David Ho on our wired lives and the future of digital journalism

There are now more mobile devices than people on earth: What does that mean for journalism, for digital design and for our lives?

For one, «print newspapers might outlast websites in their current form because websites are changing so fast», David Ho, Wall Street Journal’s Executive Mobile Editor, predicted  during a talk on mobile journalism and responsive design in Oslo this week.

Currently there are more than 7,2 billion mobile devices in service in the world. As of last year, there are more mobile devices than people on earth. There are bout 2 billion smart phones in the world. More than 60% of all US digital time is spent on mobile. Most of that is spent on apps, rather than websites.

Ho said that in a sense every aspect of our lives is now becoming wired and chipped, a trend he described as very cool and very unsettling at the same time: very exciting and a bit Orwellian.

«We are moving towards a world where there’s a chip in everything...  A world with more data collection and less privacy, and if you really want privacy you have to go out of your way to get it,» he said.

We’ve been talking about that privacy challenge for so many years now that it’s hardly news.

But I think it is as if we’ve seen the overall mobile trends for a very long time, while the implications for how we live our lives (and consequently for the news industry) have  only come into full focus more recently. As a result, I found the talk by Ho, organised by the Norwegian Institute for Journalism (IJ), interesting - even though much of the things he talked about were not all that new.

As a former technology journalist and mobile (smartphones & tablets) columnist I’ve been to countless such talks by major players in the industry, but it’s as if five years ago, when many were (wrongly)  predicting how the iPad would bring about a new golden age for journalism, we saw only the blurry outline of the mobile future. But as this picture has come more and more into focus, details have appeared which makes the overall picture much clearer. And Ho’s talk brought a lot of this together, which is why I find it interesting to dwell on and summarise in a blog post.

I am aware that David Ho also was the keynote speaker at last summer’s Newsrewired in London, so I’ve summarised the points from his talk in Oslo I found most interesting in a bullet point list to make it easier to scan for new/old insights.

At the start of his talk, he had everyone in the room, mostly media folks, unlock their smartphones and hand it to the the person sitting next to them: An experiment which had many people in the room feeling decidedly uncomfortable.

He used this experiment to illustrate how «we are our phones». Our smartphones hold our contacts, our family, friends, work documents, email, photos –  they organise our entire lives.

We’ve never had «a technology this personal and this intimate. So when we in the news industry send news to mobile we send it to a very personal sphere,» he said.

Some of the insights Ho shared from his work (in the US):

  • Mobile is now, not the future. If you’re not already embracing it, you’re behind.
  • Mobile is social and social is mobile. The vast majority of Facebook’s revenue comes from mobile.
  • We see a major shift to mobile. At the start of 2015, 39 of the top 50 news websites had more traffic from mobile than from desktop. The vast majority of data traffic on mobile comes via apps, not the web.
  • Mobile news users skip home pages and arrive sideways. One place desktop is still holding on: At work, at the office, a place where people still go to frontpages.
  • Tech companies focus on platforms and app-to-app «deep linking». We also need to think about how apps talk to other apps and go directly from one app to another with no website inbetween
  • Mobile news sites tend to be high traffic, low engagement. People read one story then leave.
  • Apps are different: Lower traffic but very high engagement, people who use apps stay. The time is what’s important on mobile.
  • Mobile is a battle for time. So the challenge is how do you get people to stay.
  • Tech is becoming personal, contextual, aware of behaviour, habits and location. It anticipates you.
  • Interfaces are evolving beyond screens to focus on voice and gesture control.
  • WSJ launched a new responsive news site this year that a lot of work went into. Having a responsive website is a must, a minimum to survive in this mobile world right now.
  • Advertising doesn’t work as well on mobile for most people. Native ads are definitely the trend, definitely working better than traditional banner ads, but advertising is work in progress on mobile.
  • If your content is good enough people are willing to pay for news on mobile, but it has to be unique. Subscriptions are a major part of WSJ’s strategy – but a lot of the news provider's content is stuff people rely on for their work.

Ho also shared his 50 favourite apps for journalists in 30 Minutes, and has later shared those slides on Twitter:  Journalism Apps slide 1, Journalism Apps slide 2, Journalism Apps slide 3 & Flappy bird lessons for news.


The last edition of The Journalist

This Friday the very last edition of The Journalist’s 98 year old print magazine was published, thereby ending a chapter in Norwegian press history.

Due to the general decline in media advertisement and an increasingly difficult financial situation, the trade journal for Norwegian journalists, owned by the Norwegian Journalist Union, will cease to exit and the news organisation Journalisten BA will stop operating as an independent organisation and become a division of the union. The website journalisten.no will keep on covering the media industry, but with a reduced staff after two of its full-time and one of its part-time journalists have accepted redundancy deals. This leaves the website with an editorial staff of three full-time journalists and one writing editor.

The Journalist is the last of two Norwegian media magazines throwing in the towel, with media and marketing magazine Kampanje publishing its last edition in November after 50 years of publishing.

The Jounalist is a former employer of mine (and Kampanje a former client), and though I’m not sad, it just makes me feel nostalgic, to see the print magazine go, I am very sad to see The Journalist’s staff reduced and its independent status diminished.

The last edition of the Journalist to be printed, and to have its pages displayed on that office wall pictured:

Obituary in the last print edition of The Journalist by Drupal developers Ramsalt (journalisten.no runs on Drupal and is a client of Ramsalt):


On coming full circle

"You know, we really prefer to talk to people who’ve come full circle," a magazine journalist who interviewed me last summer told me (or something to the tune of this).

The story still made the cover of the magazine in question in September, but  at the time I had by no means come full circle, and have been pondering that concept at regular intervals ever since.

Do we ever come full circle, as in "arrive"  or "completely reverse your original position" while still alive? It seems to me that whenever I feel like I’ve come full circle in relation to one phase another phase starts – and more often than not they overlap and run parallel each other for a while.

At the time of the interview,  I’d just completed a stay at Sunnaas rehabilitation hospital, Norway’s largest specialised hospital in the field of medical rehabilitation, about 20 years too late.

A stay which took place less than two weeks after I’d moderated the keynote session at the annual conference of The Norwegian Online News Association, the organisation I co-founded and headed for several years.

This to me, felt full of contrasts and emblematic of my conflicting identities - or perhaps they’re just slightly conflicting to me. Because, as a former school-friend reminded me, I’m also the girl whose dog saved her life. I’ve used that phrase before, but it sums up so much – especially the gap in how people who know me from different parts of my life see me.

And this year (since last June/July) has really belonged to the girl whose dog saved her life. Not the commentator, journalist, blogger, science communicator or any of the professional identities I have held or hold (despite all the hours I’ve put in at work this year).

Sunnaas was a major turning point for me: At the time, it was perhaps the scariest, and probably the best thing I’d done in a long time. 

