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June 2010
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August 2010

Do you remember back when revealing an opinion could get you fired?

A decade or two from now I suspect people will look back with amusement and incredulity on how once upon a time revealing online that you had opinions or flaws could get you fired.

In a world where most everyone who is someone has said and done plenty of stupid things online, revealing their most awkward traits or most foolish decisions, it will be those who have no online history to speak of who will come across as suspicious.

While thinking about how social media has changed, some would say blurred, the lines between private and public, between work and play, for an op-ed published yesterday (in Norwegian) it struck me that what we're experiencing now is just growing pains, a temporary phase while we transition from old to new ways of thinking, or perhaps we could even speak of paradigms. And when I say temporary it may be that we're speaking of a generation or two, Roland Inglehart's Silent Revolution also springs to mind.

But already the two mindsets I'm thinking of, the old buttoned up professional aspiring to reveal as little as possible about him or herself, and the new, open culture of sharing, some would say oversharing, and transparency exist side by side.

As the op-ed was written just after the Octavia Nasr affair, I used hers and Dave Weigel's case to say that neither revealed something all that surprising: Nasr revealed she had sympathies and Weigel an arrogance which is far from uncommon among up and coming journalists who's had great success very quickly. In other words, they revealed themselves to be human. Their timing and sense of judgement may have been askew, but both explained the reasons for these lapses well, and the instant firing of the two seemed to me like knee-jerk reactions.

After I submitted my op-ed, I came across this brilliant piece by Thomas Friedman for New York Times (worth reading in full) on the Nasr-affair:

"What signal are we sending young people? Trim your sails, be politically correct, don’t say anything that will get you flamed by one constituency or another. And if you ever want a job in government, national journalism or as president of Harvard, play it safe and don’t take any intellectual chances that might offend someone. In the age of Google, when everything you say is forever searchable, the future belongs to those who leave no footprints."

I agree with most of what Friedman has to say in this piece, except I don't believe the future belongs to those who leave no footprints - quite the contrary. Two other recent NYT-articles, both well worth the read, Bent Brantley's Whatever Happened to Mystery and Jeffrey Rosen on How the Web means the End of Forgetting, serve to illustrate how increasingly unrealistic leaving no footprints has become.

Friends and acquaintances who teach in junior and upper high school tell me that these days even some of their best and most ambitious students keep blogs where they frequently err on the side oversharing, divulging personal, sometimes very private, things which may come back to haunt them. But seeing how widespread this "oversharing" on blogs and social networks is, as more and more people steeped in this culture enter the job market and eventually gain power, I think this will soon start to be seen as quite normal.

That is not to say that I think we'll end up with an anything goes kind of mentality, or that good sense of judgement won't be recognised and awarded also in the future, but I think we'll learn to live with how much more of our personal histories are publicly available at the click of a button. And I do think the buttoned up journalist, clothed so as to reveal as little as possible of who he is, will come across as a stranger in a strange land in this type of environment. In fact, is already doing so when dealing with the social web and its inhabitants.

So I think we'll see the end of the cult of objectivity that media has worshipped for so long. That is not to say I think objectivity as such is unattainable, or that striving for impartiality necessarily is a bad thing, only that the idea that a journalist should be like a mirror, an inanimate object with no opinions or personal history, reflecting his or her surroundings objectively, is long overdue for a reality-check.

Journalists are not inanimate objects, we're human beings who, under constant deadline pressure, make, and are required by our employers to make, decisions about what to cover and not, and how to cover it, all the time based on editorial values - or sometimes on which glasses we see the world through. The only way we could just objectively mirror the world around us would be to set up a surveillance camera and stream the video from it online, and even then we would only be streaming a (geographical) selection of reality.

I'm not even so sure this whole idea of just mirroring the world is conducive from a journalistic point of view. Reuter's David Schlesinger has talked about how (financial) journalism at its best should be as a mirror (scroll down for English version). However, I think it's fair to say that as long as that mirror only was turned towards a bunch of experts who mostly said the same, there's no wonder financial journalists couldn't see the financial crisis of 2008 coming. Schlesinger called it unreasonable to expect journalists to predict the future, but I think, in this increasingly complex world of ours, spotting the connections and making sense of the world, is one of the most important ways the media can add value.

