Jun 022017
 

The New York Times yesterday announced they will be abolishing their Public Editor role while opening up more of their articles to readers’ comments, a big shift in trends over the past decade.

One of the internet’s broken promises was how allowing the audience to comment would usher in a new era of accountability and democracy.

Sadly, it became apparent giving readers carte blanche opened a sewer of abuse, misinformation and libel. Faced with a whole range of risks, not to mention the psychological damage faced by staff members trying to engage with the public, most media organisations chose to be selective about the articles they opened comments on.

Now the New York Times proposes to re-open most of their articles to readers’ comments.

We are dramatically expanding our commenting platform. Currently, we open only 10 percent of our articles to reader comments. Soon, we will open up most of our articles to reader comments. This expansion, made possible by a collaboration with Google, marks a sea change in our ability to serve our readers, to hear from them, and to respond to them.

That the NYT is teaming with Google to enable readers’ comments is interesting – will the search engine giant be applying AI to the moderation or is this another attempt to pump life into their failed social media and identity service? It remains to be seen.

Also what remains to be seen is if removing the Public Editor role affects journalism standards at the Times. The position at the newspaper was established in the wake of the Jayson Blair scandal to oversee the organisation’s output and hold editors and journalists accountable for oversights.

In the era of social media and an empowered readership, the New York Times’ publisher Arthur Sulzberger now believes the Public Editor role is redundant.

The public editor position, created in the aftermath of a grave journalistic scandal, played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog. We welcomed that criticism, even when it stung. But today, our followers on social media and our readers across the internet have come together to collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.

So the comments section now becomes part of the editorial process, it will be an interesting experiment.

In some respects, the New York Times’ embrace of social media feedback is a reflection of what many other organisations have done in other industries with ‘social listening’.

The theory is paying attention to what customers say online gives management immediate feedback, however practice has shown most organisations lack the internal communications systems to take advantage of this. It also appears most executives care little about what the public thinks of them which negates the ‘people power’ aspect of social listening.

If the Times can get this right, it will make the media outlet more responsive and effective. However history isn’t on their side.

Jun 012017
 

As always Mary Meeker’s State of the Internet report hits us with mass of information, this year compressed onto a 355 slide Powerpoint presentation.

There’s a wealth of detail in the report but two big trends stood out – that global internet advertising spend will overtake TV ad revenues and music industry revenues have reversed a 16 year decline as subscription services gain market share.

Subscriptions becoming the main revenue source for music companies suggests ]new internet business models are slowly evolving although how that lessons can be applied to other industries remains to be seen.

In the world of advertising, that online is now attracting a greater spend than TV is a major milestone in the shifting marketplace. Although Facebook and Google’s dominance – Meeker estimates 85% of revenue growth is going to the two companies – will present challenge to advertisers and agencies.

Also notable is how mobile revenues and handset sales are slightly better than flat, indicating the biggest market of last decade is now mature.

There’s many other insights in this report so it’s worth spending a few hours on it to reflect on how some of these trends may affect your industry.

May 222017
 

“I stand before you as a failure,” was how I opened my presentation at the Talking Justice conference last weekend. “If I were giving this talk ten or fifteen years ago, I’d have described how the web and social media were going to usher in a new era of democracy and accountability.”

“Like most of the cyber utopians, I was very, very wrong.”

Basically we were wrong because we didn’t see how the internet would concentrate rather than diffuse power or the extent of how new gatekeepers and monopolies would be replaced the old ones.

My friends and I were not alone, in a somewhat rambling interview with the New York Times Twitter co-founder Evan Williams describes how “the internet is broken” and how he thought the messaging service could make the world better.

“I thought once everybody could speak freely and exchange information and ideas, the world is automatically going to be a better place,” Mr. Williams says. “I was wrong about that.”

Instead Twitter has become home to trolls, harassment and misinformation, something that saddens Williams and most of us who thought the web would bring about a more open and fair society.

Hope isn’t completely gone though, we are still in the early days of social media and the internet so the current trends may only be a transition effect as audiences, markets, regulators and the community get to grips with the new medium.

There’s also Amara’s law which states we overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

So it’s best to be a pessimistic optimist where one accepts in the short run things are dire but over time things will turn out well.

We can only hope.

May 212017
 

Last week was an interesting time with an appearance before a Senate Committee and a trip to regional Victoria to talk about the media and social justice.

While busy, there was time to read some fascinating articles ranging from Elton’s John’s views on modern pop music, software lawsuits and early losses in the war on ‘fake news’ through to how the shiny new Apple campus boast almost everything for employees except a childcare centre.

Parents need not apply

Apple’s new 5 billion dollar campus is the realisation of Steve Jobs’ final vision. It boasts a hundred thousand square foot gym and an attention to detail that extends to the sand used to make the windows.

But it doesn’t have a day care centre, which gives a pretty clear message to aspiring employees – if you don’t have a stay at home spouse, something pretty rare in the hyper expensive Silicon Valley, then don’t bother applying.

