Apologise like everyone is watching…

How do you apologise when you’ve made a serious mistake? I wrote about how brands can actually be more successful by admitting imperfections and mistakes last week – and tonight I happened to read a jaw-dropping example of a mistake by a newspaper (via Newspaper Death Watch).

The summary is the photo of an innocent 40-year-old man named Angel Ortiz was used in a front page story about a horrific crime committed by a 20-year-old with the same, and apparently very common, Spanish name. As a result, the innocent party has lost work, been persecuted and is effectively reduced to hiding in his house in fear of what might happen in public.

I’m sure that noone involved in publishing the story ever intended this to happen, but when a lawyer for the innocent Ortiz wrote to the paper demanding a front page retraction, the newspaper responded by removing the image from its website, and the ‘retraction ran on the bottom of page 2, with no photo‘.

Why apologies are business-critical:

I understand that sometimes the ‘right’ thing to do can run into roadblocks when lawyers advise on the ‘correct legal’ thing to do. But certainly retractions need to be an equal size and prominence to the original content, and reach the same audience.

Secondly, there’s been no personal apology, or any help and assistance in correcting the situation, which would have gone some way to rectifying the situation. I’m trying to think of any legal reasons why the paper couldn’t have run something asking for help in finding work for an innocent man, for example, besides their own guilt?

But here’s the thing – I don’t know the newspaper or any of the parties involved, and I’m located halfway around the world, but I’ll now associated the MetroWest Daily with this debacle. I’ve now also written about it to you, and shared it via Twitter etc. Besides my personal feelings about whether I’ll ever read or do business with the company, some quick google searches for relevant terms shows a number of sites picking up on the screwup, and nothing on the newspaper website offering any explanation or apology to make me think any better of them.

What they should be doing:

Anyone using a search engine for related terms will see coverage of this horrendous mistake. What the paper should have done is looked at how this error happened (and how to prevent it in the future), and then published a full apology in print and online which explains how they’ll avoid making such a disaster in the future. A human response would at least appear online and in search to provide some mitigation.

They should then have followed that up with a decent effort to try to rectify things (along with a personal apology), perhaps by running follow-ups to help Ortiz find work – again, this would show that despite the mistake, there are decent human people working at the newspaper, as well as that evidence appearing in search and social networks.

It’s how you handle mistakes that matters:

Errors have always happened, even if they seem more and more likely due to widespread editorial cuts around the world. But whereas the outcry even 15 years ago would have been barely noticeable in another country, the internet means that everything is catalogued and saved for all eternity.

If you understand that any mistake is extremely likely to be publicly indexed, then you understand that the response is key. And that response is going to be seen around the world, for as long as we have an internet, so responding ethically is more important than any other consideration.

And if you’re publishing or re-publishing any image online, double-check and triple-check the source, the content and the licensing restrictions.

The content war is only just beginning

The war is just beginning for writers, and it may seem strange given that Demand Media is starting to bounce back from an October share slump, but it isn’t going to be fought between quality writers and content farms.

Despite the frantic changes Google has been making to the search algorithm following a perceived drop in quality as churned-up content fills search results, it isn’t about the damaging effect of outsourcing assignments for the lowest possible cost or the economic effects of global competition.

This time it’s man vs machine, and the machine is getting a lot better.

 

Content War: Man vs Machine:

You may be dismissing the idea of a machine creating content based on the previous experience of spambots, as they fill comment sections the world over with ‘Blog very good. Me Like’, to build links to a website. Mostly this are easily filtered by a combination of spam filtering software and especially a final layer of human approval. What might possible sneak past a computer tends to fairly obvious to a human, particularly if it involves a variation of the ‘cheapexactnameofaproductiamselling.com’ linked in various ways.

But to adapt a quote by Cory Doctorow on copying, machine-created content will never be worse, or more expensive to produce, than it is today. It will only get better, cheaper and more accessible to both legitimate publishers attempting to make their workflow more efficient, and to spammers and content farms who can finally do away completely with the human element.

War is hell (on earth).

Want proof? Check out the work of Automated Insights, as detailed in this recent post by founder Robbie Allen. With a team of 12, they’ve produced over 100,000 sports stories in 9 months, having launched 345 websites which are all automated, and cover every division 1 NCAA basketball team.

Still dismissing the potential? Try reading the following excerpt from the latest game report on one of the sites, CarolinaUpdate.com:

The Tar Heels got to the NCAA Tournament as an at-large team after falling to Duke, 75-58, in the ACC tournament. In making the Elite Eight, North Carolina defeated 15th-seeded Long Island, 102-87 in the second round, seventh-seeded Washington, 86-83 in the third round, and then 11th-seeded Marquette, 81-63 in the Sweet Sixteen.

North Carolina was led by Tyler Zeller, who had 21 points on 75% shooting. The Tar Heels also got 18 points from Harrison Barnes, 11 from Dexter Strickland, and seven from Kendall Marshall.

