Apparently web users are getting 'more selfish'; they can't be bothered with all the editorial promotions and contentmedia organisations would like them to spend time on, but 'ruthlessly' cherry pick the articles they're interested in and ignore the rest.
I must admit I bulked at this headline over the weekend, but as there was an interesting story to be explored about changing media habits here, I couldn't blog about it until I'd published a follow up on this (in Norwegian), by which time I find the headline has been changed from 'more selfish' to 'more ruthless' (a bit annoying that late edit, as I need to change my link to the cached story as soon as I get in to the office today, so our readers won't think my translation is incorrect).
I understand that the words 'more ruthless' and 'more selfish' belong to Dr Jakob Nielsen, the world-renown usability expert quoted in the article, but I was left pondering when exactly reading website content (and the language here is all framed around media content) was considered an altruistic activity?
It brings to mind all sorts of unfortunate scenarios such as the one an editor of mine suggested yesterday, imagine readers thinkingthoughts like: "I'll be really nice today and read all the boring stories on xx's news site, every single one of those dull and uninformed pieces of rubbish".
A bit like what you might think doing other really boring chores, or taking 'a nasty cough syrup - necessary for the greater good, such as the survival of democracy, but irredeemably foul-tasting' (text in italics a slightly adapted quote from Neil McIntosh' excellent post on'Serious journalism's broccoli complex').
And you wonder why the media is in such a bad state?
I was going to say that if how journalists and bloggers treat information is anything to go by, I'd much rather marry a blogger than a journalist.
Because in this respect, journalists are conditioned to be the worst control-freaks imaginable: the kind of person who'd lock you up in a cup board and only let you out on his terms in a context where he could take all the credit for any positive attributes you may possess (yes, I know she looks great and talks sense, but that's all down to my efforts: just like Elisa DooLittle would be nowhere without her Professor Higgins, this chick would be nowhere without me).
Detail from one of my photos from a friend's wedding
Obviously, quite the opposite to how bloggers treat information, sharing it generously with anyone who will listen, often allowing it room to stand on its own without any editing, live free and all of that. The catch of course, is that if you translate this to a romantic relationship, you'd end up living in some kind of hippie commune, wouldn't you?
But if you consider how journalists are trained to treat information: how they're encouraged to walk over dead bodies to get exclusives; rip off other journalists' exclusives at the first chance; how journalists are taught they don't have friends, only contacts etc, it is rather ... eh...dehumanising, isn't it?
I have certainly stopped talking to journalists I don't know who call me for 'background' advice on the basis of issues I write about on my blog, because experience has taught me that it's likely to be a one-end street: bloggers always credit, with journalists it gets all political and it's much more likely you'll be left feeling ripped off. Now, a journalist might think here "how stupid to share information in the first place", but I'm also a blogger, hence I have conflicting inclinations: to share or not to share?
So how come I started thinking about this? Well, I read this terrible example of the journalistic epistemology at work, and I found myself wondering why I'm doing my best to spread knowledge of the wonders of social media and how to use it to your advantage. I mean, only yesterday I was giving a workshop on this, and when I came out of it I read this, and I thought: oh, dear... :
...Do not tell your journalism colleagues about Twitter! Keep it as your own secret tool.
When I first came to China as a foreign correspondent, I worked for a Dutch transportation newspaper. Later, when the Internet became available in China in the late 1990s, I found I could cover all of Asia for this paper without leaving my office.
When I paid my employer a courtesy visit at their offices in Rotterdam, I told them about the emergence of the Internet. They proudly proclaimed that they had been able, with the help of the trade union, to keep the Internet out of the editorial process. The Internet was no tool for journalists, they claimed.
I knew enough to shut up and kept covering (with the help of the Internet) Asian logistics for another two years -- until editorial resistance against the Internet failed. It took them a few months to learn that that what I did from Shanghai, they could now do just as well from Rotterdam. That spelled the unavoidable end of this gig -- but because I kept my mouth shut, it lasted much longer than I'd expected.
So instead of seeing journalistic conservatism about online media as a problem, try viewing it as your competitive edge...
