presents a novel version of the print-versus-digital dilemma that has exercised magazine publishers in recent years, potentially pitting two rivalrous forms of e-publication – a news website and a monthly e-zine – against each other.

According to New Start’s editor Austin Macauley, the speed of web publication makes the conclusion obvious. ‘My view is that if copy is good to go and you have a website at your disposal, it should be published at the earliest opportunity,’ he says. ‘Perhaps more importantly, the web allows readers to respond immediately with their observations and hence we have a comment facility on all articles. We want to create a ‘community’ out of our membership.’

He insists that the magazine’s reliance on editorial from non-journalists compromise the quality of the journalism: ‘The New Start/CLES model is unusual – bringing together journalists and an established title with a team of researchers and consultants who are creating new material all the time,’ he says. ‘People are thinking more and more journalistically about their work,’ he says. ‘We’ve got to get the right balance; we’re not just a mouthpiece. We were bullish about that from the start.’

The coverage continues to come from a variety of quarters, including the think tank’s direct competitiors, he adds.

Of course, as a magazine published by an organisation with which it shares common ground, the New Start model is hardly new. But what makes its experiment interesting is the way it knowingly combines a common-sense alliance with the diversification characteristic of the successful new business models emerging in the digital age, by offering readers range of services all centering on a relationship with the brand.

But, even with costs cannily reduced in this way, will the money stack up sufficiently to keep the magazine in circulation for another decade? One suspects from Macauley’s response that the answer is in the future workings of the corporate psyche. ‘The view of CLES is that it has to be sustainable by itself,’ he says, adding: ‘In reality it’s not just about whether we covers our costs with subscriptions, it’s more that we add value and give them the edge in marketing initiatives.’

The switch from print to digital lost the magazine very few readers, and the magazine/think tank is now gaining new subscribers-members, so the future looks promising.

With the emergence of publications such as The Day, an online news service for schools and colleges sponsored by the likes of the Independent Schools Association, it’s possible that New Start is part of a developing trend of what could be called sponsored or partnership journalism.

Written by Alex

June 27th, 2011 at 5:35 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

New website wages war on churnalism

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By Alex Klaushofer. Today sees the launch of, a website aimed at discouraging the practice of recycling press releases instead of researching original stories.

Created by the Media Standards Trust, the site invites churnalism-spotters to paste a press release into a box which is then compared, via a constantly updated database, with news articles that have been published online. Articles are given a ‘churn rating’ which indicates the proportion replicated from publicity material, while a side bar lists some of the most popular examples.

(At the risk of generating an infinite regress, we’d like to point out that this post was based on a story by Press Gazette, which was itself based on a press release.)

Written by Alex

February 24th, 2011 at 6:03 am

Jury out on Twitter- consultation about court reporting launched

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A consultation on the use of Twitter in court reporting has been launched this week.

The consultation is primarily concerned with the risk of prejudice to a case posed by live reporting from court.

‘The use of live, text‐based communications from court may fuel the potential for jurors, whether accidentally or otherwise, to encounter prejudicial or inaccurate material online,’ writes the Lord Chief Justice of England and Wales. ‘Live, text‐based communications from court may be used by witnesses to find out what has been said in court before they give evidence themselves.’

As points out, the consultation also raises questions about the definition of a journalist which could result in bloggers and other non-accredited reporters being prevented from using social media in court.

Legal commentator Joshua Rozenberg is firmly on the side of Twitter in court.

The deadline for responses is 4th May.

Written by Alex

February 10th, 2011 at 4:59 am

NeighbourNet reveals key to hyperlocal success

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In the first of a series of case studies looking at commercial hyperlocals, NMJ visits NeighbourNet.

Started in 2000, NeighbourNet claims to be the only fully commercial hyperlocal operation in the UK.

Its network of ten sites – all in London, and bearing the strapline ‘local intelligence for intelligent locals’ – use the same proprietary software developed by the company. Each site is run by a home-based editor and, once profitable, profits are split fifty-fifty between the two parties. Flagship site Chiswickw4, now in its eighth year, generates enough revenue to support a full-time editor.

The main source of revenue is advertising, which is sold and posted from the NeighbourNet office. Visitors to the site are encouraged to become members, a free service which entitles them to the weekly newsletter and participation in the discussion forums. Getting subscribers are part of the building of reputation essential for selling advertising.

Founder-director Sean Kelly says that as most advertising is sold to independent local businesses, familiarity with the site is key to the model. ‘It’s very difficult to sell ad space to people who are not familiar with the site – almost impossible,’ he says.