The Saturday before I left for Sunnaas, I had been photo copying parts of the documentation from the worst period in my life: 41 pages about the time immediately after my dog ​​saved me from certain death after I, as a  pedestrian, was hit by a car and left for dead: unconscious and in a critical condition - and of the gloomy forecasts the hospital doctors gave me when I started regaining consciousness at the hospital some time (about a week or so) later.

Those gloomy forecasts, which I interpreted as my life as I knew it being over at 17, have haunted me ever since, and I’ve spent most of my life since in a state of constant emergency, trying to prove those doctors wrong.

So confronting all of this, which I’d in some respects so effectively run away from for so many years, was very scary and challenging, but ultimately very rewarding. Because the doctors were wrong back then, 21 years ago. The thorough medical and neuropsychological examination at Sunnaas proved I’ve recovered and coped magnificently.

Except for some of my coping, or survival, strategies, that is.

Some of those, such as living in a constant state of emergency (which could also be dubbed stress addiction), are not so sustainable (to say the least).

So, even though the stay at Sunnaas lifted something big, heavy and soul-destroying from my shoulders, and the examination results were good, it only heralded the start of a lot of hard work. It definitely did not herald the end  of struggles - as Sunnaas provided me with a big to-do list regarding how to change my life (or those survival strategies which dominated it) around.

And even though I got top scores on my progress with that to-do list after my control stay at Sunnaas in February (I always work  hard at the things I dedicate myself to), that was not the end of that chapter either. Neither was any of the hard work I, and even my family,  put in the months since. Although I feel I’ve come a very long way,  I cannot say that I’ve come full circle even though some of the hardest work is done.

Being a journalist myself I do understand the quest, or desire for a story with a clear beginning and a clear end, and the appeal of a story about some sort of final victory or of coming full circle. Except that feeling of final victory in the story of my life keeps evading me, as does the clear beginning and end of various chapters.

"In the media we like black and white stories with obvious heroes and villains a cartoon-like script treatment of the issues ," my friend Tom Burroughes once said. And then there’s life: messy, complex and often non-linear (at least in terms of challenges and life lessons).

Actually, the best journalists do come close to describing it, and sometimes do manage to describe it perfectly, but it’s not run of the mill.

Neither, I suspect, are those necessarily the stories we would prefer to read if we’re honest. I know I at least would prefer for dramas to have clear and achievable solutions, and happy and finite endings. I’d prefer wars to end, policy struggles to be resolved successfully and for all people to beat their personal demons once and for all.

Likewise, I would like to be able to say that I’ve now finally and once and for all got rid of all the negative aspects of those deeply ingrained survival strategies and come full circle.

Instead, If I’m truthful , I’ve probably just come a bit further along the road less travelled…

NB: No new age meaning implied when I use that term, "the road less travelled". However, it is often said that the brain pathways of our habitual thinking and reactions easily can become "superhighways to hell", whereas changing habits is a bit like breaking new ground/creating new brain pathways that, at least to start off with, are narrow and cumbersome to walk. The allegory mentioned in Matthew 7:13-14, about the narrow vs the wide gate, springs to mind, even though I’m not religious.


Welcome to the post-industrial journalistic age

Well, would you have believed: Just as you thought the media was becoming more industrialised than ever. Just as the steady stream of cost cuts, lay-offs, consolidation, online traffic partnerships and industrial scale copy-paste-steal practice popularly dubbed aggregation reached new heights.

Just as you thought the media was looking more and more as an electronic herd stuck on the treadmill of doom: 

The new media revival, the post-industrial journalistic age finally arrives. It's just that, as with most future paradigms about to become present ones, the implementation is unevenly distributed. 

The end of big (media) arrives, and news organisations move from brands to platforms for talent (Nieman Journalism lab), and we can finally glimpse what newsroom organisation in a post-industrial journalistic age will loook like (Emily Bell).

One could have been mistaken for writing this development down to how social media, and particularly blogs, forever changed publishing and enabled a revolution in personal brand building - allowing everyone with the skill and inclination to build his or her individual super brand and loyal community.

Except, by now the blog is long dead, The New York Times commits blogicide and The New Republic publishes the umpteenth eulogy for the blog in the history of blogging.  

Pardon me if I sound sarcastic, I actually didn't set out to be: When I started writing this blog post I just planned to collect some really interesting links in one place as a back up for my brain - in true, traditional link blogging style.

But I'm struck by the many ironies and paradoxes here, even if I do think there's lots of thoughts worth pondering in the two first posts I link to.

I'm not so sure about the third: It describes an interesting trend, but I don't think I agree with the conclusions.

I'm more inclined to agree with Björn Staerk (aka Bearstrong), who in a recent history of Norwegian blogging (described here) writes something like this (I'm paraphrasing him slightly):

Personally, I feel that because everything has become blog, nothing is blog, and as a result we should get rid of the word entirely... The blog is dead because today everything online is streams of information, and everything is user friendly. 

And where does that leave the media?

The media has certainly become more blog-like in several respects, and absorbed both some of blogging's best practices and the blogworld's best bloggers (such as Björn Staerk, whom Aftenposten has had the wisdom to employ as a columnist).

Perhaps, and at the moment it certainly looks like, that might lead to a future where media acts as a platform for individual brands and talented curators. Or a future where big media uses the pull of its mass audience to act as a platform for niche sites, entering into partnerships with one-topic-sites on issues ranging from politics to technology, as well as specialist bloggers, rather than employing anything but a skeleton staff itself. 

What do you think?

As implied above, I didn't set out to write this post because I have all the answers here, but these are trends I've found myself pondering recently...

See also:

Crowdsourced media accountability - in 20012, 2013 and beyond

What if readers could just add a plugin to their browsers and instantly correct factual or grammatical errors on various news sites? Would they bother? Would news sites ever welcome such an innovation and use it to correct their content? Well, it does exist....

I know at least one former editor of mine whom I’d suspect would relish a tool like this, which would effectively enable him to put a grid over a news site and suggest corrections for any errors, grammatical or factual, in red print – almost like correcting paper pages with a red pen.

I was reminded of this innovation when I attended the Online News Association’s annual conference in San Francisco in September 20012, and media analyst Amy Webb talked about the top ten tech trends for 2012 (I’ve blogged about this talk here, albeit in Norwegian).

The first trend she singled out was #Verification, predicting the emergence on tools and systems bent on verifying content as a result of consumers are getting more sceptical. She even asked, rhetorically: ”What if there was a way to grade the trustworthiness of journalists?”

Well, this is not quite a tool to grade trustworthiness, but it is a tool its masterminds, Tobias Reitz and Kersten A. Riechers, dub a tool to facilitate crowdsourced media accountability.

They believe errors these days spread massively and quickly, like an electronic wildfire, in part due to social media such as Twitter & Facebook, and due to cost cutting in the newsrooms and the demand to do more with less, in addition to the emphasis on speed, they feel we have reason to believe errors happen more and more frequently.

So they invented this tool, called ”Corrigo”, allowing user annotation of news articles, based on their diploma thesis in online journalism.

