Ceefax and the end of a technology era

So the venerable television text service is no more in the UK, as the BBC closes Ceefax. The ITV and Channel 4 alternatives closed back in 2009, so it’s the end of a UK -developed technology that began in the early 1970s.

The end has been coming for a while. I can remember using the BBC service to check the football scores, and also the ITV alternative for video game coverage. But a few years ago I started sitting in front of my laptop reading the scores to my dad before the pages could cycle through.

Obviously between new interactive services, laptops, and particularly the ‘second screen’ duo of smartphones and tablets, there’s probably a very small minority who will be affected by the demise of Ceefax, which increasingly resembled a pixel art vision of the future.

But the news did bring back some happy memories of the Disposable Media project I worked on. Assembled from volunteers either already working in the media or hoping to break into it, the DM online magazine was produced entirely online via a private forum, and was available as a PDF download which managed to reach tens of thousands of people each issue.

And one memorable issue featured a cover by ITV’s teletext video game legend Mr Biffo

Disposable Media

The scary thing is that it’s almost 5 years since that issue was produced. Since then some of the Disposable Alumni have gone onto work for a range of companies, with many in the media in some senior positions.

And even this week there has been debate about yet another venerable print title switching to digital distribution only. We knew it was happening years ago!

Media companies and losing talent

A couple of very interesting posts regarding the ever-changing media world popped up last week. Jeremiah Owyang catalysed some interesting discussion when he posed the idea that the Golden Age of Tech Blogging is over (A theme I’d covered earlier with a less provocative headline – curses!) We both broadly agree on the topic, although I think we’re probably both being slightly biased towards anecdotal evidence and especially an understandable English-language bias.

One thing we both mentioned was the move for senior writers and contributors from notable blogs to be starting out on their own – whether as a group or individuals – e.g. The Verge, The Kernel, Uncrunched, The New Gambit, etc).

And related to that was Neil Perkin, with a typically insightful post asking ‘Why big companies get rid of talented people?’. Considering AOL looms large in the stories of TheVerge and Techcrunch,  it’s a pertinent question to the state of tech blogging, along with all large media businesses at the moment. To quote:

Despite talking a good game, many large organisations remain relatively poor at moving talent around the company. The silo culture that still characterises many businesses doesn’t help. Requirements and expectations become optimised to local needs rather than those of the organisation as a whole. Strangely, the people who can really see the bigger picture and are often the ones to challenge existing assumptions are the ones that begin to not fit so easily into those silos. So companies take the easy option.

In my view, it’s their loss.

I’ve certainly suffered from those elements of traditional business culture, and also been lucky enough to benefit from senior individuals who looked beyond it and saw reasons to do things differently. I also commented on Neil’s post that there’s an element of a culture clash – anecdotally, the most talented digital and non-digital people I’ve worked with have all been more concerned with solving problems across the business than staying within their assigned role or concentrating on office politics and have often suffered for it, even within firms which are supposedly extremely tech focused.

The major difference is that digital tools mean those people have less reason to accept their given role – there’s greater access to other opportunities whether with another company or via self-employment. I haven’t timed it for a while, but a new site via Blogger, Tumblr etc is about 1 minute to set up, and however long it takes to get your first post written – all for no financial outlay.

exit.

 

How big media companies can keep talented people

1. Hire and fire the right people:

First up, there’s an oft-quoted rule about A players hiring A players. You need to be hiring people who you can trust with the freedom I’ll mention in tip 2, and who can work with a high degree of autonomy. Those people who will identify a problem, come up with a solution, and then get it done, rather than just sitting there.

You also need management at all levels who can accept constructive criticism, work with it, and are able to change things. And you need a level of honesty throughout about whether or not it’s working, because even if you can convince yourself within your business that everything is fine, it’ll still be apparent outside of the office by the output.

