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 (via

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's excellent Newsrewired-event late June. Reeves, who is currently the editor of internet start-up 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 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...

Why on earth would young people want to become journalists?

Award-winning blogger-journalist Dorte Toft ponders why young Danes queue up to get into journalism school on this week (via

"I can't recommend anyone today to train as a journalist unless it's such a burning desire that it would break your heart if you do not undertake such training. I would rather suggest you specialise in a subject and, when your get experienced in this field, use it to break into a writing career. That would also enhance your ability to make sense of our increasingly complex society," she writes in a blog post headlined "Young people WANT to become journalists. I wish they'd become something more useful" (freely translated from Danish by me). Toft herself started out as a programmer and turned to journalism later in life.

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

A haven for press freedom on Iceland?

It's great to learn that the Icelandic Modern Media Initiavtive has passed parliament, but I have my doubts that this actually will create a haven for freedom of speech and investigative reporting.

The reason? I've covered both libel tourism and Icelandic media closely for several years, and remain unconvinced that the new Icelandic legislation will remove the challenges in these two areas over night -  but, as I said the last time wrote about this, I'd love nothing better than to be proved wrong.

See also:

Update 20/6-10: see also my media column this week (in Norwegian)
Photo by me from my December 2008 reporting trip to Rekjavik, more on Flickr.

On Lorites and Long Tails

Do you ever get the feeling that your caught up in a discussion you've been having too many times before?

That weird feeling when you find yourselves talking about (media) issues you thought were resolved many years back, or arguments you thought had been put to rest ages ago?

It's often an awkward position to be in when you feel you really should point out that we had this discussion in 2001, 2005, 2007 or ... (insert year) and arrived at those and those conclusions to the arguments someone is bringing forth now.

Sometimes of course, you're only to happy to steer the debate in a more interesting direction by doing so, though other times, when these issues are being discussed anew in full earnest and with much passion, it really does make you feel like a Lorite.

See, I just found a new term for this when I read Neil Stephenson's "Anathem" recently. It's a rather complex book - interesting, very Stephensonesque but not my favourite Stephenson book - which I reviewed briefly on Facebook, but I was taken by the role Lorites play:

Lorite: A member of an order founded by Saunt Lora, who believed that all ideas that the human mind was capable of coming up with had already come up with. Lorites are, therefore, historians of thought who assist other avout in their work by making them aware of others who have thought similar things in the past, and thereby preventing them from reeinventing the wheel.

That's a rather useful role to play, but, even though I've actually studied the history of ideas, I can't for the life of me remember which philosophical direction Lorites alludes to (though I did spot lots of Plato, Spinoza, Heidegger, Kant etc in the book). Come to think of it, it can often be very useful to keep in mind the history of science, of ideas, of printing etc when contemplating today's debates on media and technology - there are many universal, reocurring themes - but why I associated Lorites withe Long tails when I first started writing this post (probably a few months or so back) evades me right now...

iPhone key in #Flotilla hostage scoop

Or perhaps we should say iPhone aided old-fashioned journalistic shrewdness, research and determination?

Resume (in Swedish) carries the story of how Niklas Svensson landed the first interview with Swedish author Henning Mankell, an interview that was mentioned on international networks such as BBC and Al-Jazeera, after he was released from Israeli custody. Svensson, a reporter with Swedish tabloid Expressen, flew down to Tel Aviv to try to get on the same flight as Mankell out of Israel.

After several hours of legwork at the airport he was able to identify, and secure a seat on, the same flight as Mankell. The minute the famous author got on board, Svensson leaped up to him, obtained permission to snap a photo with his iPhone and immediately sent it to his news desk back home. Once the airplane was in the air, and the seatbelt sign was switched off, he went up to Mankell and did a video interview with him using his iPhone and a tape recorder.

He then got out his laptop, typed it all up, and emailed a print and web version of the interview when switching planes in Munich. Svensson talks of his incredible luck in being the only journalist on the flight, but he is commended in the comment section for delivering a kind of journalism, going out there to get the story come hell or high water, one commenter in particular says he thought had become extinct.

(I stumbled across a link to this story via a blog post on a Swedish iPhone blog, iPhone 24, which for some reason showed up in my permanent Icerocket search on Norwegian media group Schibsted).

A new, revolutionary idea for our industry

It’s simple, logical, some would say plain obvious. Then why is it so hard to implement in reality?

While listening to an inspiring talk by Juan Señor at the Oxford Tablet Summit Tuesday, I was struck by what he said on how we need to move from Facebook journalism to face to face journalism. Now I don’t think those are mutually exclusive categories. I think Facebook journalism can be a great addition to face to face journalism, but I think it’s a sad testament to our industry when we need to be reminded of the value in talking to sources face to face.