Corrigo is browser plugin, and people do have to download it, but it helps you flag and correct factual errors, missing links and types in online news articles. With the plugin you can highlight sentences that contain errors. As a publisher you can click on the yellow line on the top of the site to see if there’s anything the Corrigo community wants to tell you.

Corrigo's vision is to fight haste and paste, and if you wonder if parts of an article is copied from a press release, you can check that straight away.

Now, I must admit I got acquainted with Corrigo while listening to Tobias and Kersten talk about it when attending a small media bloggers conference in Bristol as far back as August. So I don’t know if its inventors have forged any partnerships with media organisations since then.

Unfortunately, I picked up a bad strep infection on the way home form Bristol, which put me in bed for two weeks, and then work and life’s been moving at such a frantic pace since I got well that I’ve had no time to blog about it until now.

But it’s a fascinating concept and I’m curious to learn how it would work for a online media organisation and what kind of challenges they might face using it.

I do know, and did mention to Jude Townend, who was there blogging from the conference, that Schibsted-owned VG, a former client, has implemented its own kind of ”crowdsourced media accountability” measure - though very different from Corrigo.

What VG has done is to advertise for people who would serve voluntarily as proofreaders for its news site, which is Norway’s most read. From those who replied to that call they’ve chosen 100 proofreaders, many of them retired teachers, who voluntarily proofread VG.no’s articles.

The proofreading they do is not visible to the readers, but as a journalist you will get an email, or more, from the proofreaders if there are any grammatical errors in your articles. And the number of errors corrected in various journalists’ articles will show up in VG’s internal statistics – as a journalist those stats will enable you to see how many people read your article(s) that day (unique visitors), how many errors were corrected, how many likes it or they received on Facebook etc.

Which is a different way of doing things altogether than what Corrigo offers, but still an interesting and very efficient one. In either case, it’s really interesting to see innovations like these come about and how they work.

Another verification tool for a very different purpose that Amy Webb mentioned in her before mentioned talk in San Francisco, was the Super PAC app – which works much like Shazam, just that it’s for political ads and not for music. The user holds the phone up to a political ad while it's playing to collect information about the ad's funding and other tidbits. That sounds useful, though I’m curious as to how well such an app can work.

In either case, limiting tech trends to such and such a year is rarely an accurate practice – one or more tends tend to be big one year, but more often than not these trends will tend to stretch over many years. And what many experts single out as a trend one year, very often turns into something more like a seed which rather gradually blossom into full bloom, often stretching over many years – sometimes even a decade or more.

So I for one am very much looking forward to see more of these innovations in verification- and crowdsourced verification, correction and accountability tools in 2013 and beyond as well...

A bit more on Corrigo from the founders:

Investigative journalism in the digital age

It’s good to see journalism school books and primers finally being updated to reflect the new challenges and opportunities of our age.

A good example of this is a book which arrived in my mail box just before Christmas:


Now, it must be said that it arrived in my mail box because I provided some input on the chapter on social media a few years back,  and one of its editors is a former editor of mine.

Still, the book has gone through many revisions since I read that one chapter on social media, and the result looks very promising. I’ve yet to find time to actually read the book, but skimming through some of the content on social media and new digital tools it looks like it offers a very comprehensive and up-to-date guide.  

I’m especially looking forward to reading Rune Ytreberg’s chapter on the new digital tools of the trade properly. Ytreberg is also due to give a talk on this for The Norwegian Online News Association (NONA), the organisation I co-founded, used to run and am a still a board member of, towards the end of this month.

From skimming through it I see that one of the plethora of sources he credits is Journalism.co.uk’s Colin Meek who NONA brought over from Scotland to Oslo talk about advanced online research techniques in April 2010.

Incidentally that was the previously mentioned, and much covered, trip where Meek almost got stranded in Oslo due to the ash cloud crisis. Only VG’s brilliant editorial innovation, the Hitchhiker’s central, and me convincing a friend to drive stranded travellers, including Meek, from Oslo to Dover (and then back again with another load of stranded travellers) prevented that.

In either case, it’s great to see some of NONA’s work bear fruit in this way as in the book, and hopefully inspiring both better teaching and better practice when it comes to utilising today’s digital tools as efficiently as possible to create good, and perhaps even innovative, investigative journalism both in terms of uncovering worthwhile stories and connections, and finding new ways to convey these stories.  

How to make the newsroom embrace data journalism

Struggling to get your entire news organisation enthusiastic about the possibilities inherent in big data sets? Texas Tribune has the answer.

I can’t recall just how many times the terms "data journalism" or "computer assisted reporting (CAR)" have elicited big yawns from other journalists.

It is certainly nothing which will draw journalists to an event, unless you focus on the most spectacular stories this kind of journalism has made possible. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Texas Tribune’s recipe for success is both simple and daunting:

Just do it, and the enthusiasm will follow from the results.

"Data accounts for 66% of our traffic. I don’t think all the journalists saw the light instantly, but as they saw really interesting stories come out of the data and traffic started to pick up, everybody got interested," said Rodney Gibbs, Chief Innovation Officer for Texas Tribune at Online News Association's annual conference last weekend, ONA12.

He was on the panel together with Stephen Engelberg, Managing Editor of ProPublica and Meghan Farnsworth, Senior Manager Distribution and Online Engagement at the Centre for Investigative Reporting (CIR) for a session called "The Business of Collaboration".

Engelberg said they saw immense potential in sharing big data sets with different news organisations who each focus on their own regional angle, and that ProPublica’s collaborative data sets are now so distributed he discovers partnerships via Google Alerts.

"It is really important to figure out if there are tools out there which will help you distribute your content better," said Farnsworth, and spoke of Publish2 as an incredible tool (which sort of reminded me I haven’t used Publish2 for ages, better try to check in and have look around again soon).

"We certainly view everyone at ProPublica as journalists: it’s just that some of them write words and others write code – that is the future of journalism," said Engelberg.

Food for thought: networked individuality, Wikipedia, doctors of doom and roadblocks

Here's a few links I've been thinking about recently (and had open in my web browser for ages).

Obviously I need to find a new bookmarking site to my liking, after Delicious got all pearshaped I've been unable to make up my mind about which service I should use to replace it (any ideas?).

Networked individualism (via Sambrook)

"The networked individualism operating system creates new efficiencies and affordances in the ways people solve problems and meet their social needs. Whereas in the past, it was not easy for people to get real-time information to help navigate a place, now it could hardly be easier with instantly available maps, augmented reality mobile apps that give people helpful information about their surroundings, and crowdsourced input about the environs."

Journalism and Wikipedia

Journalism, as a field, should be concerned with adding to the record that is Wikipedia, argues Doc Searls in a post which spurs a really interesting discussion in the comment section.

Doctors of doom

Few things makes me as angry as reading about doctors who take it upon themselves to make uninformed, blanket judgements about how an injury may cripple you for life. I really don't understand why some of them find it necessary to dole out what are effectively life sentences, when they simply do not know for sure.