Also, the people we are supposed to serve, our readers, do not see us as objective or think we have no political or business ties. They're just not quite sure what those biases which they feel must be dictating the news agenda are, so we often find ourselves accused of being racists and cultural relativists, or socialists and conservatives in the comment section of the same article.

Even more frequently, commenters don't even see us as persons at all, but synonymous with the institution we represent, and will attack us in the comment sections based on this. Incidentally, that is often a rather difficult position from which to nurture a constructive and healthy online debate.

If we then compare and contrast the media's "objective approach to covering an issue to that of bloggers, we see something really interesting. Namely, that looking at successful niche or issue bloggers – such as e.g. Jeff Jarvis, Guido Fawkes, Karl Denninger, Mark Horvath – they gain credibility and influence by doing the exact opposite of what media always has held up as the key hallmark of credibility.

They gain credibility not by pretending they have no ties, as the media, but disclosing those ties openly; not by pretending they have no personal history, but by using their own personal histories in ways which make other people share their own stories - thereby creating a critical mass highlighting a particular issue.

All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that I think it's about time the media industry wake up to the fact that we live in a transparent society, and that insisting on staying fully dressed and buttoned up in this environment won't do us any favours.

I agree with David Weinberger that yes, transparency is the new objectivity – at least in the respect that transparency is the only way to make our journalism more credible in today's increasingly transparent society. That does not mean that, as was suggested on Twitter, I think media organisations have to become more like Fox News. I don't think journalism necessarily needs to become more opinionated – opinionated journalism has pros and cons depending on the editorial format – but it desperately needs to become more honest.

For the record I should perhaps say that I ruined my back on the way home from London late June and ended up confined to bed for a few weeks, which gave me a lot of time to think about the changing media landscape. I'm somewhat shocked at the verbosity of this post, but suspect I might be back with more on this and other related topics soon....

Journalism anno 2010: it sure ain't what it used to be

As newsrooms all over the world are starting to catch up with the online revolution and grapple with the new opportunities it offers, journalism has almost become a different kind of career alltogether, requiring a whole new type of skillset.

I've been thinking a lot about this recently, not at least following a session I organised on this very topic for the Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) in June, but this morning I stumbled across Gene Weingarten's brilliant and very amusing description of this brave new media landscape in The Washington Post (via John Slattery):

Not very long ago, the typical American newsroom had three types of jobs: reporter, editor and photographer. But lately, as newspapers have been frantically converting themselves into high-tech, 24-hour online operations, things are more complicated. Every few days at The Washington Post, staffers get a notice like this: "Please welcome Dylan Feldman-Suarez, who will be joining the fact-integration team as a multiplatform idea triage specialist, reporting to the deputy director of word-flow management and video branding strategy. Dylan comes to us from the social media utilization division of Sikorsky Helicopters."

It's behind a registration wall but it's free to register and absolutely worth reading in full. Weingarten takes an old school stance to all of this, but does it with great wit. It's ironic to think that only a few weeks back we discussed this issue in full earnest at the annual conference of NONA, which I'm the president of. You can watch USA Today's Juan Thomassie brilliant presentation on data-driven graphics and the new skills needed in today's multimedia newsroom here, and the discussion between Thomassie and NRK's data wizard Espen Andersen on the same issue here.

In the latter video, Espen Andersen says that he thinks it soon will be considered as normal to have programmers as page designers in the newsroom. A long time defender of having programmers in the newsrooms, he has designed much praised databases and maps on issues such as murder snails, parking fines and the commercial interests of Norwegian politicians, all of which proves that coding can be journalism.

In fact, when I attended an iPad conference in Oxford recently, Innovation in Newspaper's Juan Senor told the audience about a programmer who was offered the same salary as the editor-in-chief in order to stay at a newspaper, and still he left: apparently, newsorganisations are just not attractive enough workplaces for many programmers, despite their skills being in huge demand in these organisations.

Popular Norwegian blogger Ida Jackson suggested that one reason why programmers are no too keen on working in the media industry is that they often are treated like monkeys, like cogs in the machinery. Unfortunately, that is an experience many journalists are very familiar with as well. We're all cogs in this shiny new multimedia machinery, but I guess journalists are more willing to do whatever it takes to be allowed to be a part of it all than programmers, and getting all the different parts to work together remains a big challenge for many a media company.