Thing is, if you’re an online journalist it is often very hard, sometimes impossible, to find time to talk to sources face to face, or go out looking for new sources in real life, during your work day. The day-to-day production pressure is simply too high, and newsrooms are often staffed in such a way that it seriously impacts the volume of output if just one person were to use the day to go see people face to face.

The best journalists I know solve this problem by meeting up with sources after work. That journalism requires this kind of commitment from its practitioners is certainly nothing new, but this desk-bound day-to-day grind with emphasise on volume rather than quality does of course impact the value of the output.

It’s also paradoxical that so many online journalists lead such a desk-bound existence when considering how easy new technology has made it to work from wherever you happen to be. I recently organised an event for Norwegian Online News Association (NONA) where three online journalists talked about how to work effectively in the field with as light-weight equipment as possible.

They all felt a laptop, an iPhone and a camera like Canon50D was sufficient to report effectively from the field, be it a technology conference or a war zone - though one added that a bullet proof west was also useful for the latter situation and another said that Jaffa tape had turned out invaluable when setting up equipment for live coverage from a trial in Congo.

In either case: we have all the technology we need to be on the move constantly and file stories from anywhere we happen to be, and yet most news sites only occasionally allow their reporters to do this because in most cases it still affects the volume of output negatively even if it does improve the quality of the output. Is it any wonder our industry is in such a mess?

Norwegian government and travel industry launch (

About a week after the ash cloud from Eyjafallajökull started wrecking havoc to airtravel all over Europe, The Federation of Norwegian Commercial and Service Enterprises (HSH) has launched ( in collaboration with the Norwegan foreign department.

Unveiled yesterday evening, the new website is almost identical to Schibsted-owned's Haikesentralen (Hitchhiker's Central) - dubbed a "mini craigs list" by Jeff Jarvis - but enables professional tour operators, mostly coach companies, to advertise their routes in Norway and Europe for free. The site will only be up during times of emergency such as the one we're experiencing now.

It's a useful site. It would have been much easier if I could have found a coach company with a direct route to England and seats still available when trainer Colin Meek got stranded in Oslo last weekend than organising a private car via Haikesentralen. But isn't this too little, no routes I could have used are currently advertised there, and much too late?

I once worked as a PR for a government-owned destination marketeer so I understand why such collaborative measures take time to organise and get up and running. But this kind of institutional inertia is exactly what makes governments and big companies appear slow, incompetent and often irrelevant in today's media landscape, and that goes for many media companies too.

As Jarvis says: "What’s failing us, all in all, is our power structures, which aren’t built to think big and fast at the same time." 

Thing is, more and more of us have become accustomed to turning to our online networks when we need help or get stuck. Most of the time someone in those networks will respond instantly, or at least within the day. It will certainly not take a week before our calls for help are answered. The beauty of this is that the online tools we use to build such networks are there for governments and companies to exploit as well, and yet, almost eleven years after the blog went mainstream, too few governements and travel companies have fully done so.

As mentioned in my column this week (in Norwegian) several airline companies, such as KLM (in English), Norwegian, SAS, did make an effort to keep their passengers informed via Facebook and Twitter, and many passengers shared information that could benefit their fellow travellers here too. But it's a half-way house at best.

These tools and sites are so easy to use that there really is no excuse: one of my favourite places for travel updates during the ash cloud crisis was this Coveritlive bloog by Tnooz, which is nothing but an aggregation of travel related Twitter and newsfeeds and requires no techical know-how to set up.

However, whether we call it the internet age, age of social media, web 2.0 or what have you, the age we live in today requires a different way of thinking than when monopolithic media controlled most publishing platforms. When writing my column this week I was reminded of something Adam Tinworth once told me about how we need to move from seeing journalism as a product to seeing it as a service (in Norwegian). It would seem a bit strange, though not entirely out of sync with my own experiences, but perhaps that goes for the travel industry too?

On makers and managers and how to manage your time better

I just found a key insight into how to manage my time better. The funny thing is that I've been adapting my schedule to these recommendations for a few years already while only operating on an inkling, a sense of how compartmentalisation might be key to balancing the many different aspects of what I do for a living.

Thing is, both in my personality and in the jobs I do there is a kind of dichotomy: I'm both a thinker and someone who gets things done, both introvert and extrovert, both a columnist and a fixer - and switching between those two modus operandi can be difficult. I wish there was some magical button I could press, but I've yet to find it (though in its absence, I've found that deadlines tend to do the trick).

This is why something really clicked into place for me when I read this article by Paul Graham on Manager's Schedule and Maker's Schedule which Adriana recommended to me recently. Tiffani Jones, a webwriter, describes the difference between the two schedules well:

Manager types are accustomed to a certain way of working. They respond quickly to emails, crisply prioritize (and eviscerate) their inboxes, plan meetings, and generally just get stuff done. Heap a pile of tasks in front of them, and they will energetically destroy that heap, come hell or high water. This describes me in my natural working state.