It makes me angry because I myself was told my life was probably over after a serious car accident at 17, so when I read this gripping story about a girl who defied doctors who told her she would never walk again that's the thought that hit me: why? I'm not so sure about the article's conclusion - Mind over Science - I think it's more of a question of doctors making unscientific judgements, or judgements based on too little or inclonclusive evicence. I wonder if one reason for this may be found in this study on blind spots, or biases: "Why smart people are stupid".


Interesting article on following unconventional routes to success (via Jackie Danicki). It reminded me of some hard-learned insights I've had myself about sometimes missing out on key opportunities when being too obsessed about where you're going, and how detours can turn out to be more valuable than planned careers moves.


Norwegian farmers take action against regional for "insufficient" coverage

Dismayed with the local coverage of their recent bread blockade, Norwegian farmers tried to block regional Sunnmörsposten from distributing today's newspaper.

Around 3am this morning farmers tried to block the entrances to Sunnmörsposten's printing plant with their tractors.

"We are blocking the newspaper distribution to get a mouthpiece towards consumers in regard to how the farming industry is in need of much better conditions if we are to be able to continue producing food in Norway," Odd Einar Fjörtoft, a spokesman for the local group of farmers told NRK. Fjörtoft said they were very disappointed the newspaper did not cover their big demonstration on Tuesday (a claim Sunnmörsposten's editor-in-chief contests). 

The Local describes Tuesday's national farmer's strike thus:

Norwegian farmers went on strike on Tuesday morning, as they sought to keep bread off supermarket shelves by blocking entrances to mills across the country in protest against the collapse of agricultural policy negotiations at the weekend.

However, The National Farmer's Association said they had neither been informed of, nor supported, the local newspaper blockade against Sunnmörsposten.

Understandably, the latter blockade has been met with much derision and ridicule - and has been yet another reminder that not all PR is good PR.

Controversy over covering Anders Behring Breivk trial divides Norway

The Breivik-trial has taken live-coverage to a new level, but Norwegians are divided on whether it is a scandal or a blessing the testimony and examination of the mass mass murderer cannot be broadcasted.

In the internet age, don’t we have a right to go to directly to the source, to see for ourselves, to make up our own minds ?

Especially when the evidence in question is that of the man responsible for the worst peace time massacre in modern Norwegian history? If society is deprived of this opportunity, are we not running the risk of interpretations and claims of biased reporting taking the place of facts?

Or is it the other way around: are we running a greater risk of creating copy cats if this bit of the trial is broadcasted, and are we not just providing him with a stage to spread his gospel of hate?

These and similar questions are at the centre of a big controversy surrounding the coverage of the trial against Anders Behring Breivik, the man responsible for slaying 77 people in the twin terror attacks on Norwegian government headquarters in Oslo and a Labour Party youth camp on Utöya 22 July 2011.

Even now, as the trial is about to enter its fourth week, the heated debate has not abated.

In its first week, Journalism.co.uk had a good round-up of many of the ethical issues for journalists covering the trial, in which I’m interviewed. The story outlines some of the biggest legal issues involved. But this story poses so many interesting and troubling questions that I thought it interesting to delve more into some of the arguments.

One of those who is frustrated by not being able to see the examination of Breivik for himself, with his own eyes, is Norwegian author Ingvar Ambjörnsen.

In his VG column after the first week of the trial he describes how he travelled to Norway from his home in Berlin especially to see the court room examination. But, he writes (my unofficial translation):

"I’m not allowed to hear him. I’m not allowed to see him explain his actions. What I’m served is reports and impressions from the inner circle of Breivik-initiateds, from guests especially invited to see this grotesque drama. People who tell us how terrible he is, and how happy we can be that we can still live in a kind of world of innocence."

Ambjörnsen feels it is important to see for himself how the mass murderer comes across so he "can forget him".

Another Norwegian author, Karl Over Knausgaard, echoes this sentiment in a piece for New York Times: "…to get an impression of the nature of a person, one has to see him in motion. So much is contained in the posture of the body, the position of the hands, the movement of the eyes."

"The image of journalists and different experts commenting a running (and censored) text on the left the image, is a shame we cannot live with. It’s a historical error," Ambjörnsen concludes.

Here Ambjörnsen is referring to a major innovation in how Norwegian online newspapers are covering the trial. Several have developed their own "live windows" with a mix of features.

VG’s live window (screengrabs below) - whose coverage I’ve followed most closely and found myself totally captivated by - features a word by word transcript of what’s being said, a moderated Twitter-feed and live video - frequently of interviews with experts commenting on what’s happening inside the court room as little of the proceedings can be broadcasted.

From the first day:




It is this latter aspect, the massive use of experts by all media – both on live-tv and in other formats such as in op-eds, on radio and tv and in print – which has left many people feeling uncomfortable.

The Norwegian Editor’s Association has campaigned to be able to broadcast the trial, and at the start of the trial VG.no’s editor-in-chief, Espen Egil Hansen, said:

"I think everyone should get a chance to hear and see what is happening in court. We who are present in the court room get at a very different impression of how Breivik is exposed in court. To me, he appears pathetic, you don’t get the same impression when you are only reading a text."

The editor of the trade journal for Norwegian journalists, Helge Ögrim, has taken the contrarian view, arguing that those arguing against the broadcasting ban, fail to pay heed to the counterarguments. Among those:

  • Psychologists have argued that those under the age of 16 run a great risk of getting psychological reactions and traumas from watching the trial, something broadcasting the trial would increase the risk of.
  • Broadcasting would place the next of kin and those directly effected by the terror attacks under a heavier load.
  • It would be ethically dubious to broadcast the testimony of someone who two of the main court psychiatrists on the case thinks is a paranoid schizophrenic.
  • Broadcasting his testimony would give Breivik a dubious platform to spread his gospel of hate.  

However, are we really served with only getting this trial against a man who created a national trauma with the atrocities he committed last summer through the eyes of a league of experts?

In an op-ed published in Aftenposten a communication advisor, Stefan Brunvatne, who was present at the start of the trial, wrote:

"While the commentators are crawling over each other in their efforts to paint a picture of an incoherent man who is sitting there, giving us insight into evil incarnated, and 'experts' make critical comments on everything from his body language to his historical facts, Anders Behring Breivik is sitting there in the eye of the storm appearing surprisingly calm and collected.

"For someone who has been present at two of the key days during Breivik’s testimony, Friday 20 April and Monday 23 April, the shocking thing is not Breivik’s behaviour but the discrepancy between it and the monster image painted by the media."

Part of the challenge here is how difficult the trial is to cover. Norwegian war correspondent Aasne Seierstad has said it is much more difficult to cover a case she herself feels so affected by, like the Breivik-trial, than being a war correspondent. "Unfortunately it seems easier to work with stories you have a journalistic distance to," Seierstad, who is writing a book about the trial, told VG.