Kentucky was on fire from beyond the arc, scoring 36 points in three-pointers to get an edge.

Now you see what I mean?

 

Will the future be written by machines?

When Allen ends his post by explaining how machines are a benefit to human journalists, there’s certainly some truth in it, although I suspect he’s also doing his job in placating the more nervous amongst the publishing professions. Whilst he’s keen to state that the current technology is suited to purely quantitative and data-driven work, and that journalists should be liberated to be able to focus on qualitative commentary, I suspect although he’s a very accomplished programmer, he might be limited in experiencing what happens for many publications around the globe.

As he himself says, ‘In the near term, the writers at O’Reilly and elsewhere have nothing to worry about. But I wouldn’t count out automation in the long term.’ The technology is at an early stage, and will only get better. After all, if 1000 monkeys could knock out a Shakespeare, we now have that processing power. And every year those processing primates will become cheaper and better, until instead of 1000 monkeys for one Shakespearian work, we could be seeing a sonnet per monkey.

 

What’s the future for human content?

So what happens next for humans who want to create written work beyond the status updates to which many of us might be relegated?

Well, in the short-term, we can choose to focus on quality. That’s certainly why I’m interested in projects like The Verge, and the new site and project from Milo Yiannopoulos whose views I may well have disagreed with on a regular basis, but whose aspiration to build a European quality technology site I can certainly identify closely with. Although we do have it a lot better with Techcrunch EU than the main ex-Arrington site who have recently managed to publish some unintelligible guest posts and at least a couple of stories which I knew to be factually inaccurate, but have never been corrected.

Writing!

Longer term? Whilst we can believe the noble ideal that machines will always be best with a human working alongside them, my educated guess is that spammers will be first to unleash better content algorithms into the wild on their own, particularly given the revenues they can currently get. The sheer amount of spam content means the tiniest percentage of respondents to Nigerian lotteries generates huge profits, and increasing that with better content in a no-brainer.

And anything suitable for automation – which is a lot – will be picked up by newsrooms the world over as managers and publishers will optimise over the heads of any reluctant Editors. That’s assuming enough Editors actually care about their digital product to raise a fuss when their favoured print is still in a slow death spiral.

And then that boundary will shift. And shift again, and slowly the room of writers becomes a room of servers with a couple of database admins, and one or two sub-editors just checking through a cursory selection of articles.

The solution has to be based around increasing the levels of humanity in everything we write, and everything we do online. Not only to build a bridge with anyone who reads our work, but also to ensure Google, Bing and future search engines are distinguishing what we do. Because as the level of automated content rises and becomes increasingly abused, the search engines will have to respond, and we could see search and creation algorithms cancelling each other out, leaving those authors and writers who have gone through the required steps to verify their organic-based life form will be advantaged.

What that urgently means is three things:

1. If you want to be a writer, you need to be using social media and tools like Google’s Author Markup today. Now. Because the sooner you can ensure you’re human, and the longer that exists, the better off you’ll be.

2. If you’re ever planning to launch your own website or brand, do it now. Don’t expect to learn the ropes in a staff job for a few years and then head out on your own – although that may have been a good plan, if this all comes to pass, you’ll need to be in an established position to be able to get your voice heard if you have a problem with Google’s Author markup, for example. And the way to get that help is to be reaching a million uniques per month by then, which means starting now.
If you wait a couple of years before deciding you’d like to create the ultimate blog/site on a subject, you’ll find that a few thousand readers per month could leave you at the end of one of the longest queues around if you ever need help.

3. Your personal writing style is going to be more important than ever. So a blog can be an invaluable daily tool for honing that, rather than spending your time re-writing press releases in a bland house style to churn out content as if it was 2008 all over again.

Implications of the News of the World phone hacking…

There’s obviously been a lot of in-depth intelligent analysis of the demise of the News of the World due to the phone-hacking outcry. So rather than attempt to add to that, I just wanted to throw three quick thoughts out there:

  • People still read print newspapers? Recent research has claimed around 50% of the UK population no longer read a daily paper, and that number is only growing – the demographic for the News of the World is likely to be one which embraces smartphones as later adopters, but closing the print product now is only likely to have pre-empted what would have happened in the future, and a digital title may or may not have succeeded, but given the content and the transitional chaos of mainstream news online, it’s not assured that a digital version would have been guaranteed to continue.
  • ‘Hacking’ has probably skewed so far to the negative connotations of the word that any positive associations will fade pretty fast, whether that’s the idea of improving an inefficient program, hacking together software for a positive outcome, or lifehacking etc. I’ve overheard several conversations recently from people way outside the computer literate world, all concerned with hacking, and all referencing phone-hacking and recent Lulzsec and Anonymous activities. That’s what the word ‘hacking’ means to most people now.
  • Journalism is likely to go the same way – the negatives get massive press coverage and analysis, whilst the good is rarely commented on. For many years bloggers have aspired to be accepted on the same terms as journalists, while some journalists have attempted to maintain an occupational gap even to this day, without clarifiying much except academic qualifications as a barrier. But now, maybe we’ll all have to put that to one side and become writers, when the stories of journalists using phone-hacking, or pestering people via email, social networks and in person are becoming widely spread online. I’m holding two training sessions as part of a journalism training course this month, and I wonder how, in the UK and U.S at least, the term ‘journalist’ is being perceived – I can only suspect it’s in a similar place as ‘banker’ except not paid as well.