It may very well be that journalists are from Venus and coders from Mars, which incidentally almost is the title on an ONA debate in Washington in October. You'd have to replace journalists with designers to get the accurate title, but I've long suspected that journalists are romantics at heart and that this goes a long way to explain why the media industry is in the mess it is. So let's not get too misty-eyed about what journalism used to be, but rather focus on all the wonderful things it can be...

...Or, to revisit an old cartoon by the ever brilliant Hugh Macleod:


For the record: Espen Andersen joined NONA as a board member at the annual conference I refer to in this post

Kjell Aamot: Johnston Press' new, controversial non-executive director

Could we see Schibsted mount a take-over attempt of Johnston Press following yesterday's announcement of the latter company appointing the former media group's ex-CEO, Kjell Aamot, as a non-executive director?

Nah, I can't really see that happening, but it's an interesting appointment. I was approached by more than one UK journalist about Mr Aamot after the appointment was announced yesterday since a quick Google search led them to my post on his resignation last spring.

He had then held the position as CEO of Schibsted ASA since the group was formed in 1989, and has been given a lot of the credit for the group's famed online success – not at least due to early online investments and a willingness to stick with those investments even in turbulent financial times when other media companies scaled back or even abandoned risky new projects.

As CEO of Schibsted Mr Aamot was known to be a visionary, but he also courted controversy on more than one occasion, especially when he was reported to have predicted the imminent death print newspapers (link in Norwegian). He later said he was talking about paid for newspapers, not print newspapers as such as he still had a lot of faith in free newspapers (Schibsted owns several market leading freesheets). Still, employee representatives in several at Schibsted's Norwegian paid for newspapers were livid and accused him of prematurely issuing an obituary for print.

He also highlighted one of the biggest paradoxes in Schibsted's business model by saying that in the future journalism will be paid for by car sales (link in Norwegian). As the company's revenues increasingly are generated from its online classifieds business we could see a situation where the journalism business is fully subsidised by standalone online classifieds operations (flippantly, you could say the company owns Norway's version of eBay, except it's not free. It also owns similar classifieds businesses in other European countries).

All in all, a very interesting appointment indeed. Mr Aamot will certainly bring a lot valuable experiences and insights from his 20 years running a media company that earns good money online, a feat which seems to be the exception rather than the norm these days.

With his many years of international experience he should also be well versed in the many cultural challenges that is bound to appear between the very direct, no-nonsense Norwegians and the rather... eh.. circumloquacious Brits...

More profitable Metro prepares new online strategy

Well, let's not exaggerate the profit, freesheet giant Metro International is back in the black with a modest profit for Q2, but is still in the red for the first half of 2010 (key headlines here).

However, the world's biggest publisher of free dailies has seen a steady improvement of its financial results for three consecutive quarters and the end of freesheets seems further off than many predicted in 2009 and 2008.

No doubt, the consolidation in the freesheet market, Metro's own divestments and closures as well as an end to costly freesheet wars, most notably in key markets such as Denmark and Sweden, has benefited Metro's bottom line. "We're getting to be a bit more of a boring company, more predictable," said Anders Kronborg, the company's CFO, when I talked to him about Metro's Q1 results in April.

If you look at the company's share price curve for the first half of 2010 there's not much evidence of that so far, but now that it has moved its headquarters back from London to the city where it all started, back in 1995, perhaps some of that Swedish steadiness and predictability, which also may be described as boring in some contexts, will rub off.

At least Metro is using the relocation as a chance to build a new team and re-evaluate its online operations, Metro-boss Per Mikael Jensen told me yesterday. He said the organisation is planning to reveal a new online strategy come August/ September. PaidContent in particular has focused a lot on the company's lacklustre online results.

When confronted with this, Jensen pointed out that this was not in any way unique for Metro. "Point me to a media company that's been successful online apart from the likes of Schibsted, there are not many who have been successful making money online," he said and added that Metro does run profitable online operations in countries like Canada, Mexico, Denmark and Sweden. Now, in the latter country Schibsted took a 35 per cent stake in Metro's operation when it folded its own freesheet, Punkt SE, in 2008. Perhaps some of Schibsted's reputed online savviness will rub off too.

In the meantime, there's Q3 to grapple with. Jensen said Metro is on track to a full year operating profit for 2010, but admitted the third quarter is usually the company's weakest. "If we could remove Q3 from our results we would be happy to, but it is estimated into our full year forecasts. Actually, in Metro we have T-shirts with 'I hate Q3' written on the back," he said.