As Breivik told the court how he regretted not having killed more people, and described his plan to decapitate a former Norwegian prime minister, in the first week of the trial, even foreign correspondents present at the trial expressed their horror on Twitter at what they had just heard .

Daniel Bennett has written an interesting post on the dilemmas of allowing live-coverage via Twitter while banning broadcasting.

Could it be that Norwegian commentators and journalists are too affected by the trial to be objective? Or is the very idea of trying to be objective in case like this ludicruos in itself? So many questions, so few ready answers.

Max Fisher has argued in The Atlantic that Norway does what the US didn’t dare to do with Khaleid Sheikh Mohammed, the assumed mastermind behind 9/11. The Breivik-trial can teach Americans that transparancy hurts terrorism (via @svelle, no direct link available).

Many Norwegians will argue that the trial is still not transparent enough.

However, according to NRK, those desperate to see the trial with their own eyes, may get to see parts of Breivik’s testimony by taking a trip to The National Archieves a year after the trial finishes to see the parts of the video records that are not deemed too sensitive (people may e.g. get to see the parts where Breivik talks about his political and ideological motives).

Seriously, I need a job

The bad thing about changing deeply set habits and patterns of reactions? It may make you realise how unsustainable your lifestyle  has been.

In 2011, I chose one of the hardest new year resolutions ever – to change deeply set  patterns of behaviour and reactions – and for the most part I succeeded.

I can’t begin to tell you what a monumentous achievement that was, and how hard it was to get there.

The only problem is, it made me realise how totally unsustainable my life has been for the last 18 years or so.

See, in all those years I never had a permanent job.

I’ve either been working as a freelancer, temp or been on short term contracts.

In the UK, at the start of my career, I somehow made it work, even though I was temping in London inner city school and taking shifts in the local pub to make ends meet.

But in Norway the tax burden is just too crazy. If I was to pay both tax and all the insurances to come close to equalling the benefits a salaried worker takes for granted , I’d be left with 40 per cent of my earnings. That’s 60% tax and insurance on a modest salary – which is insane.  But just as bad is how you end up working around the clock all the time and feeling guilty whenever you take even just a day off.

The short an easy answer to why I’ve put up with this for so long is that I love my work.

I love my work to the extent that I often used to forget about such things as sleeping or eating, keeping regular business hour and not working around the clock. Sometimes I’ve even forgotten to agree any kind of payment terms before I’ve taken on an assignment – not the best starting point for a freelancer.

The more complex answer, one I’m more reluctant to admit publicly and only recently realised was an important factor, is that I’ve become much too good at living in a state of constant emergency and war, which brings me back to how I’ve changed those deeply set habits and patterns of reaction.

If I’m totally honest with myself, until a year or two back, my life has pretty much been a constant state of emergency since I was told that my life might be over after a serious hit-and-run accident at 17.

Those were of course not the doctors’ exact words, but they told me I might have sustained very serious injuries which, had their worst case scenarios played out, my life as I had envisioned it would indeed have been over. 

As it was, I refused to accept those worst case scenarios, and set about proving to myself and the world around me that the doctors were wrong – bending, breaking or overstepping most real and perceived limitations in the process.

As most people around me feared the doctors were right it felt like I was caught in this giant, existential battle: It was me against the world, and in the process I became a master of abusing myself for the greater purpose.

«You have a mind that decides where it wants to go, and then you have this immense willpower which pushes your body where your mind wants to go no matter the consequences,» a wise woman told me when I was 20.

Doesn’t sound like the most sustainable kind of lifestyle, does it?

Well, I burned out at 20 – and got to know myself and my limitations a whole lot better in the process.

Keeping those painful lessons in mind, in my new incarnation I became a master of balancing at the edge – at least looking after myself well enough to never burn out like that again.

And over the years I accomplished a lot with that strategy.

Much too much to mention here, although it was never enough  to defeat the irrational fear that whenever I didn’t live up to my own superhuman expectations, such as working 24/7 seven days a week, it was because the doctors were right (even though they said they would know within three years of the accident if their worst predictions were warranted, and I’ve taken every measure to disprove it myself).

But for roughly the last year and a half I’ve had a really good and steady client who’s provided me with a more stable income than I’ve ever had (and great work for top-notch, super professional editors).

That has also rewarded me with the peace and room to contemplate my life so far, even though – weirdly enough - getting off that path of constant worrying and getting used to regular pay was hard at first and took some getting used to.

Of all things, this process reminds me of something Dr John Marks told me when I was doing a piece on the so-called «Liverpool project», which involved prescribing heroin to drug addicts.

He talked about how addicts, when no longer governed by the constant worry of where to get their next fix, finally had time to look themselves in the mirror and reflect over what they had done with their lives.

Now, I don’t want to get into the debate about prescribing heroin or providing drugs substitution therapy here, it’s a complex one, but, for me, regular pay has been like Dr Mark’s described.

It was a bit like, without the constant worry about finding enough work to pay my bills hanging over me, I finally had time to look in the mirror and see how totally unsustainable my life was.

Actually, that’s not quite accurate: I’ve realised that my lifestyle was unsustainable for many years, but regular pay gave me room to do something about it – to put what I’ve dubbed “project sustainable living” into practice:

I’ve worked really hard to give myself semi-regular business hours, get enough sleep, eat regularly, take regular breaks, exercise regularly, schedule time for down time and spare time, and all the other things normal people do.

I’ve put in pretty substantial effort to take unnecessary stress out of my daily schedule, get out of the constant flight or fright mode and, in short: take better care of myself.

To other people who take such things for granted, this might seem insane or just weird, but for me not constantly putting work before everything else has been a damn hard, and steep, learning curve.

If you’re used to living in a constant state of emergency, normality doesn’t come easy, nor, regardless of how you live your life, does changing deeply set patterns of reactions.

But it is very rewarding, not at least because taking better care of myself has made me a lot more effective. This year I’ve even been able to ease my reliance on stress crutches such as caffeine, even go without for days and weeks.

The downside is I feel I just can’t go on with my freelancing ways, not for even a day more.

Of course, I still do some work on and off for clients as I do have bills to pay.

I still love my work, that hasn’t changed in any way.

But I really struggle to find the energy for pitching as it feels like I’m just perpetuating the lifestyle I know I need to leave behind by doing so.

In short, I need that permanent job - preferably tomorrow.

Oh, and my LinkedIn profile is here (and until that permanent job comes along, I still take on freelance work).

For the record, I am of course applying and interviewing for jobs as well, loads of them, but I have great faith in the internet's ability to connect me with opportunities and people I might not otherwise have come across.

How to avoid the app trap: Path, iOS and protecting your sources

Amid a flurry of privacy breaches and proposed spy laws, has storing your contact book in a digital format simply become untenable if you have sources you desperatly need to protect?

This question has been on my mind repeatedly over the last two weeks, following news about new spy laws and how various apps steal all the contacts you have stored on your smartphone.