Thanks a latte

Meanwhile in Australia, the government financed National Broadband Network is spending half a million dollars a year on maintaining its staff coffee machines.

While the money is small change in a project recent estimates put at costing $56 billion, it is emblematic of how far from its original purpose the vision has drifted.

Facebook Fails to Tackle ‘Fake News’

The social media’s attempts to tackle ‘Fake News’ are failing dismally reports The Guardian as reactionary groups gleefully reshare and publicise anything flagged as such.

While it’s early days, this isn’t a good start for Facebook although it also illustrates how powerful filter bubbles are and the lengths people will go to spread their ideologies.

The lawyers always win

Lasts week’s ransomware scares will trigger lawsuits says Reuters, quoting several legal experts.

Unsurprisingly, it won’t be Microsoft who’ll be the target given their almost bulletproof terms and conditions but businesses who didn’t patch their systems could be liable.

Fox News’ founder passes

Roger Ailes, the founder of Fox News and one time Nixon adviser, passes a few months after being ousted from the network he created.

Ailes personified the tabloidisation of the media as Rupert Murdoch applied the model which had worked so well for him at The Sun in the UK to newspapers and television in the United States.

Many blame the internet for the click bait, sensational model of modern news reporting but the pattern was well established by the time the World Wide Web came along in the mid 1990s.

Tinny, vapid crap

Elton John weighs in on the state of pop music.

 

May 192017
 

The passing of Roger Ailes, former NIxon advisor and founder of Fox News, is an opportunity to reflect on how the media has evolved over the past forty years.

Ailes’ work shows how click bait, fake news and filter bubbles are not products of the world wide web but pre-date it by at least twenty years with the rise of tabloid television and the modern version of yellow journalism designed to scare people.

While the web and social media proved wonderful ways to spread such messages, it was the arrival of programs  like A Current Affair twenty years earlier in the United States and reporters like Steve Dunleavy who changed popular journalism and taught us to fear our neighbours.

The results of that have been profound in everything from kids not walking to school any more to the magnificently wasteful prison systems all of the English speaking countries have built in response to hysteria over crime rates.

Ailes and his colleagues found a successful media model that attracted viewers and advertisers which set the pattern for today’s febrile environment of fake news and filter bubbles that have ushered in the most unstable and reactionary political climate since the early 1930s.

Where we go next remains to be seen, it’s a shame Ailes won’t be around to pay the price of his works.

May 182017
 

Following this week’s appearance before the Senate Committee into the Future of Public Interest Journalism, details of which are now up on Hansard, it’s worth reflecting on some of the ideas floated during the hearing on funding media organisations.

As the union reps illustrated, the challenge facing media organisations is acute with the Media, Entertainment and Arts Alliance spokespeople telling the committee how at least 25% of industry jobs have been lost in the last decade as the sector struggles with collapsing advertising revenues.

Ideas to find new sources of income ranged from crowdfunding, government funding, tax concessions and levies on the internet platforms like Google and Facebook.

Crowdfunding

First up for the morning were the team from Crinkling News, a kids newspaper. Saffron Howden, the publication’s co-founder and editor described how the founders had self funded the publication but after a year of operations they were hoping to raise 200,000 dollars through indiegogo to keep the doors open.

Senator Ludlam, the Committee’s Greens member, observed that running an appeal every year is hardly sustainable, something Howden agreed with saying the funds are to give the newspaper ‘more runway’.

Crinkling made its $200,000 target this morning, so for now the paper is saved. It will be interesting to see if Howden and her co-founders will find that sustainable revenue model rather than just an accessible form of capital.

Government subsidies

One of the obvious models for Crinkling is a government subsidy, Senator Ludlam asked if the paper had received any funds from state education departments to which Howden replied they hadn’t.

While for a specialist publication like Crinkling government subsidies may be an answer, most of those giving evidence were cautious about suggesting direct payments as an answer for the industry’s woes as it opens scope for interference in editorial policies.

There is some precedent for this in Australia, with the Victorian government supporting The Conversation but given how arbitrary Australian government programs are – not to mention the priorities of spending taxpayers’ funds – it’s hard to see how politically acceptable that is.

Tax concessions

Something more politically acceptable may be tax concessions to investors and founders similar to the R&D grants available to technology companies or the producers’ offset available to film producers.

I went further during my questioning and suggested something similar to the 10BA concessions that were available to the Australian film industry during the 1980s which unleashed a wave of innovation and new talent but were misused terribly by taxplanners – something that would give the Treasury apoplexy.

While this is an idea that may well get legs during the political bargaining over the media reforms, it won’t however solve the revenue problem.

Charitable or not-for-profit status

A variation on the tax concession idea was to allow media companies to have not-for-profit or charitable tax status. It’s hard not quip that most media ventures are already run on basis where they don’t make any money.

