There was many a line in this that caught my eye; most of which can be saved for another day.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2008/apr/23/bbc.pressandpublishing

It was Myners’ line right at the end, however, that maybe deserves some thought – the bit where he suggests that, when it comes to the regional press “there will be continuing pressure for consolidation of ownership to bring scale…”

We have been down this road a little before; in wondering just how Trinity Mirror’s excellent local community web-sites in Teesside – soon coming to a Coventry suburb near you – can be made to work in downtown Loddon.

It clearly can be made to work in Loddon; the question is whether or not it will be the Trinity-Mirror model that winds it’s way over the bridge from Chedgrave and up the High Street – or the Archant one. They are, of course, only ten miles up the road in Norwich and have, therefore, rather less of a trek to get here.

But Myners is clearly merely repeating what every regional newspaper executive knows; that to make their numbers work – to get that old, newsprint quart to fit in a web pint pot, they are going to have to get hold of some more pint pots… to give themselves scale, as Myners observes.

Now, I am no economist. But right now, with their share prices already halved and the credit crunch just starting to bite, who on earth has got any appetite whatsoever to consolidate the UK regional newspaper industry to the kind of scale that – in every likelihood – is now required must be something of a moot point.

Newsprint quart into a web pint pot and all that… how many pint pots are you going to need to make your scale viable in an age where, as Clay Shirky pointed out, traditional geographical constraints on our behaviour are flying out of the nearest window?

Does ‘scale’ entail a quantum mass that is numbers-only? Is that where advertising-heaven lies? In numbers? ‘Look, we have 22 million uniques… six million here, four over there, 200,000 down here…

But what if advertisers are looking for a scale that is more than just a patch-work quilt of numbers; more than pockets of influence? What if they want to hit every nook and crannie in the land?

Perhaps scale can come with ‘ownership’ of one of the four corners of this green and pleasant land… that Trinity Mirror and Northcliffe will sit down together and swap your Birmingham for our Bristol, our Cardiff for your Leicester, and so on…

Perhaps. But it seems unlikely. After all – and this is where I repeat that I’m no economist – but I presume that the wheels of any such consolidation process would need to be greased by large dollops of funding.

You sense that the markets have already delivered their verdict on newspaper stocks; the fact that the Birmingham Evening Mail didn’t exactly have people flocking to Trinity Mirror’s door might be further proof that whilst picking off the odd weekly here, the little free paper there might still be a possibility, the whole-scale reorganisation of the UK provincial newspaper industry looks one mountain that people have neither the will – nor increasingly the simple wherewithal – to climb.

Where that leaves us all is the next moot point. Under pressure, was Myners’ opinion.

In desperate need of starting from scratch, starting all over again from a blank piece of paper would be mine.

 

 

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Many, many moons ago – when www.mylocalwriter.com was even less than a twinkle in anyone’s eye – we stumbled out into this digital world as www.rickwaghorn.co.uk

I say, stumbled. And with good reason. Because in two years I’m not sure we’ve ever put one foot firmly in front of the other; it’s always been a case of putting a tentative toe forward and gently seeing if the ground is about to give away beneath our feet.

And I defy anyone to say that, hand on heart, they know what they’re doing. We’re all slaving over our Bunsen burners throwing in bits of subscription here, local advertising there…. hubble and bubble, tons of toil and plenty of trouble trying to discover this new media gold…

Anyway, back to our Mark I incarnation, www.rickwaghorn.co.uk. For those of you who never set eyes on it, it had this set of legs whirring around on the top; the big idea was that these were the subscription characters – The Wife, The Pro, Eyes, etc, etc.

Given that Neil arrived on the scene only two weeks before its launch, his hands are clean; it had my finger-prints all over it. Which is why it is nowhere to be seen these days…

The other ‘big’ idea was that as a local journalist whose ugly mug had adorned various Carrow Road advertising hoardings and Norwich bus-stops for a number of years – there is a decent grafitti gag to be had on the speech bubble that adorned the one on Castle Meadow and my elderly mother’s reaction to someone’s spelling of the word… – but this being a family-orientated blog, we’ll move swiftly on.

The point is that – rightly or wrongly – I figured I had a strong enough local ‘brand’ that if I needed to throw myself off the top of Archant Towers and put my faith, my mortgage and my eight-year-old’s future in the hands of the Internet, there would be enough of a welcoming committee on the web to break my fall.

Cos I had a name. And that name wasn’t John Smith. It was easy on Google’s eye; if no-one else’s. And as such people would come and find me; we’d work the brand; the brand, the awareness and the bus-stop presence that 12-odd years sat on the back page of the Evening News had given me.