That summer she penned Beirut Update, a blog that became a means of survival for her during the war and a way to bear witness of what was happening. In her opinion, the blog ultimately helped bring down barriers between those on the Lebanese and the Israeli side:
'When the bombs started falling, I didn't trust that international media would represent what was happening accurately'.
'It seemed as if my international readers came to trust my first hand account more than international media.'
'Blogging became a means of survival on many levels, it became a catharsis' 'It was a source of information. I needed to be an eyewitness. I had no political agenda, I was just writing as me – a 30-year-old normal woman'.
'Blogs were popping up everywhere that summer: the blogs were helping people on so many levels. There were two wars going on that summer, the summer of 2006: one in real life and one in cyberspace. Blogs were popping up on the Isreali side as well, there were lots of pro-Israel bloggers.'
'That summer changed history: it brought down barriers. It was helpful to see each other as human beings. Regular people got more involved: the events mobilised people to get online, send links, start typing, get more involved.'
These are my random notes from Zena's talk during this seminar, and a friend's interview with her afterwards (in Norwegian) early this month. I've deliberatly put these up here without too much editing because I think these quotes say a lot about the changing media landscape worth contemplating. For my own part, her words reminded me of two things:
1) how blogs seem to bring people closer even in the respect that they make it easier to have civilised or even meaningful conversations with people you wouldn't normally engage in conversation with. Or, to quote Adriana, via Doc Searls:
"isms" are for people who don't have blogs
Quid pro quo is how control freaks have relationships.
2) of a poem (especially the last lines) by my favourite poet, Aase-Marie Nesse. Now, I must admit that I translated this to share with friends when I was 18 or so, so had I the time I could perhaps improve on the translation, but it works well enough/ is accurate (no rhyme in the original poem):
Infiltration No, no board meetings, no committees
send all documents with the first flight
to heaven, awaken a new
Homeric laughter on Olympus
then we gather on the earth, two by two
and three by four, five by five,
we give each other commissions of trust
and invent our merry manifests
with ink and pen of pigeon's feather
we rise against everything
that suffers from contempt of life and contempt of death
that lines up our future with a ruler
that makes us less than a riddle
and a song
come, then we will meet on the bridge
in the middle of the fair or far north in the forest
a web of free-willing, out-doctrinated
east of the sun and west of the moon
"Did the Norwegians celebrate 17 May by closing the Swedish fool's project Punkt SE? Well, at least the announcement of the closure came on the first working day after Norway's national day, even though the decision had been on the table for a few weeks," wrote Rolf van der Brink in Dagens Media (my translation) in one of several harsh reactions to yesterday's news that Schibsted was buying into Metro International's Swedish freesheet operation and closing its own free paper there, Punkt SE, with immediate effect.
The announcement came as no surprise to the region's media commentators, I've certainly covered the rumours of a courtship between the two media giants on several occasions - like here. What came as more of a surprise was that Schibsted's and Metro's new partnership will be so limited, many investors were hoping for a full-scale wedding, which of course begs the question: what next?
Neither of the two parties refused to rule out that this could be the first, tentative beginning of a full-fledged relationship - that we could see the two freesheet publishers strike similar deals in the other markets where they are head-to-head such as France and Spain. But both parties also emphasised that no such deals were currently on the table.
"We are now entering a freesheet 2.0" phase," said Metro's CEO, Per Mikael Jensen when I interviewed him about the freesheet giant's ongoing strategic review recently, and indicated that this phase would be characterised by consolidation and online expansion (parts of that interview is here). In an interview with Journalisten.dk (in Danish) yesterday, Jensen again promised that new deals were forthcoming.
The world seen from Metro's headquarters, to my best
knowledge the last newspaper company in Fleet Street
In an analysis of the deal, Citigroup concludes that the analysts got what they wanted – at least half way – and that the effect will be remarkably positive. But ideally they would like Metro and Schibsted to go all the way and merge the two companies.
Will it happen?... The business relationship between the two media giants has been about as complex as the average episode of the hospital soap Grey's Anatomy. They have flirted and dated for years, and they have had affairs with others (like Metro's advertisement partnership with GP/Stampen) and lived a hard single life (Punkt SE)... only now was the timing right for a more serious relationship.