Under this idea, subscribers to media services would be able to claim their fees as a tax deduction which may encourage more people to sign up.

This idea also seemed to find a lot of support from the Senators and may well form part of the political horse trading. Like some of the other ideas there may be a potential problem with defining what exactly is a media company or a ‘journalist’.

One opportunity these last two options opens up is for philanthropic ventures, like the Guardian’s Scott Trust or the short lived Global Mail, to enter the field. Some cynics would say The Australian already operates on that model, but as the Global Mail’s brief life shows, generous benefactors tend to be rare.

Reforming copyright

Also attracting a lot of interest was the idea of updating copyright laws to force search engines, social media sites and content aggregators or scrapers to pay fees to creators. This could be done through an organisation like the Copyright Agency with fees passed onto media companies.

Tightening the copyright laws has some appeal, but this could prove a double edged sword for journalists, writers and artists as fair dealing – or the US equivalent of fair use – becomes restricted and finds media organisation liable for using extracts of others’ works.

It’s also unlikely to raise much unless there was a co-ordinated global push to make the major online companies pay fees which in turn would increase the costs of running the system.

A ‘Google tax’

There was much indignant huffing about services like Google and Facebook using content and the possibility of levying them for the privilege.

Were this done internationally, this would be a huge pool but a number of speakers including Fairfax CEO Greg Hywood and freelance journalist Michael West pointed out, these services are also critical distribution channels and it is comparatively easy for publishers to block these sites if they chose.

That they don’t choose to block Google is indicative of how critical the service is to distribution, so while Google takes most of the ad revenue the media companies are still dependent upon it. Taxing these services might be counterproductive.

Where to for the future?

Overall the suggestions were all worth considering but the real question of how do you make money from media wasn’t really answered. While tax breaks and levies may help, the fundamental truth is most news outlets are not financially sustainable in their current form.

That in itself raises a question of whether incumbents like Fairfax and News Limited are really relevant to journalism at all – maybe the large established Twentieth Century companies don’t have a role in this era.

Should that be true, the question of how journalism is funded still remains open. As mine, Michael West’s and Crinkle News’ tales described, there is little in the way of sustainable business models at the moment.

Wednesday’s hearing didn’t give us clues to that viable model could be, so we continue the search.

May 172017
 

Today I’ve been invited to appear before the Australian Senate’s committee on the Future of Public Interest Journalism. Here’s my planned opening remarks looking at the challenges facing media organisations, particularly in an Australian context.

I’d like to start off by pointing out I’m not a career journalist, I fell into the media industry through a series of happy accidents starting with appearing on ABC Radio to discuss the Y2K bug twenty years ago, this evolved to where I’m now a freelance contributor to all the major Australian media outlets.

As a longstanding contributor to various ABC stations across Australia ranging from ABC Darwin through South Australia’s Riverland to the national Nightlife program where the hosts pretend to be floating somewhere above Middle Australia rather than admit they are in the Sydney studio, I have seen some profound changes within the organisation.

Due to cost cutting and political interference, the organisation has steadily seen power and resources concentrated in the Sydney head office to the detriment of local coverage and regional stations.

To be fair to the ABC, the same process has happened in commercial media – in print, radio and television – as flawed policy decisions over the last forty years have seen market power accumulating in Sydney and Melbourne at the expense of local content, diversity and regional coverage.

Wasting the digital dividend

One of the great missed opportunities of our time was the gifting of the digital TV spectrum to the established radio and TV operators.

The digital broadcasting switch was an opportunity to bring diversity back into Australia’s media landscape and spur both journalism and the creative industries.

A few minutes watching what the Free To Air networks have done with those new channels shows how that resource has been squandered.

This concentration of market power has left Australian media organisations saddled with a protected and well paid breed of managers incapable of responding to the threats posed by US and Chinese social media networks – not to mention streaming services like Netflix or the continuing catastrophic declines in advertising revenues.

Journalism as a team effort

Producing quality media to compete globally is a team effort. Good journalism isn’t just the result of good reporters, it requires good sub-editors, producers, researchers, photographers and a small army of other skilled workers. Not to mention strong, principled editors and station managers.

The media industry’s casualisation, something as freelancer I’ve encountered the brutal reality of, makes it difficult to develop those skills. The ABC is a good example of this where, outside of management and administration, there are few salaried staff aged under 40. This has great ramifications for the workforce, industry and the community.

It’s difficult to see what governments can do in the face of the global industry’s changing economics, particularly in the advertising industry’s shift.

We should keep in mind however if we were having this discussion a hundred years ago we would have been asking how people can make money from radio. Entrepreneur David Sarnoff who founded Radio Corporation of Australia figured out the commercial broadcasting model in the 1920s and that industry went on to become one of the most profitable of the last century.

So it may well be that encouraging a new generation of media entrepreneurs and journalists who can figure out 21st Century business models can be the best thing Parliament can do to ensure a diverse media culture that tells modern Australian stories to today’s Australians.