Things change, though, when it’s time to get creative. When writing, I need to sit for long, uninterrupted periods and think things through. I need freedom for my mind to wander toward new & better ways of phrasing a particular sentence. And I need to actually relish in the creative process, or my work will come out all crappy.

The problem is, switching from “manager” to “creative worker” can make a person crazy. If you don’t play your cards right, you end up in a scary ADD shitstorm, marooned between your inbox, Twitter, and a blank page. Ugh.

She also offers some good tips on how to manage this, do check out her full post here. The funny thing is, when I was in PR I used to get up at 4-5am to get some uninterrupted blogging time before the phone started ringing at 9am. Even when I worked as an inhouse journalist I often got up that early to get some quiet time to sift through my RSS-feeds, reflect and blog before I got into work. But now that I'm full-time self-employed I've not been by far as efficient in dividing my schedule into "writing time" and "fixing time" - and when I don't do this it leads to procastrination, general inefficiency and frustration.

It's all the more pertinent for me now that I divide my time between working as a media commentator (the creator role), journalist (can be both roles depending on the assignment) and being the head of The Norwegian Online News Association (def. a manager's role). Only last week I was working as a fixer for BBC, which resulted in this report from Norway, and I Iove that stuff.

But I also love trying to figure out, and put words to, what moves the world and what makes people tick: I live in the tension between those two states of mind and would get frustrated if I didn't find an outlet for both these sides - so I will take Paul Graham's thoughts and Tiffani Jones' advice on this to heart and start planning my weeks better. Now for some writing time...

News:rewired: some of my favourite quotes

Or why SEO+Journalism=Britney Spears, deskbound journalism=bad business strategy and the most successful media companies out there are just digging their graves slower than the rest.

I had a great time at’s news:rewired last Thursday, but since there was so much excellent live coverage of the event and I’ve been busy since catching up with friends, deadlines and travel, I thought I’d just mention some of my favourite quotes here for now.

First in the session on social media for journalists, excellently moderated by Kate Day, these gems on Journalists and SEO:

Maria Bettio, search content producer at The Times, talked about how to explain search engine optimalisation (SEO) and the importance of headlines to journalists. She told the audience that when she tried to explain SEO to journalists she often found all of them just trying to insert "Britney Spears" into their headlines (!).

That interesting, and very plausible explanation of what journalists associate with SEO was only topped by a question from someone in the audience on how he could make SEO work so that Google would only send him the niche audience he wanted for his site, in this case executives with fat pay checks, not "all the regular Joes" out there....

From the last session on‘New journalism, new business models: how can journalism support itself online?’:

Chaining your journalists to their desks is simply not good for business: Ben Heald, CEO of SiftMedia:  "All of our reporters are on Twitter and out and about in the community, I don’t like to see them in the office. I’m going to drive more money from my community if my reporters are known to my target audience, have been to their trade conferences, have interviewed them etc."

Change or die: Greg Hadfield, until recently head of digital media at The Telegraph, hit a nerve with some of his closing remarks, and his announcement he was leaving The Telegraph spurred many headlines. Reading the comments in the comment section on this post I’m open to how it could also have been a collection of well-picked sound bites. Still, even if that should be the case, there’s both truth and food for thought in much of this:

"There is not a dichotomy between being a journalist and being an entrepreneur, the future is small, not big media… You cannot be a good journalist now without being an entrepreneur. Journalists have to remember their connectedness to a society. That they are part of a wider network" (Adam has more on this bit).

Hadfield talked about writing a book on "digging your grave slowly":

"The really successful media companies out there are just digging their graves more slowly... The generation who have to change journalists is sitting in this room. If you don’t change, no matter how slowly you dig your grave it is still going to be your grave...

"I came into journalism to change the world – I mean, my hero is George Orwell – and ended up putting football scores into The Daily Mail. My best work was working at local newspapers,” Hadfield said, adding that he then regularly met the readers he was writing about and serving.

Oh, and I enjoyed Adam’s slideshow from the session on problem fixing I’m sorry I missed, George Brock’s opening remarks and, well, most of the day. I assume we’ll see the ultimate summary of the coverage of the day at eventually, so I think I’ll leave it at that for now…

The funniest news story illustration of 2009

I bet there are lots of contenders for this category that I missed, but, seeing that my summary of the media year gone by has yet to be published, and I didn't touch on this there, here's my favourite:

Why would anyone do this to a horse? Well, the horse in the photo had nothing to do with the story it was used to illustrate, about horse smuggling, so the editor thought it best to make sure nobody recognised the horse in the photo...  Something to chew on for die hard ethicists? Full story in Norweigan here.