And if I could get my name, my brand to work out of one city evening newspaper, why not look to bring out all the other boys and girls who did my beat? Tatts in Birmingham; Mark in Portsmouth; Meeksy in Barnsley; Adam in Southampton… we were all on the same circuit; pounding the same beat; delivering the same, informed opinion and comment on a passionate niche subject – just to different niche audiences… then we pull all those niche audiences into one…

But it doesn’t work.

Cos you can’t work off a name; can’t work off an individual journalist.

And, in part, that’s back to that bus-stop. Or rather the no47 bus that arrives there. Because as far as a bank are concerned – and, indeed, your punters are concerned – you could fall under that bus. And, bang, the whole thing folds in an instant.

On this occasion, I see a bank’s point; you build a community around any one person’s individual name and it is only ever as strong and as durable as the individual concerned. Take Rick Waghorn out of www.rickwaghorn.co.uk and it collapses; on a wholly different level altogether, it’s why I don’t think www.jeremyclarkson.co.uk would motor as far as the banks were concerned.

Massive traffic, interest, etc, etc… but only for as long as the brand itself were alive and kicking; that ‘brand’ falls underneath the wheels of the new Alfa 159 or whatever and the whole proposition goes down the pan. Again, where’s the value? There’s no value in flesh and blood; it’s all too human; all too frail.

Which is why one lunchtime in the Walnut, me and Neil had to come up with something more robust; something that could firmly do without me; that was a brand in its own right.

Hence MFW. But it still took six months to prove the point. Because as we wandered our way down the A140 and crossed the Waveney into Ipswich territory, the original idea was to add another familiar ‘brand’ to the pack, albeit now under the ‘MFW’ umbrella.

That went out of the window as a number of obvious candidates decided that they were better off sticking with the devil they knew; they didn’t fancy the leap. Which is fine.

But it left me with no option but to put a ‘clean skin’ into www.myfootballwriter.com/ipswichtown – just as we would three months later when Nick went into www.myfootballwriter.com/colchesterunited.

Neither had ‘previous’; no bus-stops; no advertising hoardings at either Portman Road or Layer Road. All they had was a spot of match-day programme advertising and MFW as a platform.

Two months in and Mark had pulled 5,500 uniques into the Ipswich site. The next month was January; transfer window month.

And for those national commentators poring over the spike in bigger and better ABCe’s than ours; that’s your answer to January’s bumper numbers. Football transfer stories.

Anyway, we emerged from January with 20,500 uniques; a four-fold increase. Mark’s a good writer and a very solid operator; but that’s not his ‘brand’ working its magic. Nor, I suspect, is it too much to do with MFW.

It’s all about the functionality that working that web ‘beat’ brings; delivering people’s news where and when they want it – that and the way that the web virals out your ‘brand’ in an instant; pop up on a message-board and be the review good, bad or indifferent, people will have a look. You’re in their niche; talking their passion; they’ll look; they’ll decide. And you’re away…

The other big point now we’re starting to try and fit some bigger pieces of the jigsaw together; trying to be a long tail to someone else’s water lily, is that you can’t fit a jumble of individual names together; someone has to be ‘mother’.

Someone has to give it order, structure – and, above all, elegance.

www.rickwaghorn.co.uk may have been many things; elegant it weren’t. As journalists we need to re-organise, re-group, re-think and re-align. Into nice straight lines, ideally.

That’s the challenge that my little brand was never going to meet. Never in a month of Sundays. Individual journalists still have huge strengths as individual brands; they equally have fatal weaknesses when it comes to organising, elegantly, the kind collective networks that we need to survive.

Apologies if we go back to the same ‘source’ material again. And this time, I’ll give the author his due – Mr Anthony Lilley, take a bow.

But the more I read it, the more gems you find. With the same on-going proviso – that you read it through the eyes of a wood-stainer. For whether by accident or design, it bangs nail after nail on the head.

Or at least gives some great starting points for a discussion.

This baby, for example.

“Our use of media is shifting to find a new balance between the creation and distribution of content as we have known it in the age of mass media and the active participation of citizens.

“We are entering the age of “our media” – where the communication of ideas amongst groups and the sharing of content are at the heart of what’s going on…”

Spot on. The new balance between the distribution of content as we have known it and the active participation of citizens… Very good. Cos that’s new media gold – how to crack that interaction without moderation nut. As it stands, most of us have discovered only new media green on that score.