The explanation is, slightly cynically put, that they are both equally desperate... Metro... still needs a more stable foundation in order to grab a bigger share of the national advertisement market and expand online. Schibsted, on the other hand, had to find a quick way to end the escalating losses at Punkt SE without loosing its presence in the Swedish freesheet market entirely
I know I've complained about some of the silly PR approaches I get as blogger in the past, and even linked
up some useful advice
on how not to go about it, but Natalie offers nothing less than her "PSA for the other remaining few PR professionals who seem to have missed the memo explaining what a blog is and how it works," and generously says "Go on, drink up… this one’s on me". A few headlines:
Lession #4: The blogger has the final say.
Think of a blog as a publication. Now, realize that the blogger is the Senior Editor, Publisher and Art Director, rolled into one.
The clincher in the offensive email was this person’s feeling that she was doing me a favor, rather than realizing that it is, in fact, the other way around. This condescending line stuck like a bone in my throat:
“I treat you like a journalist, and thus expected a rapport like what I have with serious journalists.”
Umm... considering my bylines appear in national and regional print and online publications, most actually consider me a journalist, thank you very much. It would be appropriate to “treat me” as such. I was also a bit insulted – on behalf of myself and other bloggers – at the implication that bloggers are somehow lowlier than journalists, and not to be taken as seriously. Ironically, most bloggers I know are far more informed about a specific topic than the majority “staff writers.” And, believe me when I tell you that many of those “serious journalists” rip-off content from our blogs, on a regular basis, because we have become the experts in our niches.
Lesson #5: Understand the difference between a blog post and a magazine article.
Being a professional writer includes having the skill to change writing style, tone - and even the rules - when writing for any particular outlet. My blog "voice" is completely different from my magazine articles. I use the “first person,” spout my opinions and am influenced by my own biases. Its a free-form arena. I write exactly the way I want to, when I want to, about what I want to. If you like my style, pitch me your clients. If you don’t, there are a whole slew of other cocktail bloggers out there. Have at ‘em. Or, better yet, forget the Internet and stick with print.
Lesson #6: Become acquainted with what I call “the power of the blog.”
You see, back in 2005, when I held my final “salary job,” I was a restaurant publicist. Our PR firm had begun pitching food bloggers. At the time, I didn’t totally get what a blog was – but I knew it tapped into a valuable demographic many print publications didn’t reach. When I finally “hopped the fence” to write full time, in January 2006, the first thing I did was launch The Liquid Muse where I blogged, daily, because I had become so passionate about spirits, wine and cocktails. I took a 100% pay cut. Even today, my blog is a labor of love. The fact that thousands of people, every month, stop by to get their cocktail updates at The Liquid Muse is of huge personal satisfaction to me, and provides a valuable service to both the liquor companies and the readers, if I do say so myself. And, my readers know I’m not stifled by editors, publicists or advertisers. This is the power of the blog.
How could I possible think I could get away with mentioning 'product placement' in the same line as blog and think I could avoid revisiting that age old debate surrounding it?
I couldn't of course, but this is all down to me as I haphazardly talked about two different 'blog profit models' in one and the same post without making a clear distinction between the two. Hence Charlie Beckett asked me to clarify, and I'll do my best to oblige.
The other day I blogged about how Swedish media seems to be waking up to the profit to be made from niche blogs. The business model here is simply to get top niche bloggers to blog on your platform so you can benefit from their in-depth coverage of a particular issue, the traffic their dedicated readers brings and offer your advertisers very specific, and often very attractive, target groups (you know: 17–22-year-old fashonistas, 25-30-year-old fashionistas, political geeks, hip hop geeks etc etc). I've written more about this trend here and here.
Now, at the end of that post, I happened to mention how one clothing chain found Blondinbella (aka Isabella Löwengrip), one of Sweden's most read bloggers, especially useful in its marketing strategy. However, Blondinbella's business model is not only based on selling advertisement space, but also on being paid to write about products.
