Adam Westbrook // ideas on digital storytelling and publishing

Bring on the wall! (But is it worth paying for?)

Posted in Adam, Broadcasting and Media, Journalism by Adam Westbrook on May 25, 2010

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“We are completely unashamed of this, we want people to pay for the journalism”

Daniel Finkelstein, Times columnist

Did you know the Times has an Ocean Correspondent? That’s right: a journalist dedicated to covering ocean news. He’s called Frank Pope and he was on the front page of yesterday’s print edition, diving into the Gulf of Mexico, an experience which must currently be akin to swimming through a gigantic jar of Marmite.

He’s a man whose beat is 70% of the earth’s surface, yet the position of Ocean Correspondent is a luxury not many papers or broadcasters would afford.

And that’s why the Times wants us to start paying for its online news, just like some pay for the paper. And this morning we see the launch of this – with thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk going live in the last few minutes.

Last night I joined a small group of bloggers and media/tech journalists at the headquarters of Rupert Murdoch’s News International in Wapping, London to get a sneak preview of the site before the wall went up.

It’ll be something of a glass paywall at first with the content visible to all — then, after four weeks, the glass becomes brick and not even Google’s spiders will be able to crawl between the mortar cracks.

That’s right: articles on thetimes.co.uk and thesundaytimes.co.uk will not be searchable on Google…if you see a story you like, you won’t be able to share it on Twitter or Facebook…it would seem, a massive own goal, but at least they’ll save money on SEO consultants.

Niche & experience

My two concerns for the Times paywall are these:

  1. the Times is not significantly niche enough (as, say, the Financial Times or Wall Street Journal are) to attract paying readers
  2. the experience of reading the Times online was not good enough to make it something to pay for

On point one, they have put thought into it. The websites will boast what the Times and Sunday Times do have – excellent columnists, good travel, review and culture. It won’t, we’re told, be a repository for breaking news “taken from PA”, insisting they won’t put a story up “if they can’t add value.”

That is a good step, although I am still not sure what the Times stands for: middle-of-the-road, middle-class, middle-aged Britain? As someone once the said, ‘the only thing in the middle of the road is white paint and dead animals.’

The Times and Sunday Times are to have two separate websites, each independently updated. This means even though the Sunday Times is printed only on a Sunday, it will be updating the web with new content throughout the week.

And what about the experience of reading the Times or the Sunday Times online?

Well, at first impressions I am not bowled over: black text on a white screen, size 12, serif font – just like every other news website out there (and even this blog!). A web page can be any colour and fully dynamic – a concept no major newsroom is yet to grasp.

I was taken to task on this though by Times Assistant Editor Tom Whitwell who insists they looked at different options. There are apparently fewer stories on the front page, leaving it less cluttered. The experience is also more visual with larger front page images, and a chance to explore the top news stories in pictures (a cue taken, perhaps, from the Independent’s NewsWall produced by UltraKnowledge).

The Sunday Times website is actually quite a pleasure to navigate with a large rolling ‘shop window’ carousel and multimedia galleries. Said the editor: “we’re expecting people to browse and enjoy the experience.” Is it distinct enough from the Guardian, Telegraph, New York Times or the BBC? That’s for you  to decide.

Other cool bits include a culture planner to organise your week, and the rather neat ability to set your Sky+ box direct from the Times website, both giving the sites usability rather than just something to read. Interestingly if you wish to SpeEk You’re bRanes about the content, you’ll only be allowed to comment using your full name.

On video & multimedia

Now to the bit most readers of this blog are really interested in – the multimedia stuff.

The editor of the Sunday Times told us they’d “invested a lot of time and money in multimedia” including on a new video studio.

There’s to be a push on interactive infographics to rival the Financial Times, and multimedia photogalleries of the best images. They want to connect their journalists with their readers and there’ll be plenty of live webchats online.

But it seems there hasn’t been an investment in more multimedia staff, or a push for innovative video storytelling. Instead the investment has been in getting their current crop of journalists to create more stuff for the web, with pen still in hand. As if keeping tabs on all the news from 70% of the earth’s surface wasn’t enough, our Ocean man Frank Pope must also file video every time he goes diving.

Now that’s fine – and indeed, if the print journalists I have met in my time are anything to go by, not an easy pitch for the Times editors to have made.