For my part, I wasn't too surprised about the "revelations" about apps such as Path stealing your contact book. Testing new apps has been a regular part of my job for the last year and half, and I always check what access demands they make (and they tend to be extensive).

As a result, I've found myself using my old-school contact book more and more in that period. It's pretty standard for an app to ask or demand access to the contacts stored in your phone and in various apps you have on your phone (Gmail, Twitter, Facebook etc), your location etc so journalists need to think through what apps they use, what contacts they store in their smartphones or both very carefully.

I'm reminded of Charles Arthur's excellent article "They've got your number" from a few years back, which admittedly looked at how new legislation might affect journalists' ability to protect their sources - but the challenges are many of the same as with the new app trap.

I've written more extensively on this topic in Norwegian following the Path-revelation here, but here's a collection of recent links I've come across since writing that post: 

I must admit I feel a kind of cynical resignation over all this, what's your take?

Journalism school to revise curriculum in the aftermath of Norway terror attacks

Crisis reporting is set to become integral part of a three year bachelor degree in journalism, if plans to revise the degree’s curriculum go ahead.

- Today you can go through a three years journalism degree without receiving any training in how to cover terror and catastrophes, Trond Idaas, whose survey of the Norwegian journalists who covered the 22/7 terror attacks was a key inspiration for the suggested changes, said when his survey was published.

Idaas is an advisor at the Norwegian Journalist Union and has also written a masters thesis on the experiences of journalists covering the Tsunami in 2004. He feels it is very important that crisis reporting becomes an integral part of journalism training.

Besides, his survey found that more than 40 per cent of the journalists covering the tragic events in Oslo and on Utöya on 22/7 had less than five years of journalistic experience (July being in middle of the summer holidays in Norway) .

This finding has, according to Journalisten, been an important reason for the journalism school at Oslo and Akershus University College to suggest making crisis reporting an integral part of its bachelor degree. Also, there was widespread public reactions to the use of live broadcasts from Utvika on 22/7, when some of those intereviewed quite obviously were in a state of shock.

Idaas said integrating crisis reporting in the curriculum, such as suggested at Oslo and Akershus University College, is "quite revolutionary and not even widespread internationally"

Looking through the text books from when I did my journalism degree at City University in London, I could find precious little mention of how to cover terror and catastrophes (but then I handed in my masters thesis only weeks after 9/11, which may help to explain the abscence - though we did have a lot about war reporting, which makes it seem strange).

The only mention I can find of the topic is a chapter on "How to cover major incidents" in David Randall’s eminent "The Universal Journalist" (I always did like that book). That chapter is however, very instructive – also on what not to do.

For my own part, one direct result of the debates about the media coverage of 22/7 was to contact two of the journalists who covered the hit-and-run accident that almost killed me when I was 17 to thank them for being so professional when interviewing me while I was in shock after the accident.

Now, in terms of interviewing people in shock, my case can’t really be compared to 22/7 as I gave my first interview months after the accident.

But I was certainly in shock then, and for several years after the accident: years when I wasn’t quite sure whether I was just living in a dream (or nightmare), when it often felt like my life was just some surreal movie, when I lost all sense of fear etc

In that state I could easily have said yes to the journalist who, when the case came to court, wanted me to pose for a photo shaking hands with the guy who ran me down for the ”I forgive you”-story  the journalist seemed to have pre-written (which he never got. More on that story here )

Over all though, talking to the media mostly just felt therapeutic back then.

Since I didn’t have any memory of the accident it also helped me piece everything that had happened together. I even met the guy whose car my dog stopped, the one who called the ambulance in the nick of time after my dog alerted him to where I lay unconscious and critically wounded, on a TV show - all very surreal.

But my story was only about a car accident - with the big catastrophes, riots and terror attacks we've seen recently all kinds of ethical dillemmas are multiplied and new ones emerge. The sheer scale of it all is in itself a massive challenge.

In general though, I think it may prove very benificial to make crisis reporting an integral part of journalism training.

Not all journalism students go on to become journalists, but handling communication in times of crisis is something all communication professionals are likely to be called upon to do when they least expect it. 

Just think of the many tumultuous and often tragic indidents of 2011.

Also, being prepared makes dealing with disasters, however tragic, easier.

Idaas said his research shows more experienced journalists, and certainly journalists used to covering war and atrocities, deal with the impressions more efficiently and are far less likely to suffer from delayed stress reactions than inexperienced journalists.

Despite rumours to the contrary, journalists are not immune to the impressions from the many traumas of disaster. Nor are police, firemen and other emergency workers.

So 22/7 will also be a test of how well the organisations employing any of these workers handle the aftermath of crisis, that remains to be seen.




57-year-old made staff reporter

You have to wonder at the state of our industry when the story about how a newspaper just employed a 57-year-old news reporter made headline news yesterday.

And no, I'm not thinking that the news site E24.no was wrong to run it, which it did under the broader headline "57-year-old gets permanent job" - but it really makes me wonder about the state of the world in general, and about the media industry in particular.

It's devastating that we live in such an ageist time that such a story is headline news, pretty much regardless of profession, and it's particularly sad that this is especially true in our industry and that many resourceful people with very valuable experience are simply let go, or unable to find new jobs, when they reach a certain age.

Amusingly, I vivildy remember being told at 26 that I was getting old for the news industry by a former UK news executive (we never worked together, it was just a piece of friendly advice).

Of course, sometimes it's the other way around: young reporters with valuable multimedia skills find themselves the first to loose their jobs in financial crisis'. These matters often depend on issues such as how strong the journalist union is in a certain country or in a certain media company.

But I do wish we could look more towards getting the right balance of skills and experience, and not let age become a variable in itself.

At least to me, age has always been a state of mind.

Are newspapers content farms?

With all the hullabaloo over content farms, Google, and whether Huffington Post really is a content farm, as of late, two contrary perspectives struck me last week.

First, I attended Robert Picard's talk on media business models, as mentioned here. What I didn't mention was some points he also raised the last time I heard him on this issue:

"Media is also in trouble today because they produce very little original content, most of what they publish is just edited content from the wire services. Most newspapers only produce about 20 per cent of their content themseleves. The rest stems from photo- or wire agencies or is copied from other newspapers," he said.

He argued that to survive newspapers need better news and information than our competitors, different news and information than our comptetitors and news people value, saying: "You don't win this competition by just copying everyone else".

That much should be obvious, but then fast-forward to this whole debate about content farms such as Demand Media, or to the discussion of whether Huffington Post, recently acquired by AOL, really should be classified as a content farm:

"In other words, I think we are nearing the high water mark of the Content Farm AdSpam business model, and in a few months it will be drastically curtailed as search engines start to select for the original authors and content spam blockers start to just cut out certain sites - which is why Demand Media, HuffPo et al's backers have to rake in the cash now.

"It is exit or bust (or at least a shorter and more brutish existence) so I expect to see a plethora of content farms and near-content farms trying to sell themselves now," wrote Alan Patrick over at Broadstuff.