The other key to success is the right editor. ‘We look for the best possible person, someone we think is going to make a great site,’ says Kelly. They also need to have staying power – developing a site to the point where it’s making money takes ‘a long, long time – say three to four years.’

It’s important, but not vital, that the editor have journalism skills. ‘We’re now finding that more and more people who approach us have a high level of journalism skills, but we’re always willing to consider people who don’t,’ he adds. NeighbourNet editors must live in the local area, though: ‘They have to be fairly active in the community, so that they have their ear to the ground.’

With most of the technical side taken care of, and advertising sold centrally, it’s a formula that encourages individuals with good local knowledge and a bent for journalism to take the plunge. Editor of Fulhamsw6 Sheila Prophet says she ‘knows every street’ of her local area. She started the site in early 2009 with decades on Fleet Street and magazines behind her, but no experience of online journalism.

Sources for news include the local hack’s staples of releases from the council, hospitals, police, schools and clubs, plus keeping an eye out for what’s going on. ‘A big part of it is just walking round and seeing what’s happening in the streets,’ says Prophet.

‘There’s no shortage of stories – there’s always a queue of stuff waiting to go on,’ she adds. ‘Hyperlocal could even more hyper if you wanted. I sometimes think I could do a website for my block of flats.’

Fulhamsw6 has yet to go into profit, but meanwhile NeighbourNet pay Prophet a retainer of ‘a few hundred a month’. ‘It’s an interesting sideline’ – you’re not going to make your fortune,’ she says. Combining the editorship with her other freelance work, she estimates that the site takes between and third and half of her time.

In NeighbourNet part 2, which will follow later, founder-director Kelly surveys how the hyperlocal landscape has changed over the past decade

Written by Alex

November 16th, 2010 at 4:46 am

What Cognitive Surplus means for journalism

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Photo by Poptech (Flickr)

Clay Shirky’s second book is replete with examples of how community and citizen-produced media are making the world a better place.

This kind of optimism is attractive, and goes some way to explain why Cognitive Surplus has been hailed as The Book about the e-revolution. In it, Shirky amplifies his thesis – first made in Here Comes Everybody – that ‘the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource’. (p 27) To put it another way, using a favourite word of his, the ‘aggregate’ of time made possible by digital technology leads to more altruism.

The problem with this argument is not that Shirky is wrong. Many online developments from Ushahidi, a multi-media platform enabling ordinary people to pool information about fast-moving crises, to the tiniest hyperlocal, are manifestly a force for the good. The difficulty lies with what he doesn’t acknowledge – the darker side of the digital revolution which, if unchecked, undermines the quality of any journalism worth having.

When he does deal with the less palatable sides of this e-volution, Shirky does so only cursorily. For example, he acknowledges the possibility that what’s been dubbed ‘digital sharecropping’ – the profiting by commercial platform owners from the free labour of the amateur contributors that create their product – might be exploitative, but goes on to put such a view down to the ‘professional jealousy’ of journalists. (p 57)

The book relies heavily on this distinction between professionals and amateurs. Shirky argues that the motivation between those who create content for money and those who do so for love is fundamentally different, implying the latter group to be motivated by a purity that their professional counterparts can’t rival. Huh? When was the last time you met a journalist who was in it for the security and good pay? Has he never heard of vocation – that mix of conviction and temperament that propels journos, along with nurses, artists and hosts of others – into careers that are perilous, badly paid, or both, largely because they can’t bear to do anything else?

Of course, journalists, like everyone else, have interests to defend. But they know about the dark side of the digital revolution because they’re up against it all the time, and see first hand the cost-cutting and short termism that it sometimes fosters. In jeopardising accuracy, independence and scrutiny of the powerful, these are trends that are destructive of the good.

But perhaps the best review of Cognitive Surplus would be a short one: It’s not the technology, stupid. It’s the economics.

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age is published by Penguin, 2010

Written by Alex

September 7th, 2010 at 11:09 am

Award-winning hyperlocal ‘not the media’

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NMJ is spending some time away at the beach this month, but we’ll still be keeping an eye out for key developments and bringing them to you.

Meanwhile, the third of a series of case studies examining hyperlocals, NMJ looks at the Isle of Wight’s award-winning Ventnor Blog

It’s easy to see what won Ventnor Blog the title of ‘Best Hyperlocal site in the UK’ in this year’s Talk About Local awards. The site exudes both professionalism and passion, with its clear, user-friendly format and rapidly-changing posts about life on the Isle of Wight.