But the Times or the Sunday Times won’t sew the seeds of innovation in multimedia. Tom Whitwell described having to ask columnist Caitlin Moran, who’s interview with Lady Gaga just went viral, to do some video on the story. The problem: Caitlin is on a ‘writer’s retreat’ in Brighton apparently.

Will any of their video journalists be treated to a ‘video retreat’?

(NOTE: Caitlin is doing a live webchat about meeting Gaga at 1200 BST today)

Is it worth the money?

That was the one question everyone asked when I tweeted from last night’s preview. And I’ve needed to sleep on it to make my mind up.

Here’s the numbers: for a single day’s access it’ll cost you (in 4 weeks time) one of your English pounds. But you can get a whole week’s access for £2 – so if you’re interested, don’t bother paying by the day.

And actually…£2 for access to comment and analysis from a good newspaper – and topped off with access to the Sunday Times is almost, almost, worth paying for….

You can try speculating about whether Rupert’s paywall will work, but whatever your conclusion you’ll probably be wrong. So let’s bring on the wall …and see what happens.

Other commentary about the paywall…

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Greenslade is right: I *am* saying what ought to happen

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on May 18, 2010

Thanks to all of you who left so many interesting and diverse comments on ‘Hold the Front Page, I haven’t got a clue‘. It’s had more than a thousand page views in 24 hours which is awesome.

British journalism commentator Roy Greenslade has also stepped into the debate, in support of Ed Caeser’s article, and dismissing myself, Adam Tinworth and Claire Wardle who disagreed with it (you can read Adam’s response here and Claire’s here).

Roy Greenslade’s criticism comes down to this:

…the difference between them and Caesar (and me) is between “is” and “ought.”

Caesar and his interviewees are telling like it is. His critics are saying what ought to happen.

And he gets it spot on: I am saying what ought to happen. I really believe journalism needs to change and should change for the benefit of everyone.

That’s why I quit my nice job in the mainstream media eight months ago. That’s why I’ve written three ebooks to help people to do things differently and better. That’s why I write thousands of words a week about it on this blog, at Duckrabbit and on journalism.co.uk. That’s why I set up the Future of News Meetups, so journalists who want to create the future can meet and come up with new ideas.

What’s the point in saying it how it is? Or fantasizing about how it was? Surely the most productive thing is to fantasize about how it could be…and then make it happen.

Greenslade ends by quoting one of his students at City University*, dismayed at the prospect of having to be entrepreneurial online. “That’s all very well” she tells him, “but I came here to get on to a newspaper.” A valid point – we must remember alternative ways of doing things aren’t for everyone (although Greenslade neglects to mention her ambitions may be because that’s what the City University brochure promised her before she paid £7,900 to do the course).

Of course, many young journalist will still want to work on a national. Thousands of them will want nothing more than to be presenting the BBC 10 bulletin in 20 years time. That was my dream when I trained.

There’s nothing wrong with holding on to that dream. The future of news still has the BBC, Sky, CNN, The Guardian, the New York Times and the Sun in it. Still doing what they do. Still hiring.

But there is this other opportunity that exists now right now that we would be plain stupid to pass up. An opportunity to diversify the news ecosystem, let new species emerge. To do something more than make coffee and rewrite press releases for five years. To not only do sort of journalism you love and get paid for it, but to go down as a pioneer and an innovator.

Oh, and there’s plenty o’ money to be made too if that’s what motivates you. The Video Journalism pioneer Michael Rosenblum says it best in a comment on this very blog:

There is an absolute fortune to be made in the journalism business today and for the next decade. The whole apple cart of our industry has been turned upside-down and that means we are undergoing a massive reorganization of our industry…there are several billion pounds laying on the table just waiting to be scooped up by any aggressive enough to go after them. And the path to that is most certainly not taking a job as a reporter at a newspaper.

Of course money isn’t everything  (although it’s what motivated the newspaper pioneers of the 19th century).

I’m going to end there, because these blogger debates tend to eventually descend into ‘you misinterpreted the tense of what I said’ pedantry. But it’s important we thrash out these issues now because, in some sense, the future of the industry relies on it.

If we let the naysayers, the doom-mongers and the sceptics win out, we risk paralysing the young innovators upon whose shoulders it falls to reinvent journalism.

They need ideas, encouragement, support and motivation – something they certainly won’t get from the Sunday Times or the Media Guardian.