Am I going to run a messageboard community off www.myfootballwriter.com and spend my life enslaved to a moderating screen as anonymous 14-year-olds from their bedrooms Ipswich have a pop at Norwich…? Er, no.

Not as a responsible publisher with a family-friendly brand to protect. A post for another time, but that tide is on the turn was the feeling from both the floor and the platform of Paul’s JEECamp the other day.

I’d also take a different view in terms of the age of “our media”. No surprise given the fact we’re running www.myfootballwriter.com and www.mylocalwriter.com, but I’d say it was more the age of “my media” – something, you presume, Shane and his myTelegraph set-up would concur with.

This bit is good. Particularly if you insert the word ‘newspaper’ into the mix.

We already have a splendid system of media distribution using the mass media technologies of television, film, radio and, to some extent, the first generation of the web.

“Indeed, broadband networks have the added effect of improving this environment still further by facilitating access to media on-demand.

“But even this change from a scheduled world of media scarcity to a plentiful world of traditional media available on-demand represents a significant challenge to the assumptions and models of mass media players…

Newspaper hats on and two phrases leap out – “media on-demand” and “a scheduled world of media scarcity“, ie I want my news now and not when the paper-boy deigns to finally show and that “scheduled world”, one that for 400-odd years has been enslaved to the deadlines of a print press. And as such was able to keep media scarce.

And that’s a big, big word in this digital age of ours. Cos if media is scarce then it has a value. Simple supply and demand; keep supply scarce and the demand will push the price up.

To my mind – and that of Clay Shirky – the demand for media is not the problem. Everyone still wants a good read, just as they still want to listen to good music, etc, etc…

It’s the supply side that’s the problem. Media is everywhere. News is instant and universal. And free.

“Traditional media are at the zenith of their powers when they are distributing information and providing entertainment.

“These are powerful human needs; but they are not sufficient for life in the 21st century as the force of globalisation flatten our world. We are not in the information age; that has passed. We’re entering the networked, learning age…”

Sit down with a bank in these current, credit-crunched climate – and I suspect this will apply just as much to TrinityMirror, Archant, the LA Times, etc, etc, as much as it will to me and www.mylocalwriter.com – and that’s our biggest, biggest problem. Proving value.

If I can get this for free, on the web, what’s the value in your newspaper? Or, indeed, your website? Somewhere in all the recent talk of share prices halving, that fundamental thought is going through the minds of the markets. Where’s the value? When media was scarce, yeh, sure I get it… Now it’s everywhere. And costs me nothing. Where’s the value?

Because the ‘scarcity of media’ applies just as equally to the distribution of advertising as it does to the distribution of editorial content. For 400-odd years, there was only one local advertising platform in town – and that ad only ever got as far as the furthest paper-boy.

Now we’re in this ‘networked’ age and that ad doesn’t need a paper boy to carry it; advertising ain’t scarce anymore, that’s everywhere too. Where’s the value in that quarter page ad? Heh, and I’ll keep myself in the newspaper boat – where’s the value in that banner ad? What’s so special about you? Where’s your added value?

And for all of us the answer we have to urgently hope lies in that one word – that not only are we in this networked age, but we’re in this “learning” age…

Because if information is everywhere, what it actually means is still – thankfully – quite scarce. Or rather those that actually know what that information means are still quite scarce; those that can add the ‘learning’ to a football score, an on-line police rap sheet, a roadside death in Iraq, and all those other bland, bald pieces of information that don’t come with education attached.

That’s why I look at www.everyblock.com with huge admiration – in all but one, key regard. I want to learn from it, not be informed by it. Information is everywhere; learning isn’t… what do I learn from a hygiene report? A police crime stat? I want the analysis, the colour, the background – and I want it from a source that I respect and trust.

That’s the value.

One night last autumn I discovered I had 24-hours in which to submit my final proposal for this year’s Knight News Challenge; boy was the midnight oil burned.

But in my hour of desperate need, I found a quote from Bill Keller as he warned that for all this explosion of information on the Internet, the supply of reliable news reporting was dwindling.

“What is absent from the vast array of new media outlets is, first and foremost, the great engine of news-gathering – the people who witness events, ferret out information, supply context and explanation.”

There’s your scarcity; there’s your value; there’s our future.

Now explain it to a bank.

I have to tread very carefully round this subject. Very carefully.

But as we all know the news the other week that Archant (Suffolk) were pondering the possibility of replacing 20-odd sub-editors in Ipswich with advertising designers prompted a furious debate in media circles.

It prompted an interested debate in one or two domestic circles, too, given that my Mrs is still a part-time sub with Archant (Norfolk).