Husband-and-wife team Sally and Simon Perry have been pouring time and energy into the site since starting it five years ago, when they moved to Ventnor from London, having previously run a site about digital media.

‘We couldn’t believe how much was going on in the island. We were amazed at the vibrant music and arts scene.’ says Simon Perry. Harder news followed, with the pair covering stories such as the council’s education reforms and the financial details of its PFI schemes.

Now, nearly 9,000 articles and 28,000 comments further on, the website has firmly established itself as a major information-provider on the island. Locals turned to it for vital updates during the January snow earlier this year. ‘It doesn’t snow on the island,’ says Perry. ‘The council website couldn’t keep up with the demands, so we were the source of the info for everyone.’

But such success comes at a cost. Perry admits that the site doesn’t provide its owners with a viable living: local advertising generates only a modest revenue, while Adsense, with its tourism-oriented adverts, proved of little interest to a readership made up largely of islanders.

‘We’re constantly wondering how we are living,’ he says. ‘We’ve been editorially driven up to now – it’s really the pursuit of the story that’s replaced food. Now we’ve got the audience, the shift is to start to make money from it.’

The publisher-editors have also had to face the other main challenge that often besets the blogger – the charge of unprofessionalism.

In February this year, the local coroner’s court ejected Perry from a hearing about the sudden death of a council employee on the grounds that he was ‘neither a member of the public nor a member of the press.’

Perry has challenged the decision, citing his years of reporting and membership of the NUJ, who have backed the case.

But his main argument expresses that classic journalistic principle that the activities of the courts must remain open to public scrutiny:

‘If you lose free access to the courts, all sorts of nasty things could happen,’
he says.

Written by Alex

August 2nd, 2010 at 4:05 am

Demand Media’s ‘content factory’ under scrutiny

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In the first of a series examining new ways of doing journalism, NMJ examines a computer-based commissioning model from the States
Demand Media – based in California – is currently recruiting UK-based freelance writers to supply copy.  Described as a ‘content factory’ by the Financial Times, Demand Media commissions original material to fulfil information needs that it detects are being frequently requested from, but not found by, search engines, such as Google.  Much of this is done using computer algorithms.

Demand Media then commission and publish the material itself, using all the techniques of search engine optimisation, and place advertisements around the copy.  They are thought to add around 4,000 articles and videos to their ‘properties’ daily. One of their sites,, for example, is somewhere between a home encyclopaedia and a digest of articles from Which.  Among several other channels are ones dedicated to video virals, current affairs and Lance Armstrong, who is reportedly a shareholder.

Demand Media also sells content to some traditional media, including USA Today.

To become a contributor, freelances are asked to fill in an online application, to which they add their CV.  All are required to sign a contract in which they hand over copyright in their material, and all further rights to use it, save in job applications.  A computer generates ‘commissions’, which are offered to the freelance pool, and articles are fact-checked and copy edited prior to publication. 

 The Sunday Times reported that freelances were being offers $15 a story – although a freelance who is registered with Demand Media told that she had only ever seen $7.50 per article offered.

 The company is owned by serial net entrepreneur Richard Rosenblatt.  According to The Sunday Times, on 11 July 2010, Goldman Sachs us preparing to float the company for an expected $1.5b.  Such has been Demand Media’s success, that several competitors have now entered the field AOL is reportedly growing its own ‘content farm’ called Seed, meanwhile in May, Yahoo spent $100m buying Associated Content – a smaller rival.

While many fret that such content factories will destroy quality journalism, others make the case for this method of production – notably Dorian Benkoil, writing on Mediashift.

Wired also produced and excellent, in depth piece, both on the how the site works, and the affect that it is having on the rest of the industry.

Written by Tim Dawson

July 26th, 2010 at 5:28 am

National media feed off hyperlocals, claims start-up

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In the second of a series of case studies of hyperlocals, NMJ looks at Pits n Pots, the site with a reputation for hard-hitting political coverage of Stoke- on-Trent

If the experience of Pits n Pots is anything to go by, the path to successful hyperlocalism never runs smooth.

The site was born of a drunken night in September 2008 when founder Tony Wallely, frustrated at the lack of local political news in Stoke on Trent, decided to start a blog to plug some of the gaps.

Now, with the help of more technically-minded partner Mike Rawlins, the site has migrated to an independently-hosted url and won itself a reputation for tough coverage of the city’s political scene.

It gets 500 000 page views a month, and has 7,200 subscribers to its weekly email. In January 2009 its live coverage of an English Defence League march through Stoke on Trent attracted 10,000 unique users in one day.