In an interview with Stockholm City, she explained that despite receiving products and being paid to write about them, she didn't feel she was deceiving her readers as she felt she would have bought these products even if she wasn't paid to promote them. To Dagens Media, she said:
"When a company contacts me we write a contract about how many times I will write about the company on my blog, and if I will say something about it on TV if given the chance, or when I'm interviewed by newspapers and magazines."
In other words, not dissimilar to the kind of deals some celebrities strike with cosmetic companies, nutrition companies etc, and certainly a kind of setup that some may find ethically challenging.
For my own part, I can only say that I'm not really in Blondinbella's target group (I mean when I was her age, I was mostly wearing black, hanging out in the local press club discussing philosophy; these days I'm mostly wearing black, hanging out online discussing the philosophical aspects of media trends), so it's not a blog I'd normally read other than out of curiosity.
In general though, I tend to see the internet a bit like a virtual pub or coffee bar, and just as I'd distrust, and quickly loose interest in, anyone who'd walk into a real life pub or coffee bar and start talking about products they'd been paid to promote, I don't see that I'd treat this much different online (but it always helps that advertisment is clearly signposted, if nothing else so you can stay clear of it, and Isabella is quite open about her business model) ...
I have to confess that I've shamelessly ripped the headline of this post, as well as the first quote, from a post on NRKbeta, but it all serves a larger purpose.
You see, NRKbeta brought my attention to this thought-provoking quote from an article by Douglas Adams, which, when I read it, was a bit like a missing piece of a jigsaw puzzle falling into place, as I've been thinking quite a bit about how people use social media, and how the way they use it defines their understanding of it recently. I'll return to those thoughts later, but, first, here's Adams:
During [the twentieth] century we have for the first time been dominated by non-interactive forms of entertainment: cinema, radio, recorded music and television. Before they came along all entertainment was interactive: theatre, music, sport—the performers and audience were there together, and even a respectfully silent audience exerted a powerful shaping presence on the unfolding of whatever drama they were there for. We didn’t need a special word for interactivity in the same way that we don’t (yet) need a special word for people with only one head.
I expect that history will show “normal” mainstream twentieth century media to be the aberration in all this. ‘Please, miss, you mean they could only just sit there and watch? They couldn’t do anything? Didn’t everybody feel terribly isolated or alienated or ignored?’
“Yes, child, that’s why they all went mad. Before the Restoration.”
“What was the Restoration again, please, miss?”
“The end of the twentieth century, child. When we started to get interactivity back.”
Which brings me to a quote from The Cluetrain Manifesto (2000), to my mind, the book that best describes how the (social) web has changed business as usual.
In fact, if we are to imagine how the world may look like a decade or two into the future, I think this might be the book professors in intellectual history will use to introduce their students to how the interactive web, or social media, changed people's mentality, the way they communicated, what they came to expect of the world etc. (that is, if the age of mass media isn't treated as just an insignificant aberration as Adams suggests):
In many ways, the Internet more resembles an ancient bazaar than it fits the business models companies try to impose on it. Millions have flocked to the net in an incredibly short time, not because it was user-friendly – it wasn't – but because it seemed to offer some intangible quality long missing in action from modern life.
In sharp contrast to the alienation wrought by homogenised broadcast media, sterilised mass 'culture', and the enforced anonymity of bureaucratic organisations, the Internet connected people to each other and provided a space in which the human voice would be rapidly rediscovered.
Though corporations insists on seeing it as one, the new marketplace is not necessarily a market at all. To its inhabitants, it is primarily a place in which all participants are audience to each other. The entertainment is not packaged; it is intrinsic.
Unlike the lockstep conformity imposed by television, advertising and corporate propaganda, the Net has given new legitimacy – and free rein – to play. Many of those drawn into this world find themselves exploring a freedom never before imagined: to indulge their curiosity, to debate, to disagree, to laugh at themselves, to compare visions, to learn, to create new art, new knowledge...
'Waking up' might be a bit of understatement, but there seems to be a steady stream of news from Sweden about mainstream media acquiring blogs to reach attractive niche audiences and advertisers.
A week back, news broke that magazine publisher Egmont was acquiring the male fashion blog Manolo.se, expecting to benefit both from the traffic the blog's roughly 20,000 unique visitors (UV)would bring and the attractive advertising niche it represents. Manolo AB, which is the creation of the guys behind Good Old Trend, recorded about £60K in revenues from September 2005 to December 2006.