2. Freedom

Everyone knows about Google and their 20% time. Barely any companies ever actually do anything similar. Lots of people can provide empirical evidence about how small changes and innovations lead to big results, and yet very few companies ever put that type of approach into practice. Every company would love the next big thing, but hardly any would let someone build something and get it straight out the door to see whether it works or not, without months of watering it down into something non-offensive, and uninteresting. I have to mention my former employers at Absolute Radio as one example of a business which puts an above average level of mutual trust and respect in the talented people they employ, and as a result continue to constantly churn out a variety of interesting projects and innovations, some of which are highly successful.

And when it comes to freedom, common sense goes a long way in revising employee contracts and guidelines for areas such as social media. In a litigious area, it’s easy to forget the effect that what may have seemed a legal safeguard will actually have on a normal employee, especially when it comes to legal attempts to own innovation rather than encourage and reward it.

3. Support and reward

Psychologically, money is not the biggest lever to increase productivity and success, provided it’s at a decent level. Crucially in the media industry, the attraction of a career leads to a high amount of applicants for roles, and a correspondingly low level of pay for many. If you want employees to focus on the best way to make your business more money, then you need to understand they can’t do that if they’re constantly worrying and stressed about making the next mortgage payment and their increasing overdraft.

I’m not suggesting you pay huge amounts over-the-odds for people who aren’t going to be productive, but that you adequately reward people that are. And that doesn’t necessarily mean in basic wages – give people a chance to share in success, and make it meaningful.

Whatever your opinion of Richard Branson, there are examples in Business Stripped Bare of cleaners and watersports instructors rising to management positions. At the same time, cabin crews on their airlines earn slightly less than competitor employees but receive other rewards for their contributions to improving the business.

 

Culture Jamming by Hugh McLeod (cc Licence, ref gapingvoid.com)

It’s worth reading this Hugh McLeod post that accompanies the above cartoon on Culture Jamming. The money quote is:

chan­ging your company’s for­tu­nes NOT by trying to directly change what the gene­ral public thinks of you, but by trying to change what YOU think of you.

And that’s the massive, massive problem with most media companies up until now. Along with marketing and advertising, they’re the companies most used to talking at audiences, and have spent decades, or even hundreds of years perfecting that art. And when you’re used to playing a part to an external audience, it’s hard to even start to acknowledge what’s going on internally.

Tech blogs, they are a-changing

It’s a bit of a strange time for the digital publishing world, and tech blogs in particular, as they seem to be going through the kind of upheaval you’d be forgiven for presuming was a print monopoly.

So far we’ve had Techcrunch acquired by AOL, shortly followed by most of the best reasons to read Techcrunch rapidly leaving, and we’ve seen Paul Carr is launching The New Gambit, which is an e-reader/tablet subscription only ‘Economist as written by The Daily Show’.

We’ve recently had ReadWriteWeb acquired by SAY Media, which was preceded by Marshall Kirkpatrick announcing he’ll still be posting on the site, but is stepping back from other activities to build his own startup (which is one that sounds particularly exciting.)

Meanwhile Guardian News and Media has announced it is selling ContentNext, the parent of PaidContent.

On the gadget side, The Verge arrived, formed by the former core of Engadget.

And today at some point we should see the arrival of The Kernel, the new project from Milo Yiannopolous.

The only constant is change

It feels like there’s a trend for incumbent owners/publishers to be trying to get out now as revenues are unlikely to skyrocket – especially when you compare web publishing with location-based apps, social games, or winning Euromillions. And we’ll have to wait through the transition period to know whether those venerable old grandfathers of digital are worth sticking with.

Meanwhile, those who were senior figures and who’ve wanted to create their own products and businesses have struck out to try just that.

And somewhere there are some brilliant, exciting and interesting new titles and blogs out there – the biggest challenge is locating them at an early stage, and it’s a challenge which no one still seems to have cracked despite all of the content discovery, language analysis, and other mechanisms for sharing content. It’s still mainly about the existing names and the content they are producing – so if you have any recommendations for new sites and blogs, please do share them…

Personally, I think there are still some big gaps and opportunities for digital content on the web, along with the latest gold rush for mobile, tablet and e-reader publications. If not, I wouldn’t still be fascinated with trying to establish my own titles as a viable business which can grow and one day support a staffed business. But there’s not a tech news blog among them for various reasons.