But it is interesting; the role of a sub – particularly in a purely digital context. Cos we don’t have one; I guess you’d say we ‘self-sub’ – that as me, Mark and Nick sit at our various kitchen tables across East Anglia, we try and deliver as clean a piece of copy as we can; literal and libel free, whenever possible.

But, being human, the odd mistake still slips in under the radar. It hoppens.

And here’s the interesting bit; where the sand is shifting beneath a sub’s feet. Because if I spot a literal, I go back into the CMS, click the edit button, make the correction and re-publish. And no-one need be any the wiser.

If your audience comes and goes as they please – as opposed to coming and going as and when newspapers demand – then you put a story up at 11.35am, re-read it when it’s up at, say, 11.48am, spot a literal and change it, then it might only have been read and spotted by, say, 20-odd in your daily 4,000-readership. For the rest, as and when they ‘get a mo’, it’s clean…

Now there are aspects to all this that make football-writing a little different; if we were running, say, mycourtwriter.com then I suspect we’d put a few more safeguards in place. That said, I suspect the onus will ever more be on the reporter to know their legals – that’s where the responsibility will start and, all too often, end in a world of nigh-on instant publishing.

We’ve had one big legal in our two years; but that again was instructive. Long story the moral of which was never, ever trust a football agent. But the point was we held our hands up, whacked a correction up on the site within two hours, deleted the offending story and moved on. Quickly.

The wronged party was pleasantly surprised how swiftly and professionally the matter had been dealt with; he saw the correction on the site; a day later and it was gone.

Because there’s another interesting point – how long do these issues linger on the web as opposed to print? If newspapers are only ever tomorrow’s fish and chip paper, what does that make a web-story? If it disappears off into our archive 36-hours after it’s been published – or, indeed, is deleted or corrected – then, for me, web stories are far more ephemeral than any newspaper story…

Clearly – at the right/wrong moment in time in front of the right/wrong pair of eyes – they can be just as damaging and can develop a whole, viral life of their own as they sweep across the web-waves via message-board after message-board.

But they don’t quite have this same, tablet of stone, there for time immemorial quality that a newspaper story has. And with that comes the heightened need for a sub – on newsprint you’ve got one chance to get it right; there’s no going back. On the web, you can always go back. That creates a very different mind-set. Very different.

But what was equally interesting in the debate that raged was the emphasis everyone placed on the whole check, check, check argument. For me, it under-played the other great duty of state under-taken by the sub-editor. To cut, cut, cut.

Not with a butcher’s cleaver; more with a surgeon’s scalpel. Or, at least, that was the theory. When time and management allowed.

That was the sub’s great craft; that yes, a reporter-stroke-news desk would push copy through that was roughly to length, but it was the sub that got it to the line; got it to measure up. A tweak here, a little line out there. They got it to fit.

That’s how I learned – as the ‘sports department’ on the Gazette & Herald, the weekly Sunday football round-up filled the outside leg, 25cms depth under a four-deck, 30-point headline.

Can’t remember the word-count now, but say it was 500. Trouble was the old boy that contributed the Devizes & District Sunday League wrote for Britain.

A 1,200-word tome that was a nightmare to crack down to length; for the change page, his oppo from the Chippenham & District Sunday league wrote 250 words on the back of a fag packet, but still expected to see his four-deck, 30-point headline and 500 words of polished copy – just like they get in Devizes….

The web changes everything.

We still write to length. Somewhere in the region of 900-1,000 words. Twice a day.

That way we can split two, chunky 500-word reads over two pages; double our page impression numbers; have eight ad slots as opposed to four.

No-one’s being short-changed – 500 words is still more often that not longer than most evening newspaper back-page leads. Certainly the ones that I wrote for 13-odd years.

But the web doesn’t need copy to fit to the line; nor do you have to look for nasty ‘widows’.

It flows. And if you’re dealing with a passionate niche like football and you know that your readers will lap up every last spit, dot and comma, why cut?

And if you’re looking towards an advertising-metric that might be drifting to one that’s ever more time-based – how ‘sticky’ is your copy? – why cut? Keep the eye-balls there; don’t leave any quotes on the cutting room floor.

And if you haven’t got a 4×16 garden centre ad in the bottom left corner and 5×24 action pic in the top right, why cut?

And if you’re not cutting, not tweaking, not getting copy to fit to the line; if you’re self-checking and self-correcting, dipping in and out of your own CMS as and when you spot the od literal, then the role of the sub simply becomes, well, just kind of part of what we do; it’s not anything special anymore; it’s just another strand to our new, digital DNA.