Meanwhile, Dagens Media reports that Stureplan.se has lost about 20 per cent of its traffic since blogger Katrin Schulman took her blog to its competitior, Sthlmsfinest.com, while the latter has gained some 35,000 – 45,000 new readers since Katrin started blogging for them. Impressive, but still some way to go to the 120, 000 UV she promised.
Part of a bigger trend?
Update 16/5: However, Swedish mainstream media acquiring blogs is nothing new: those who've followed my blog for a while will know that Swedish TV4 acquired Politikerbloggen.se for about £75,000 June 2007, a price the UK's Guido Fawkes ridiculed as much below what he'd even consider in the comment field.
Blog coverage good for business
Looking at the advertisement side of this, clothing chain Lindex recently singled out Blondinbella and blogs at Modefeber.se as influential for its products.
"When it comes to our webshop we see that the bloggers have a very big effect. We see that products the bloggers write about sell out extremely quick," Sara Carlsson, head of information at Lindex, told Dagens Media.
Of course, this type of scenario brings to mind that old debate about product placement etc, but that's a debate for another time...
At some point I feared a re-run of my trip to Costa Rica in 99, when my luggage never got to San Jose with me, and I, for lack of anything better to wear, ended up donning the hotel bed sheets to a VIP reception.
But then I thought: at least I did get there. I did get to Bergen on my second attempt, and miraculously, to my relief, my luggage also managed to get there with me.
Now, I had never been in Bergen before, so I was quite excited about the prospect when I got up in the wee hours to catch the 07:15 plane there to cover the Editor's Association Spring Meeting and the Nordic Media Days on Wednesday last week.
A few Bergen-bound flights were kept on ground that morning due to fog on the West Coast of Norway, but our ballsy pilot gambled that it would all have cleared by the time we reached Bergen. Gambled - and lost. My first flight to Bergen was spectacularly unsuccessful and was forced to return to Oslo after circling over Bergen for about half an hour. That was the opening session.
And when I finally managed to retrieve my luggage there was a planeload of passengers from Warsaw waiting in the ticket queue to rebook their tickets before me. Luckily, I'm scarily good at throwing a civilised tantrum when forced to. I rarely loose my temper, and quickly found someone to convince of my VIP status who let me jump the queue and secure the last seat on the delayed 10:30 flight to Bergen (all bullocks of course, I'm not a VIP, but I needed to get to Bergen as it was the only way we had of covering the events that day).
Come to think of it, that VIP-business only works in the languages I master: it failed spectacularly in Costa Rica, where I finally did end up loosing my temper – to no effect, as the Spanish airport officers didn't get half of my English swear words – and I had to bring a Spanish editor friend to the airport the next day just to make myself understood (that took us as far as a middle manager's office, but my luggage didn't arrive until ten days later, just in time for my return trip).
(Charles lent his moral support. Early days
of digital cameras, hence the grainy quality)
It annoys me tremendously that it has to be this way: why isn't "you lost my luggage" or "you didn't get me where you promised me" enough, why all these games to get what you paid for in the first place?
Ah well, back to Bergen. I finally checked in to my hotel about 3:30pm, just in time for the editor's shrink session (some famous shrink talking about working together as a team), but decided that, for me, the bath tub would be more therapeutic and help ease my mind so as to be better prepared to cover the price ceremony in the evening.
However, I'm ashamed to admit that despite having two cameras in my bag, I somehow managed to come back to Oslo almost exclusively with pictures of men in suits, the notable exception being journalist Helle Aarnes, from Bergens Tidende. Aarnes scooped up the "Journalist of the year" prize for her series of articles on the Norwegian women who were stigmatised for decades after being romantically involved with German soldiers during the second world war.
For my return trip, I simply couldn't make myself catch that 9pm flight back to Oslo on Friday. Nackered from running around photographing men in suits and getting intimately acquainted with all the conference rooms at Grieg Hallen conference hall, I just had to catch a few hours of the Bergen sun and soak in the scenery while I had the chance.