Why ‘journalists’ might need the likes of Wikileaks

There’s obviously a lot of discussion and debate about the value of the service Wikileaks provides, following the release of 90,000 documents on British and American involvement in Afghanistan.  You can see more about it unfolding all the time.

And perhaps this isn’t the most important piece of news to use as an example of how ‘journalism’ can massively fail when it comes to fact checking (I’m using ‘journalism’ in speechmarks to differentiate from the very fine work a good number of very good journalists continue to do), it’s a timely one.

The Daily Star issued an apology at the weekend for publishing a story claiming that a videogame based on the case of Raoul Moat. I’m pretty sure I can let the apology speak for itself (Hat tip to Tabloid Watch)

‘ROCKSTAR GAMES – GRAND THEFT AUTO – AN APOLOGY

On 21 July we published an article claiming that the video games company Rockstar Games were planning to release a version of their popular Grand Theft Auto video games series titled “Grand Theft Auto Rothbury”.

We also published what we claimed would be the cover of this game, solicited comments from a family member impacted by the recent tragedy and criticised Rockstar Games for their alleged plans.

We made no attempt to check the accuracy of the story before publication and did not contact Rockstar Games prior to publishing the story. We also did not question why a best selling and critically acclaimed fictional games series would choose to base one of their most popular games on this horrifying real crime event.

It is now accepted that there were never any plans by Rockstar Games to publish such a game and that the story was false. We apologise for publishing the story using a mock-up of the game cover, our own comments on the matter and soliciting critical comments from a grieving family member.

We unreservedly apologise to Rockstar Games and we have undertaken not to repeat the claims again. We have also agreed to pay them a substantial amount in damages which they are donating to charity.’

In case you missed it, here’ it is again:

‘We made no attempt to check the accuracy of the story before publication and did not contact Rockstar Games prior to publishing the story.’

Although to be fair, if the Daily Star was entirely made from the contents of The Onion, B3ta and 4chan, it’d be a far better product.

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.

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.

The top 10 UK PR blogs – TheWayoftheWeb #4

Apparently TheWayoftheWeb has been listed as one of Cision’s Top 10 UK PR blogs.

I picked up on the list from the #1 blog, the excellent NevilleHobson.com, and all ten blogs are definitely worth reading. It’s interesting to be included as the preface to the list reads:

‘Covering the latest developments in communications technology, the impact of the web on political dialogue and the convergence of PR with other communications activity, the blogs listed below represent the most visible, engaged and social of the UK PR blogosphere.’

It’s interesting because I’m a marketeer, journalist and blogger, but I’ve never officially been in PR – although obviously I’ve worked closely with a large number of PR agencies and people over the years.And I’ve helped out with writing the occasional press release.

But I am interested in where it’s possible to distinguish between PR and Marketing, and the methods and effects of good and bad PR, as it’s a huge element of success in my marketing role. And I’m learning as much from the incredibly talented PR team at Absolute Radio as hopefully I’m able to share with them.

What’s interesting has been discussing how the methods they’ve used for great success with mainstream print and digitial media are pretty much identical to the methods I use for non-mainstream digital media (blogs, forums, social networks etc).

It’s also why I’ve thought for a while about the simplest way to describe what I do as a whole, including both my professional career, and my independant digital endeavours, and it basically comes down to specialising in ‘content creation and distribution’, which sounds far less sexy than PR, Marketing, or Social Media. But basically I enjoy coming up with ideas for content (text, audio, video), putting it together (writing, recording, editing, crowdsourcing, implementing ways for UGC to be encouraged), and then getting it to relevant people (digital publishing, SEO, blogger and forum relations, linking, seeding, etc).

It’s not the tightest definition, considering the amount of roles and workload that it covers, but it seems to be the one that works as I look at my skills and interests.

The context is more important than ever…

From what I’ve seen, I’ve not the only person in the world to mention the death of someone known globally as Neda. (NSFW and disturbing).

What interests me is that I’m looking for Western European journalists to either give me context – or to point me towards the people that can, via social media or broadcast media.

Does it matter than the death of Neda reach me via social medial, or that I was the impact without the context? How far do editorial controls each – and how far do we let things shock or appal us in times of tragedy?

The traditional point of contact/context has been the journalist/editor…. How do we judge the line now?

As a former magazine and website journalist, I welcome opinions…where’s the line between shock and awe? Or awareness and indifference?

When do we stop tweeting about it, or stop updating Facebook at make a small part of a difference? And for those journalists – are you telling us how to do it?

It’s not enough to shock us anymore – it’s about to explaining how we can change things….