But Pits n Pots’ scrutiny of council affairs, such as the disclosure that a council-run scheme to help businesses through the credit crunch benefited just one firm, or the highlighting of an Audit Commission report that council communications do not represent good value for money, have led to accusations that the site is ‘anti-Stoke on Trent’.

‘We’re not,’ says Walley. ‘We love the city. We’re absolutely passionate about Stoke on Trent, but we can’t help reporting some of the calamitous cock-ups.’

He is pleased that the relationship with the council – at once point so bad that he was forcibly ejected from a council meeting – has now improved, and Pits n Pots reporters are routinely invited to press briefings.

Getting recognition from within the profession has also been a challenge. While some journalists in the established media have been very supportive, others have told Pits N Pots plainly they are ‘not proper journalists’, according to Walley.

He and Rawlins are also disappointed that the mainstream media sometimes run stories broken on the site without attributing them to Pits n Pots. One story about the EDL using a Polish spitfire was widely picked up by papers such as The Daily Mail and Guardian without any reference to the source, they say.

Nonetheless, with a team of five regular volunteers providing content in a range of formats including video, editorially the site is going from strength to strength.

Both founders have jobs with sufficient flexibility to enable them to keep up the coverage – Walley is the managing director of an aluminium company, while Rawlins works for the hyperlocal training organisation talkaboutlocal.

But neither has the time to invest in the business side, such as selling advertising or developing other revenue streams to fund the things they’d like to do next – pay a dedicated team of journalists and buy better recording equipment.

‘We want to push the boundaries, but we’re also really frustrated that we haven’t got the time to make it as good as it could be,’ says Wallely. ‘Pits n Pots is at the crossroads. It can stay the way it is, or it needs to generate some income.’

With more and more hyperlocal sites getting established around the country, his difficulty is likely to be an increasingly common one.

Written by Alex

July 12th, 2010 at 6:10 am

Self-help meets journalism: the Next Generation Journalist reviewed

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It had to happen. Someone was always going to write a self-help book for journalists in these difficult, interesting times.

Adam Westbrook’s e-book ‘Next Generation Journalist: Ten ways to make money in journalism in 2010′, starts out with some big claims: ‘This is a unique book,’ Westbrook writes. ‘It collides disciplines and ideas that have never been put together before. I’ve combined the craft and skills of journalism with entrepreneurship, life design and career theory.’

In reality, the book offers a mix of upbeat ‘Feel The Fear And Do It Anyway’-style inspiration with some supremely practical tips for making a living out of 21st century media. Like the best books in its tradition, there is some genuine wisdom for those who want to hear it, and his grasp of the range of opportunities and platforms out there is impressive.

Westbrook’s ‘ten ways’ range from developing a portfolio or, as he calls it, an ‘artisan career’, to setting up a hyper-local website. They blur traditional boundaries of what is considered to be journalism, presenting the old alongside the new: there are well-established approaches such as doing corporate work for organisations, and news aggregation and cutting edge stuff like developing smart apps for selling news stories.

A lot of the advice is basic. For example, to find new clients, Westbrook advises: ‘Research: do your research on the organisations you’re interested in. Who would you need to contact? Find out their name and email address.’

How useful is all this? The answer probably depends on who you are. If you’re newish to journalism and the whole dirty business of making a living, a lot of the ideas gathered here could be really helpful. If you’re more seasoned, particularly if you’re deep into building an online hyper-local news business, and realising just how much work and time lie in the way to success, it’s bound to be less so.

But along the way, Westbrook offers some nice observation of the new journalistic characters and practices to have emerged in recent years, such as Freedom of Information Supremos, and ‘nodes’ – ‘clusters’ of freelances who collaborate to share brands and work.

Above all, the central character that Westbrook describes – and indeed embodies himself – says a lot about the likely future of journalism. ‘The Next Generation Journalist,’ he tell us, is ‘the multimedia storyteller, entrepreneur, and technical all-rounder, who isn’t threatened by the decline in value of news, or the lack of jobs, or the slashing of budgets brought about by the digital revolution.’ Encouraged by the cheapness of building an online profile, s/he is happy to embrace risk, and just try things that may or may not come off: ‘All this means you can be OK with failure, because it won’t cost you much.’

It’s a compelling picture, particularly for the recent graduate with supportive parents and without too many debts, or for someone who’s just received a healthy redundancy package. But for others, for whom the rent/mortgage/kids means the clock is ticking loudly, I fear it misses a crucial economic point.