So I opted for taking the train back the following day, which was a brilliant choice, perhaps not for my wallet, but certainly from all other aspects: hours of spectacular scenery and a very civilised restaurant section with leather sofas and panoramic windows.
It was also fascinating to see how the landscape changed as we journeyed from the Bergen and the West Coast, through the mountains to Oslo: from the sharp, jagged, dramatic landscape of the West, to the gently rolling hills of the East - growing ever more soft and rounded the further East we went. It made me think of Montesquieu's (and Aristotle's for that matter) thoughts on how the landscape and climate shape its inhabitants, which is a rather deterministic notion, I know, but not entirely far-fetched in my experience – in either case, that's the topic for another post....
The debate about the death of printed newspapers was given a somewhat new slant this week with the candid comments of the newly appointed managing director of Norway's biggest newspaper.
During the Nordic Media Days in Bergen, one panelist said Torry Pedersen, editor-in-chief of Schibsted-owned VG.no, the most-read newspaper and news site in Norway, had now become a funeral agent in his new additional capacity as managing director of VG's print edition. Pedersen, though, was not affronted by the comment:
"This is probably not such a bad thing because funeral agencies have the best business model there is; they never become redundant. If we get to a stage where we cannot become redundant, we have done a good job," said Pedersen, adding that since he had now become an old man, the job of keeping VG's ageing print readers reading the paper was well suited for him.
Pedersen will serve as both editor-in-chief of VG.no, a news site with a staggering profit margin of 42 - 45 per cent for the last three years, and managing director the VG the printed tabloid, which, in the same period, has seen much more modest profits combined with rapidly declining circulation figures, until a replacement is found for him at VG.no
About this time last year I had great fun putting together a team of media bloggers who live blogged the Norwegian Editor's Association's annual conference which was headlined "Editor 2.0" (on commission from that very same organisation).
While writing this, I'm just about to fly out to Bergen where, among other things, this year's annual conference will kick off soon - but the blog we had so much fun with last year has largely been abandoned: after we started the conversation for last year's conference, the blog has not been updated and editor 2.0 is no longer a theme. I might drop by this year's spring conference as a journalist, but I thought maybe it's about time to put up something like this cartoon (via Sambrook) to explain the silence on the editors' blog, www.redaktorene.no:
Government efforts to censor the web are on the rise, but filtering the web tend to be inefficient, and lightweight technological solutions, which makes web-surveillance more difficult, are also on the rise. That, in essence, was the conclusion(s) I took away from a very interesting full-day seminar on this issue yesterday. Espen Andersen live blogged parts of the show here, esp. the contributions of Wikipedia-founder Jimmy Wales and Jonathan Zittrain (of the Berkman Centre, Oxford Uni, OpenNet Initiative etc). Me, I was stuck with a borrowed laptop with limited battery span until today, so just pen, paper and camera for me yesterday...
'I think we need a new journalistic method. It's not the finished articles with a beginning, middle and end that are interesting to comment on.'
The words belong to Paal Hivand, who during a forum for online journalism I launched for Journalisten last week (link in Norwegian), argued that we have to move towards a more dialogue-based presentation form, and come to accept that the new media reality demands we let go of control, dare to be open, dare to share...
So speaks a journalist turned blogger and social media geek. I've kept meaning to come back to my conversation with Paal, as well as this post by Adam on how static stories need to give way to live news. Their arguments are slightly different, I know, but I think the next stage we should (have been) discuss(ing) is how media can better utilize the social web, and these two arguments touch on different aspects of this. Lots more to say here, but keep running out of time, and wanted to jot it down so at least to remind myself. Here's Adam on finished and live news:
The next mindshift change journalists need to go through is that they no longer have a finished product. The issue is never complete. The feature is never done. The news is always evolving. And this is hard for us old-school hacks. If you were to ask a group of people what words they associate with journalism, I'd lay odds that "deadline" would be in there somewhere. But we're moving into a post-deadline age, when the publishing time is now, and then as soon as you have new information. Or a new conversation. Or a new contribution.
The web is providing us with the tools to move away from static "finished" story pages to ones that evolve and change with the news. And we need to work out how to adapt our journalistic processes with it.