As, I suspect, will be the ability to make-up an ad; to be our own DIY ad department running alongside our back-bench come kitchen table.

A scribble, yesterday

It was a simple question from Pete Ashton – and one that, at the time, I had no answer to.

I’m not sure I do now.

Which is why, in part, Out With A Bang is here to help. Kind of.

Anyway, the question. ‘Is that model you drew online?’

Drew is probably over-stating it. Scribbled is a more accurate phrase as the old flip chart, marker pen and A-frame were assembled for the new kid on the (un)conference block as I tried to offer some ‘elegant organisation’ to the whole MFW thing. And, indeed, potentially to the whole www.mylocalwriter.com baby.

I’d scribbled the thing out a couple of times before – once to some Barclays Bank types who drew a really lovely triangle by way of return; all-too-often to Col and Gary at the accountants who tend to nod politely as their eyes glaze over; once to Shane Richmond in the midst of a ‘Norwich aren’t going down, are they?’ conversation that he invariably demands.

OK, the idea is that if journalism is to thrive and survive in any post wood-stainer world, we have to build new alliances, forge fresh commercial links; re-organise; re-invent; start again from a blank piece of paper – and scribble all over it. Elegantly.

And what we create are these tubes – and I’m sure someone will think of a better term – but tubes that are, as I discovered at Charlie Beckett’s POLIS gig way back when, “two inches wide, but a mile deep…” Long tails. That’s the theory.

So beneath our mothership, www.myfootballwriter.com, we bolt a succession of sub-sites on www.myfootballwriter.com/norwichcity, www.myfootballwriter.com/ipswichtown and down and down we go.

For down there in the depths is this hyper-local world that features not only some prime, ‘sticky’ content, but also all that untapped local advertising; all these traditional, evening newspaper types who have built their own little business websites of late but don’t now know what to do with them…

Up top, where the sun shines and the lily pads are, that’s this new and emerging world of previously ‘national’ media brands who are suddenly discovering an escape route via global audiences – that’s where the circulation wars of the future will be fought between your Mails, Times, Telegraphs and Guardians. In their ABCe’s – how many monthly uniques are they pulling from the Mid-West US….

The trick is to devise an editorial and advertising platform that mirrors a Craig’s List or an eBay; that has this similar capacity to be both local in focus, but national in scope.

That’s why the BBC is laughing – or would be if it ever got the green light to do what it’s doing on its Worldwide platform and source UK-facing advertising.

For it can be this huge, global media beast – and yet at the same time via its county radio stations and its forthcoming BBC Local roll-out – it can drill down to being local in focus.

Just as MFW can. As ITVLocal.com can – albeit via its regional platforms. As, in fairness, RightMove, PrimeLocation, Monster and all those boys are.

With their minds all set on broadening their global appeal, do the Mails, the Telegraphs and the Times’ want to dive down to the bottom of the pond and see what’s there? Or will they concentrate their energies on spreading their wings and being a lily pad – and let someone else hoover up what’s down below?

Cos then, the theory goes, you just bolt your tube onto the bottom of a lily-pad; up comes local content and local advertising – down goes national content and, potentially, national advertising… BMW ads and Russell Brand’s Saturday football column makes it to the bottom of the MFW pond, as podcasts with Mick Mills and Johnny Wark reach the surface.

And this is where me and the provincial newspaper industry go our seperate ways.

Cos they’re neither lily-pad nor bottom-dwelling pond-life.

As this new kid on the (un)conference block I did my homework before JEECamp and looked at Trinity Mirror’s excellent online communities site that they have trialled – very successfully – out of the Gazette. I know that TS10 is the postcode for Redcar.

And fair play, it’s good.

And then you read that they’re planning a ‘national’ roll-out. Fantastic.

So when are you going to do NR14? Have one of those TrinityMirror babies rolling down our street? Complete with a local advertising revenue driver…

Cos clearly this being Archant-land, they won’t mind. As they won’t in every other traditional provincial newspaper fiefdom across the country. Don’t mind us, you carry on…

Me, Neil, Kev and Ian are four boys on their laptops. This being Norfolk, if I want a mobile phone signal to speak to Kev my ad man, I need to stand in a three-foot circle in our dining room; he answers by leaning out of his back bedroom window.

But we can still see a lily pad.

mylocalwriter.com/ts10, mylocalwriter.com/nr14 – or mylocalwriter.com/redcar, mylocalwriter.com/loddon if you prefer.

From there it’s up and into MySun, MyTelegraph or whoever…

Well, that’s our theory. F*ck it.

Like the blog says, let’s go out with a bang.