But what is crystal clear and is being proven yet again is that the era of years of stability in any form of publishing have gone forever – print is subject to continued transformation and decline into a different method of survival for some titles and formats, whilst the move to digital brings only more challenges and a need for continual evolution. I suspect the two keys to success are being able to cope with constant changes under your feet whilst also accepting the fact that digital publishing is a longterm business which can be profitable, but isn’t goldmine. Although when it comes to blogging, I can point you in the direction of a million eBooks which would try to convince you otherwise…

The future of print is in the hands of small retailers

I was in St Albans yesterday for an interesting meeting with someone I can’t name about a project I can’t mention. But afterwards I had enough time to pop into Chaos City Comics, a small comic shop which has apparently been going for a couple of decades.

It’s a really nice friendly shop, and having overheard the owner go through the world of comics with someone buying on behalf of someone else, we ended up striking up a bit of a chat about the comic shop business, a forthcoming reboot for DC comics, and the future of print in a world of tablet computing and curated discovery.

It made me think a lot about the future of print – apparently the combination of high profile movies and new formats has encouraged new business into the shop for print comics. But will this continue when superhero movies may not be moneyspinners for the studios, and when more and more people might be reading everything on a screen to the exclusion of anything else?

One thing we did talk about which I think might have potential for comics in particular is a curated experience which is already being offered by some specialist record retailers. Rather than visiting a storefront with the rent and expense that incurs, you’re able to visit a small office in which you pour out all your musical preferences and interests, and in return you get an expert providing you with a suitable selection to sample and enjoy before parting with your cash for the ones you want to take away.

So what about the same for comics? As someone who has less time than ever to keep up with the latest news and issues, I’d love to be able to go to a friendly expert on a regular basis who could not only suggest and advise what new titles I should try, but also be able to provide the complete story arcs I should be reading on a regular basis…

A selection of comics

Image by KickTheBeat on Flickr (CC Licence)

 

Small retailers need to do more…

The other thing that stood out is that I had a great experience in store, but I’m not a St Albans regular, and coming home and finding the Chaos City website has been a little frustrating, as it could definitely be offering more – it’s a basic news service about the store at the moment, without any way for me to part with any money for starters.

And that seems to be the case with so many great little specialist shops – great owners and staff, great knowledge and expertise, and no really good way of being able to access it when you’re not in the shop itself.

And there’s no legitimate excuse for that in an era when print is in decline, and the likely future will be one of niche publishing in specific areas of interest. There are lots of not only effective, but also efficient ways to increase turnover and provide more ways to interested people to spend cash with you, in addition to building customer loyalty and improving customer service. And considering the amount of free and open source options available to create a really good web presence, it doesn’t have to be expensive – especially if you deal in comics and know someone susceptible to payment in back issues as well as cash ;)

My new project is now live…

Well, after a few late Christmas nights (But surprisingly few), I now have another digital project.

Having spent years creating content and working for a variety of big and small publishers, it felt odd not having an least one working demonstration of how I’d propose digital publishing can work. Since switching to marketing full time as a career, and the seemingly indefinite hiatus with has afflicted Disposable Media since I left,  I’d had an idea nagging at me for a while for a new site.

It’s a fairly simple idea, hopefully serving an audience which I’m hoping is passionate enough to embrace it and also show how it can become a profitable small scale business.

OnlineRaceDriver.com

It’s called OnlineRaceDriver.com and the plan is to serve the huge group of people out there who put a lot of time and effort into enjoying their online racing on consoles and PCs. Some like videogames, some like cars, and some are even professional racers or keen amateurs who fancy unwinding with some less risky motorsport.