The 7hr+ documentary smash hit

About 1.4 million people watched Bergensbanen, a 7hr+ documentary about the 126-year-old rail line, when it was first aired late November. With the re-runs this Christmas, and the option to download it free of charge under a Creative Commons license, I imagine that number will be much higher by now (see Wired's recent story about the documentary here).

For my part, I thought it was a spectacular show, even if it "clocks is at almost 7.5hrs", as Wired put it. There was a lot of buzz on Twitter about it when it first ran, but I only had a chance to see it this Christmas. It is a long trainraide, but it must be one of my favourite trainroutes ever, and it's fascinating to see how much the landscape change from the jagged mountains surrounding Bergen on the Westcoast, travelling over the mountain moorlands of Hardangervidda, so often covered in snow, to the soft rolling hills as you go further east and eventually end up in the citiscape of Oslo. And it's all filmed in HD, which these few shots from my most recent trip on Bergensbanen definently are not. On second thoughts: better go to Wired and download the whole documentary there, my Netbook is so slow now I won't attempt any more uploads than this, which is not really what I planned to upload.


Hyperlocal journalism: live in N1 or N2? Then I'm your journalist

Jay Rosen's tweet about the other day reminded me of this interesting concept from Norwegian local newspaper Budstikka.

The paper is running ads like the one below, telling their readers which journalists to contact if they live in such and such postcode areas. The text of the ad (my hasty translation):

"Even Closer: If you live in postcodes 1380 - 1389, then I'm your journalist - get in touch with me if you have a news tip" (picture and Budstikka story tip via Anders Brenna). UK equivalent would be if you e.g live in N1 or N2 (those are just the first UK postcodes that springs to mind, there's little comparison between North-London and the area where Budstikka is based).

Update 16/12-09 11:20 CET: more on Budstikka here (in English), what the Wikipedia entry doesn't say is that the daily local, part owned by Edda Media, Mecom's Norwegian arm, has a well-deserved reputation for savy editorial innovation, particularly online. I've written more on this for here. I do hope that saying computer programming is journalism is a real no-brainer by now (the article is from April 2008), but the last five paragraphs describes a few of Budstikka's innovative projects using mashups, databases and involving readers to create hyperlocal journalism that was an instant public hit.


Daily newsmagazines and the future of print journalism

Reporting is now a commdity, but journalism isn't - what implications does that have for print?

In the excellent post I mention in the intro, George F. Snell concludes: "If newspapers and magazines want to survive they should focus on journalism and leave the reporting to the web." He draws a sharp distinction between journalism and reporting and argues that the web has made reporting into a commodity (do check out the full post).

I think this is a very useful prism to see the strenghts and weaknesses of print and web through. I don't agree that bloggers can't do journalism though. If we are to use Snell's definitions of journalism and reporting, I think some bloggers at times do better journalism than paid journalists because mainstream media, and especially news sites, focus too much of their resources on reporting (update 10/12: for more on bloggers and journalism, see e.g  my contribution to "Playing Footsie with the FTS?").

But today's overcrowded marketplace and tough financial conditions challenges media organisations to look very closely at how they can add unique value, and Snell offers an excellent prism to see recent print innovations through. 

A few days ago Norwegian tabloid Dagbladet relaunched its Sunday edition in what can best be described as magazine format:


I wasn't too impressed because it read like a smaller and thinner version of the same old Dagbladet. I'll probably still buy it from time to time, weekends being just about the only time of the week I still buy newspapers (that and when I'm travelling and short on laptop battery-time), but I would have been much more impressed if it came out looking something like this:


I must admit I shamelessly nicked this photo of Portugees daily newsmagazine I from Mark Hamilton post about it. This is a post I've been wanting to blog about for some time as Mark offers a really interesting review of "I". It's not so much the format that captures my imagination, though it seems to fit the content well, as the fact that it promises serious journalism that would satisfy Snell's definition - and it is def. something I would consider an attractive buy.

Not every day though. There's no way I could fit a daily newsmagazine into my daily routine, I've got more than enough with keeping up with my hundreds of RSS-feeds during the week, but it would be perfect for the slower pace of the weekend.

Incidentally, the newsmagazine might also be the direction Mecom is considering to take its newspapers in. The company is launching a pilot project in two of its Norwegian regional newspapers where these are to focus on stories rather than channels, and resources are to be divided 50/50 between print and online. The pilot-project is inspired by Danish media company Nordjydske Medier's "fully integrated" multimedia model, and we could see Mecom's pilot newspapers focus more on storytelling and analysis in print and more on news reporting online. It will be interesting to see how it works out...