Has Facebook reverted to lies to tempt us into foolish behaviour?

Here's a thing that has puzzled me lately: most times I've logged into Facebook I've been met by Facebook ads claiming this or that friend of mine on the network has used Facebook Friendfiender, urging me to follow their lead.

The thing that's puzzled me about this is that a substantial portion of my Facebook friends are very savy when it comes to technology and privacy. Quite a few of them are journalists well versed in how to protect their privacy and their sources online, and I just couldn't imagine any of these giving Facebook access to their email boxes and -contacts by using Friendfiender. Others are privacy and/or anti-surveillance campaigners, I could't quite see them using Friendfiender either. So when Facebook claimed my FB-friend Leo Plaw, a web developer and artist, had used Friendfiender I shot him an email to double-check. Here's his reply:

"Thanks for heads up. Facebook is lying. FB has become the sneakies bunch of weasels. Blog that one."

Maybe I should start double-checking every time Faceboook claims one or more of my FB-friends have used Friendfinder. This sort of advertisement woud be against the law under Norwegian jurisdisction as it's misleading. I wonder, how does it hold up under US jurisdiction?

Cats, blogs and the internet

Although it is a well known that the internet is ruled by cats, cat blogging is not quite my thing. For one, I'm more partial to dogs, not at least because I owe my life to one, and knowing myself I find it very ulikely that this blog will not be remain dedicated to the fascinating and ever changing media landscape for the forseeable future.

However, I thought this video on how the internet is made of cats (hat tip: Adriana) at least might offer me an excuse to say a word or two about what I've been up to lateley - namely cat sitting for @pusedyr who at times has been known to usurp control over one of Norway's most popular political blogs, the one normally written by @vampus (aka Heidi). It must be said that this guy, who's been blogging on multiple blogs and is, by some standards, an old-timer on Twitter, is no stranger to the power of the internet, but, as he is quite a political animal, I'm reliably informed he probably won't be tweeting much again until the next election.

As for the two of us, since I injured my back on my way back from England late June, it's not so much the case that I've been looking after him for two weeks as he's been looking after me by making sure I'd get out of bed at regular intervals to feed him. Now that I think I've finally recovered I guess I owe him a thanks of sorts... having said that, I'm also looking forward to a night of uninterrupted sleep come Friday...(see more pics on Flickr):

Oh, and while we're on the issue of cats and uninterrupted sleep, @pusedyr is a very lenient taskmaster compared to my late housemate Casanova, also known as "the centre of the world"owned by another Heidi(picture courtesy of Lene):


Why I still blog

Is blogging dead? I seem to recall that discussion surfacing every so often since Twitter really took off.

Last week The Economist published an article on the evolving blogosphere, the vast field of dead blogs and slower growth of of blogs - which spurred a very interesting discussion over at Eirik Newth's blog (in Norwegian) when he blogged his thoughts on it.

For my own part I am very aware that I've been blogging less here in recent times, which is due to me also runnning the blog of the Norwegian Online News Association and long work days writing for money.

But I keep promising myself to find more time to blog because I still find it invaluable for a number of reasons. Therefore I was delighted to see Hans Kullin of the excellent Media Culpa put word to some of the reasons he still blogs in an interview with John Cass:

"it is a way to push myself to think deeper about a subject and to learn more. When you are forced to articulate your own opinion about a topic, you do more research and it seems to stick better in your memory. Then there is the social aspect. By writing a blog, I engage in a conversation with smart people and that is always a lot of fun. It is also a great way to build a good network. But perhaps most of all, my blogging has always been fueled by the reactions from other people, who link to or comment about my content. The more (positive) reactions you get, the more fun it is to blog. And that’s where I have a real problem to motivate myself to blog these days. It seems that many people don’t have as much time to blog today as they used to, before Facebook and Twitter grew popular."

I agree with most of that, but am also reminded on a short post I wrote a few years back which I feel still holds true. Two key thoughts from that: 1) don't see you blog as a finished package but use it as a backup brain, as public notebook, 2) treat it as part of what you're doing, as one method to achieve what you're doing, not as taking time away from journalism but as another way of doing journalism. I can say a lot on the latter point but no time right now, so do check out the full post(s) (and I do hope the links still work)