It’s joined 140char.com and this site as part of my miniscule publishing empire. The plan is to overhaul 140char shortly, redesigning and refocussing it. And I’m more motivated than ever, as OnlineRaceDriver has already got two great collaborators involved with potentially another joining us, and meanwhile I’ve also got a great collaborator on 140Char.

So I’m now working hard to balance an incredibly exciting and demanding day job at Absolute Radio, the demans of a young family, and three websites – and once 140char.com is complete, I’m thinking it’s time for a makeover here as well.

That should keep me busy for most of 2010!

Incidentally, if you’re interested in possibly contributing to any of the three sites, whether it’s content, design or development, let me know… Follow the About link above for my contact details…

Oh, and if you happen to like the look and feel of OnlineRaceDriver, then you’ll be please to know it’s based extensively on the Metro Theme from Studiopress (affiliate links). It’s cost effective, really easy to work with, and they’ve got some really nice alternatives on their site. And if I couldn’t break it yet, you know it’s got to be pretty good!

Journalists, marketers and job losses…

I need to tread carefully with this post, which came from a link via @davidcushman and @ajkeen. The article in question is Journos Losing Jobs at Three Times Rate of Average Workers which looks at the number of journalists being laid off in the U.S.

To put it in context, I’ve been fortunate enough to avoid losing any fulltime roles, although I’ve been part three large scale redundancies for companies. Plus as a child, my father was made redundant and was unemployed for quite a while (during one of the previous times of crisis for the British economy). But at the same time, I don’t think the current wave of media unemployment is necessarily a bad thing overall (Obviously I know how bad it can be for the individuals involved).

The reason being that this can’t have been unexpected by anyone. The media industry has been struggling for a while, and roles like writing (and I’m also referencing  marketing in this as it shares a lot of the same occupational traits) are always in the firing line. I don’t think there’s ever been a point in my career when I’ve thought about either my editorial or marketing roles as being secure position for life – they’re an evolving set of challenges. We’re not talking about air traffic controllers, brain surgeons or even bin men (garbage men?).

Picture by Jeff Youngstrom on Flickr (CC Licence)

Picture by Jeff Youngstrom on Flickr (CC Licence)

But the modern writer, journalist or marketer has a huge advantage over those other roles – a sacked air traffic controller can’t get sacked and respond by building his own airport, but it’s possible to publish online, on mobile and even in print for free in a matter of minutes. A brain surgeon isn’t likely to build his own operating theatre, but a digital marketer can easily create an online business and find people with a need for their services.

I’m not saying monetising editorial or building a marketing business are in any way easy or guaranteed to be a success. I’m simply saying that the barriers to doing your own thing in the media, whether that’s text-based, audio, visual or promotion-based, has never been easier to my knowledge, and in a time when the big companies are generally struggling, there are advantages to being small and nimble.

Free wifi by Cmicblog on Flickr

Free wifi by Cmicblog on Flickr (CC licence)

And the costs are getting increasingly small – the bare minimum is a Netbook and somewhere with free wifi. Or just ask any techy friends for any old laptops/desktops they might want to give away for a while. Can’t afford an operating system? Use Ubuntu. Can’t afford Word? Open Office. Photoshop? GIMP (not an insult, honest!). Newswires? Build your own feed of information using Google Reader and Twitter. If you want to start earning money, you can put a blog on Blogger for free (about the only hosted free service to allow adverts), or spring for a cheap hosting package from the likes of Godaddy and then go wild with WordPress. Or even publish your own book via Lulu.

And that’s just the start, but it’s perfectly possible to begin creating your personal empire with a donated or sub-£200 computer and some free wifi access.

I’m not saying that you’ll have a sustainable living wage a week later, but the biggest barrier to creating anything like this is time, and that’s something you’d actually have. And even if you’d rather go back into paid employment when possible, in the meantime you’ve built up digital knowledge and a digital calling card for people to find.