A quick timeline in case you need to catch up:

  • Ed Caeser writes this
  • Claire Wardle tweets this
  • Adam Tinworth blogs this
  • I blog this
  • Roy Greenslade blogs this

*I also trained, and had Greenslade lectures, at City University in 2006-7

‘Hold the front page, I haven’t got a clue’

Posted in Next Generation Journalist by Adam Westbrook on May 17, 2010

Image: Chris(UK) on Flickr (cc)

Thanks to Claire Wardle of Media140 for pointing me in the direction of a Sunday Times article yesterday, which shows how much has got to change in our ideas of journalism.

Hold the Frontpage, I want to be on it‘ by Ed Caeser made it into the Times’ Education section, and paints a predictably bleak picture for journalism students graduating this summer.

“…almost every week I receive an email from some poor sap wanting to know how to break into the business” he says. And what advice can said poor sap expect to receive from Mr. Caeser?

“Today, you’ll need luck, flair, an alternative source of income, endless patience, an optimistic disposition, sharp elbows and a place to stay in London.”

Charming.

The article then goes on to interview five or six people who have had the luck, flair, patience, trust fund and London pad necessary to get a job on the Mirror, Daily Mail, Telegraph etc. And what advice can they give?

“Patrick Foster worked at The Times during Oxford University vacations, and stayed after graduation. Kate Mansey came in through the Liverpool Echo trainee scheme — one of the few local-newspaper training schemes still in operation — and began on the nationals by working temporary shifts.

“Many graduates simply turn up on work experience and refuse to leave. It worked for me.”

So, just to sum up: have an Oxbridge degree, and turn up to your work experience placement with a sleeping bag and a three months supply of tinned meats.

How to actually survive in the new age of journalism

Caeser gets one thing right: he realises journalism is changing. The advice he has sought, however, is for an era in the industry heading towards the grave.

He is stuck in the mindset that to have any career worth having in journalism it has to be working on a national newspaper or big broadcaster, and it has to be earned through unpaid work, desperate pleas to those already inside, a lot of luck, and presumably some sexual favours too.

But the crux is this: as Claire Wardle said when she threw this article my way, there is no mention of entrepreneurial journalism.

Caeser hasn’t even thought about it.

The very concept that the next generation of journalists might take control of their careers, become the chess player and not the chess piece seems alien to him; that these ‘poor saps’ might see opportunity where he only sees despair.

So here’s my advice: if you’re just starting out in journalism don’t read this article.* While you’re at it, don’t make yourself ill eating nothing but Supernoodles for a month (as I once had to) just to afford a shitty flat in Clapham. Don’t spend hours squeezing the desperation out of a desperate email to that sub on the Guardian you chatted to briefly at some conference somewhere. And don’t think you should give up just because you live in the North of England, or you’re poor, or because Ed Caeser says you should.

Instead, do this:

Start looking for the brave, exciting new opportunities presented by this wonderful digital age we now live in.

Start thinking about what new niches are evolving which you can exploit with a savvy, bootstrapped new startup. Start thinking of ideas for profitable online magazines or mailing lists which you can leap straight to being the editor of.

Teach yourself how to film and edit simple video, and how to make basic audio slideshows so you can do as much of it as possible without having to hire expensive outside companies. Learn how to build a simple website using WordPress which could one day be the platform for a news business.

If you know how to, start developing a new iPhone or Android app which people will pay you to download. Or leverage social media and blogs to pitch yourself as a go-to expert on a profitable niche, then sell your knowledge in products. Or start making multimedia for non-profits and NGOs, and tell those stories and do the sort of reporting the New York Times or the Guardian would never let you do.

(For more suggestions click here and here)

The Next Generation Journalist is emerging, to whom, Caeser’s advice is completely redundant. It’s up to you which path you chose.

Caeser’s conclusion is, again, predictably bleak.

Just as belts are tightened and we are attempting to map our future in the internet age, the legions of graduates keep coming — arts degrees and journalism diplomas in hand — to join the party. Are they, by attempting to start their journalism careers in 2010, making what the hero of Joseph O’Neill’s Netherland calls “a historic mistake”?

The only ‘”historic mistake'” to make is to ignore the fantastic opportunity to reshape journalism we now face. And it’s an opportunity which won’t last forever.

Are you a Next Generation Journalist?

*in fact do, if only to spot the subbing errors. On Sunday afternoon I found six.