That spurred this post:

"I disagreed with a recent blog post by Alan Patrick which described the Huffington Post as a content farm. I do not think that the alleged lack of original content at the Huffpo is any worse than at many newspapers: so I concluded that it is not a content farm. It could be interpreted the other way: newspapers are content farms too.

"How much original content is there in newspapers?" asks the blogger, and then goes on to analyse at the ten most recent stories from The Guardian's RSS feed.

He concludes:

"There are only three pieces of really original content out of the ten I looked at, and two of those are related to the arts and are not really what I would call news (nothing wrong with that, of course).

"Journalists are more skilled reporters and better writers than those who churn out stuff for the likes of Demand Media. They add some original content by chasing up quote, but that is really all they add. If the Guardian is not a content farm, most of it is not very different from one."

Do check out the full post here. I'd be interested to hear your thoughts...

Food for thought on a Sunday

"Oh, I don't read HER. It's not that I don't like her, it's just that she makes me think too much," a journalist friend told me back when I had just graduated from City.

He'd been in news reporting for a decade or more already by then, while I, even though I'd started my media career as a columnist when I was 18, had done precious little of day-to-day news reporting.

And I must admit I found his statement absurd: how can an a writer make you think too much? Isn't it always a good thing if a writer makes you think a lot? Since then I've come to appreciate, albeit very reluctantly, that at least it's perfectly possible to get so busy you don't have time to read writers that make you think a lot - which is a pity, a big loss and detrimental in the long run if you keep running out of time to do so.

These last few weeks I have been too busy with work to do much of this kind of reading - not too busy to read and think, but too busy to really contemplate all the things I'd like to, so here's a few posts that I'd really like, and will return to, to contemplate some more:



This is a printing office

I found this fascinating sign via Jackie Danicki's blog ages ago, but looking through my picture archive this morning it made me pause to think about how much journalism has changed since it moved online and all the debates about print vs online media. If I stared at it a bit longer I would probably come up with a really inspired blog post, but no time for that this morning so instead I'm sharing it here so I won't forget (this blog being one of the best back-ups of my brain that I have;-) ):


"Whisky is best for editorial inventiveness"

Could excessive drinking be part of the reason why the media industry is in such a bad state?

In his book "Sex, murder and bad management" Trygve Aas Olsen argues that the paper's heavy drinking culture must take a huge share of the blame for Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet's many woes, including declining readership and fragile financial situation.

Aas Olsen, who himself worked for the paper - which market position can best be compared to The Mirror in the UK - for more than a decade, is now the media editor of financial daily Dagens Næringsliv. His new book promises to explain the reasons for the once proud liberal newspaper's fall and has stirred much debate among Norwegian media pundits - attracting both critique and praise.

Since I haven't read the book myself yet, I don't feel in a position to say much about whether or not it succeeds in describing the reasons for the newspaper's current woes. However, if the drinking culture at Dagbladet has been so detrimental, I wonder why British newspapers haven't gone to the dogs a decade or more ago.

I must admit that while working in London (early this deacade) the culture of drinking during lunch hours shocked me slightly and never sat well with me, but as one of my mentors was the late John Coyle, one of Fleet Street's and the City's more legendary drinkers, I've heard more than my share of drinking stories from the 70s, 80s and 90s.

It's also interesting to note that Aas Olsen argues the drinking was heaviest during "the golden age" in the 70s and 80s. This has spurred at least one commenter to argue it's the other way around, "moderate drinking" can only benefit journalism, and that journalists today have become incredibly boring from not drinking (link in Norwegian).

Which leads me to this amazing quote in today's Journalisten (equivalent of NUJ's The Journalist and one of my former employers. The article is not online yet) by Dagbladet commentator Gudleiv Forr:

"He [Aas Olsen] seems to argue that the drinking was heaviest during the golden age in the 1970s and 80s. I think the drinking is just as steady today. But we drank Upper Ten, which made us a lot more creative than what they become from alcohol today as they mostly drink wine and beer. Whisky is best for editorial inventiveness."

Wanted: multimedia journalist with a knack for selling ads and sponsorships

Internet start-ups are challenging the traditional separation between advertising and editorial, between fundraising and content production, in ways big media companies could never have gotten away with.

Still, in the face of the media industry's financial conundrum, is this wall about to come down? Should it?

'If journalists had to fundraise in the same way as NGOs, wouldn't that also make them more accountable to their readers?,' asked Astrid Schmeltzer Dybkjaer recently in an op-ed on Information.dk (via Journalisten.dk).

The old way broke, what now?

As inspiration, she cited how the folks behind the podcast This American Life, who are actively soliciting listeners for donations, goes about financing their work. Among internet start-ups this, and other "new" ways of raising money, are not so unusual, but will we eventually see mainstream media in desperation adopt such fundraising methods as well? Could they possibly do so without losing their credibility? Or could it be that they actually don't have any credibility to loose in this respect?

"To all those saying 'sorry I'm just a journalist, I don't sell advertising' I say: tough: that's the way it is now. We tried it the other way and it broke," said former Birmingham Post editor Marc Reeves in his keynote to Journalism.co.uk's excellent Newsrewired-event late June. Reeves, who is currently the editor of internet start-up BusinessDesk.com West Midlands, went on to say:

"That artificial divide we created when we put the noisy people in a room marked 'advertising' and the studious types in another labelled 'editorial' was the biggest mistake newspapers and other media ever made. It allowed journalists to insulate themselves from the business they were in to the point of revelling in their detachment. I've worked with generations of hacks to whom the very idea of passing on a sales lead was regarded as a murderous betrayal of the memory of CP Scott. No wonder so many didn't see the meltdown coming.

"And to those who say: "I can't sell advertising", I ask how many death knocks have you done? Exactly, so don't tell me you can't sell a little ad space."

His keynote received standing ovations. It was indeed a very interesting talk, well delivered - do read it in full here if you haven't already - but I was reminded of Mecom-boss David Montgomery telling the Norwegian Journalist union (NJ) that all journalists are salesmen back in 2007, and I can promise you it was far from well received. Here's an excerpt of my transcript from the latter event:

Newspapers to sell lingerie and wine

Montgomery: "I'm here because I think journalists will have to change. The old fashioned model of print cannot sustain itself... If we don't change radically, and I do mean radically, it will be bad for print, bad for democracy, bad across the board."

The guy moderating the debate (I think this might have been IJ's Gunnar Bodahl Johansen) quotes Mecom's preliminary results which states that Mecom will use proven UK techniques to improve its business. He asks Montgomery which techniques this refers to, to which Montgomery answers "partly marketing techniques" and talks of the importance of convergence. The moderator then says that another technique might be mixing journalism with commercial endeavours. He says there is much concern in Norway that Mecom will force its newspapers to do so, and highlights how Montgomery has proposed that newspapers will sell commercial products like books, wine, lingerie and DVDs.