And just be glad you’re not a brain surgeon after all…

Why newspapers will need 1000 true fans…

Newspapers will need to focus on their ‘1000 true fans’ when they switch on paywalls, judging by a survey released today by Paid Content UK and Harris.

The survey has appeared in response to plans by Rupert Murdoch and others to start putting news content behind a paywall, and reveals that if their favourite news site started charging, 3/4 of people claim they’d find another free site – only 5% would pay to continue reading.

And ironically, it’s younger readers who are more likely to cough up some cash than the older users – the 35-44-year-olds are the ones most likely to go elsewhere- although the middle class readers are most likely to pay.

Now that doesn’t have to be bad news for newspapers, if they can provide something that is worth subscription payments which make up for the lost readership.

The problem, as identified by Matt Thompson at Nieman Reports, and covered by Karthika Muthukumaraswamy at Online Journalism Blog (OJB), is that the majority of online news lacks in depth and detail what it gains in ‘24/7 access, real-time updates, increased transparency, and multiperspectival discussions’

In fact ‘The home page of almost every popular news site looks like a commercial for news stories other than the one you’re reading’.

The problem isn’t the internet itself, which is what the OJB article ends with – Thompson uses the example of Wikipedia to form great long form articles and stories, whilst Muthukumaraswamy picks out the New York Times, CNN, the BBC and The Guardian as examples of news orgs producing great standalone features.

The problem is one of perception by news teams.

The online format has always been taught as following the ‘hard news’ example – get the story across as quickly and in as few words as possible. People don’t have the time or patience to read more online, so hit them with hundreds of brief news items and they’ll flit about like a moth in a well-lit kitchen. The same thing we’ve seen advised for blogs, online video, and has been supported by the rise of microblogging.

But that’s wrong – as you can see by the success of full-length novels on mobile phones in Japan, for example.

Many, many people are now accessing the web by an ever-increasing number of devices, and as the digital familiarity has increased, we’re looking for increasingly different things.

Meanwhile newspapers heading behind the paywall will have to flip their editorial approach as quickly as they flip their business model. They’ll need to provide depth, detail and context to justify payment, using editorial teams which have been cut back more and more to try and survive on display advertising. And I haven’t seen a huge number of Murdoch titles hiring staff, for example. In fact, it appears to be AOL that’s hiring! (1500 writers is a clear indication of intent).

The paywall model will be doomed for exactly the same reason that most display-ad model newspaper sites were doomed – a lack of understanding of the fundamentals of online journalism. Almost 10 years ago I saw a competitor site switch to a paywall model and heard many people ask how they could survive – and at the same time those people were imagining a world in which the print news team would seamlessly move across to an all-conquering website.

Meanwhile hundreds of blogs and websites were springing up on a daily basis by starting small and experimenting their way into growth and editorial staff – the exact opposite of businesses which closed small-scale publications and dismissed any launches which didn’t look likely to drive an immediate huge audience with a corresponding need for staff and resources.

A handful of news organisations will make it through the next few years, whether by spreading themselves far and wide, or by engaging totally with their 1000 true fans to the degree that they can secure repeated subscriptions. Any that don’t commit fully to one of these directions, and achieve it to their maximum potential, are going to fail to crawl out of the swamp and evolve digital legs.

Off to London Twestival tonight… And Google’s news masterstroke

And then I’m spending a long weekend concentrating on my family, so don’t expect many updates until Monday…

Details of London Twestival 2009.

And in the meantime, two things have caught my attention:

 

One is the fact that the Government’s quoted figure of 7 million illegal file sharers seems to have been revealed as being spun out of a very small original survey, with some assumptions distorting the figures. (Hat Tip to  JP Rangaswami)

 

The other is the response to newspapers from Google – they’re creating a micropayments system to appear within the next year. (via Mashable).