Montgomery: "We have to have deeper and wider relationship with our readers. One person, one paper is not a good business model for us. In Drammen we have introduced a ticket service, which enriches the service for the community."

Montgomery: "journalists are salesmen"

Ann Margit Austenå (NJ-leader at the time): "Montgomery likes to present himself as a journalist and a publisher, but I see him mainly as a salesman. Mixing commercial and editorial operations will diminish the credibility of the product. A journalist wouldn't do that, but a salesman would.

Montgomery: "Thanks for the compliment. I'm not at all shy about being called a salesman, Every journalist is a salesperson: to convey information, to sell information to the public – it is a special skill. If you're not a salesman in journalism, then what are you?

Ann Margit Austenå vehemently denied that journalists saw themselves that way and the debate went on along similar lines. So Norwegian union representatives definitely do not see themselves as salespeople, and I doubt that will have changed much since this debate took place. In fact, if you get more than 50 per cent of your income from other things than journalism, such as PR and marketing, you are not eligible to be a member of the Norwegian Journalist Union and there have been cases where people who wanted a union membership have been rejected because their job had commercial and/or PR tasks assigned to it.

Also, the code of conduct Norwegian media has agreed to uphold asks that members of the press reject any attempt to tear down the wall between advertising and editorial.

Start-ups vs. media conglomerates

Ethical codes aside, I can't really see journalists of any stripes embrace fundraising or advertisement sales as part of their jobs, or am I overlooking something?

As someone who's co-founded three fully or partly advertisement-funded publications in my student days I've done my share of selling ads, negotiating deals with printers and most other tasks connected to publishing, but being start-ups we didn't have much choice in the matter. We simply didn't have enough hands to afford to be picky about which tasks we would like to do or not.

That said, we didn't write about our advertisers either, but, at least at two of those publications, I don't think we gave much thought to any potential ethical dilemmas of selling ads and writing articles for the same magazines. It is perhaps unjust of me to compare student publications with "proper" start-ups, but I think being a start-up puts you in a unique position - and multi-tasking in this way is just a matter of necessity.

Start-ups can get away with this, and even be praised for it, but would be an entirely different matter if say News Corp or Mecom would start requiring its journalists to sell ads or sponsorship. Can't you just picture the outrage?

Serving the niche

Of course, so far I've not addressed Reeves' thoughts on serving a niche, which are key to his argument. In his words:

"If serving a niche, you have to abandon the old editorial - advertising divisions of traditional media. You've got to understand and relate to your audience in totality because it's more likely that your reader and your advertiser is one and the same person. That's the nature of a niche - it's a concentration down on to a specific interest, whether it's a hobby, a business interest or a tiny geographical area."

In his keynote, Reeves argued that building relationships with the community you serve is absolutely crucial when serving a niche as BusinessDesk.com does. That, of course, is an argument you could easily extend to a company like Mecom, at least in Norway where it owns a large group of regional and local newspapers in addition to a number of specialist websites.

Mecom's approach has been to centralise advertisement sales, an approach I've often heard Mecom journalists at smaller local titles express concern about as they fear it will estrange local advertisers such as the local plumber or mechanic.

Hyper local journalist-photographer cum ad salesman

I remember Rick Waghorn, the former journalist turned journalism entrepreneur, argued that when media pundit Roy Greenslade took up his role as a hyper local blogger for The Brighton Argus he should also have secured an ad from the newsagent he wrote his first post about.

"...if Roy had been empowered to walk out of that door with not only his first hyper-local news story in the bag and a picture on his Mrs’ mobile, but also his first hyper-local advertiser sorted for a fiver a week, then I think we all might be slightly richer for the experience...And, yes, it might only have been a tiny step in the right direction... But it would still be one, tiny step towards our ultimate goal of delivering a sustainable hyper-local news platform for the people of this country," he wrote.

Now, transfer that to Argus-owner Newsquest, or to Mecom or News Corp for that matter: it's just not going to happen, is it? The journalist union wouldn't allow it for one, and in many countries it would be able to block any such attempts.

So in mainstream news organizations we're seeing the traditional separation between advertisement and editorial being challenged in different, more subtle, ways instead.

A Porous Wall

In an article entitled "A Porous Wall" in American Journalism Review last year Natalie Pompilio asked if credibility takes a hit when news organizations, in their struggle to survive, blur the line between editorial and advertising.

Among other sources, she quoted Skip Foster, "a former editor and now publisher of the Star in Shelby, North Carolina" who said "a different game is afoot when marketing and advertising decisions directly affect the number of newsroom bodies left to cover the news.

"If somebody comes to us willing to pay the premium rate to do something that doesn't fit into my initial set of standards, I'll listen," he said. "We're not going to do anything that's masquerading as news, but the rest is gray."

The article is worth reading in full and describes a number of "missteps" by big newspapers which did indeed blur, if not distort, the lines between advertising and editorial. It concludes with a quote on 'ethics or not, it's all about survival'.

Desperate people make desperate choices

Personally I think that is looking at the media industry's financial conundrum from a self-defeating perspective. Desperate people, and companies – which we often forget are made up by people – make desperate choices. With all the choice out there today, of course people will be turned off by news sites so cluttered with advertisement that it's almost impossible to read the actual content; with media organisations trying to deceive their readers or asking them to pay to read something which doesn't serve their needs or interests.

Too often media organisations think about business models from the premise that their current conundrum is down to their readers (or their advertisers) not their own products: It's all somebody or something else's fault.

I think it is more a matter of rebuilding trust. And here we come back to credibility of course, another issue I haven't addressed much so far in this post. To be honest I don't think the media has that much credibility to lose. Certainly, as someone who's had stints working both as a citizen journalism editor and a moderator, my experience, as I noted in this post, is that the people we are supposed to serve, our readers, rarely see us as objective or think we have no political or business ties:

It's all about trust

"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."

I'm reminded of JP Rangaswami's old but excellent post on how it's all about trust (which I blogged about here):

"Trust used to be something that bound small groups together. Over time we tried to scale trust. It didn’t scale. And what happened instead was Big Everything. In an Assembly-Line meets Broadcast world. Big Everything broke trust. Big Media lied. Big Content Producer reduced our choices. Big Pipe and Big Device reduced it further. Big Firm wrongsized away. And Big Government did what it liked.

"Now, with the web and with communities and with social software and with the inheritance of Moore and Metcalfe, we’ve had a chance to rebuild trust. And we’re rebuilding trust. Slowly. Putting the shattered pieces together. Disaggregation, to be followed by reaggregation over time..." (do check out the full post)

I think the question is more one of how we can use all the new tools the web offers to rebuild that trust most effectively, which again comes down to actually serving our readers who, for the niche publication, may also be our advertisers. It gets complicated. Or does it? Haven't journalists always been forced to make difficult editorial and ethical choices every day? But let's at least start to be transparent about these choices, I think that's a good, and much overdue, start...