I’d guess there are a few reasons for Google adopting a checkout-type micropayment system for newspaper content:

  • It’ll shut the newspaper owners up for a while – allowing Google to press ahead with book deals etc to own even more alternative content.
  • It will also be available for Google properties, meaning that there are ways to cream off some of the money at the top, as well as by providing the service itself.
  • Bugger all people will embrace fixed internet micro payments for generic content.

The last one is the most important – and even in the world of mobile there are divisions between iPhone app spending and Android app spending which suggests that even on an supposedly highly chargeable platform (mobile), many people are starting to expect apps for free.

-NB- I’ve just though of another reason why this benefits Google more than anyone else:

  • If the newspapers are fooled into believing this system will make them rich, then they’ll start pushing pressure on aggregation sites to pay – Digg, Reddit, etc. Those sites are unlikely to be happy about paying for content, and the efforts and traffic newspapers currently drive from those sites will disappear. Meanwhile, the one aggregation destination which will be safe and secure will be: Google News.

Start the week with a great guide to multimedia journalism

There are increasing numbers of journalists and bloggers utilising every channel in multimedia to convey their stories and information, but whether you’re contemplating starting to embrace digital multimedia, or you’ve engaged in mixing text, audio, video etc for a while, you’re bound to pick up at least a couple of new tools and ideas from Mindy McAdam’s Reporters Guide to Multimedia Profiency.

It’s the single PDF compilation of her 15 excellent blog posts on the subject.

And worth reading if you’re publishing anything online, whether or not you’d define yourself as a journalist or editorial staff.

Former colleague (although we never met in person), Adam Westbrook has also been doing some brilliant guides to using multimedia and video.

And for interesting inspiration, I tend to look at Christian Payne, and spend some spare time trying to persuade friend and former colleague Angus Farquhar to spend more time doing crazy stuff and blogging about it.

BBC reminds me of two elements of consumer satisfaction

I’m a big fan of much of the work the BBC does online, and in general it does a very good job of providing a massive amount of content in a fairly logical manner.

But using the site as a consumer with a couple of urgent needs highlighted a couple of things which I think are good lessons for any website:

Multi-channel delivery:

I’m a huge fan of the BBC iPlayer, and the fact it allows me to watch good quality online and on-demand television. So on Sunday morning, I rushed to watch Match of the Day, having missed it on Saturday night (and with the Absolute Radio Fantasy Football game meaning I need to pay extra attention to every team this year!).

But the listing was greyed out – and with no reason given, I had to presume it was down to the licensing rights for the Premier League.

So it was a bit weird to be looking for something else a bit later, and stumble across it in the sport section! (Flaw here was attempting to browse my way to it, rather than using the site or Google search.)

The lesson: If you’re putting out content through two difference channels for whatever reason, then link between them! And always try to explain why someone can’t access something if they might logically think they should.

Reassurance:

The BBC carries a lot of event coverage, particularly in areas such as music, and especially sport. For example, it’s great to be able to watch the MotoGP series via the BBC, and also great to be able to see the full list of races (125 and 250cc) online, as my TV set-up seems to struggle with the Red Button Freeview channels.

But although it’s nice to see everything go live at the same time, as if a single switch somewhere brings everything to life, unless you’ve got Freeview and the website running at the same time, it isn’t that impressive. And the fact the online feed wasn’t listed from the MotoGP page of the Sport section until the video went live two minutes after the listed time meant that I probably wasn’t the only one frantically refreshing the page to see if it would appear or if there was a problem.

The lesson: If you’re covering an event that starts at a specific time, why not have a page and link ready and live in advance, which can provide a bit of reassurance for internet users? That way, we can relax knowing that everything will go live at noon, for example, rather than worrying that there’s a technical fault with 1 minute to go. Whatever happens afterwards, we’re already stressed and less likely to enjoy and appreciate your hard work!

 

I’m still a huge fan of the BBC, and there are hundreds of sites which could have been used for the same points – the reason it stood out for me was that I was a completely powerless consumer. Reinforcing the final lesson – always look at your website as a consumer trying to achieve something.