I’m indebted to Jon Slattery for inducing a bout of nostalgia in his mention of the 1950s board game, Scoop, which he found in a Camden charity shop.

My grandmother had the same game, and seeing Jon’s photos of the box and the “editor’s phone” – a quasi-random device that determined the outcome of your attempts to fill your front page. Pulling a handle back and forth would move a circular dial with a number of options, one of which would be the editor’s decision regarding your story. It had the sort of tactile, role-playing greatness that merely rolling a die could never achieve. The whole post brings back happy memories of playing the game, kneeled around the coffee table in the front room on many a wet and dreary Doncaster day.

On the subject of newspapers and telephones, I’ve been reading Phone Hacking: How the Guardian Broke the Story, an ebook from The Guardian for the Kindle (and Kindle apps on your iPhone or iPad, etc.). The newspaper doggedly pursued the story when others wouldn’t touch it – at one point in 2009, Rebekah Brooks (former News of the World editor and, until recently, CEO of News International’s UK operation) said:

It [the Guardian] is rushing out high volumes of coverage and repeating allegations by such sources as unnamed Met officers implying that ‘thousands’ of individuals were the object of illegal phone hacking, an assertion that is roundly contradicted by the Met assistant commissioner’s [John Yates’s] statement yesterday.

The Guardian coverage, we believe, has substantially and likely deliberately misled the British public.

Two years later, we found out that the Guardian’s coverage was spot on.

The ebook splits the developing story into a number of chronological chapters, each starting with a brief timeline before reprinting the news articles covering the unfolding story. It’s a good reminder of how the evidence against NI started piling up, until the possibility that murdered teenager Milly Dowler’s voicemail had been hacked up caused the story to blow up so spectacularly and the media who had previously ignored the issue.

True, the book is basically just repackaging articles which can be read for free on the Guardian’s website, but the linear format of a book makes for more pleasant reading than jumping from web page to web page. And you can read it on the tube…

The book is the first in a planned series of Guardian Shorts, topical ebooks which provide background for current news stories. By sidestepping the traditional print route, existing content can be repurposed – and charged for – cheaply (the phone hacking book costs just £2.29 for the Kindle, and will presumably be a similar price when it makes its way to Apple’s iBooks store). There’s also a speed issue: the paper can publish a book electronically months before a bound paperback can hit the shelves. In comparison, Guardian journalist Nick Davies’ own book on the saga won’t be published until autumn 2012.

The most annoying thing about the book is that it shows up just how awful the typographical defaults of Amazon’s Kindle iOS app are. I don’t know how much freedom Amazon’s implementation of the ePub format allows designers, but both this Kindle book and others I’ve purchased make me yearn for a well-designed page. Apple’s defaults within its iBooks reader do look nicer. Still, I’ve yet to find any ebook which is as well-designed, or comfortable to read, as a paperback that’s been typeset by someone who knows what they’re doing.

Dave Lee: Twitter is not a news service

Twitter never lets accuracy and truth get in the way of passing on a line that is guaranteed a few retweets, followed by an irrelevant post on Mashable.

Dave Lee rants (in a good way) about people taking Twitter as a serious source of news. It’s not – it’s more akin to pub conversation, the sort that allows old wive’s tales and silly lies to propagate.

“A necessary outbreak of journalistic self-loathing”

Journalism may be the fourth estate and have a function in a proper democratic society but I don’t think I’m sharing any secrets when I say that there is nothing democratic about the way a newsroom, or a newspaper, works. The editor is always right, even when you suspect he’s actually wrong. This is because he can fire you – and may well if you whinge in such a way that it gets back to him. It’s like most other jobs, but more so.

So newspapers are an industry full of people who joined it because they were interested in questioning authority, but who have found that in order to be able to do so in the wider world they have to learn to keep a lid on it in the office.

Emma Hartley, in one of the best responses to the phone hacking scandal I’ve yet read.

What should replace the PCC?

A couple of months ago, I booked a one-day media law course for myself and some of The Stage‘s columnists, courtesy of the PPA. I hadn’t imagined that the training would take place at a time when journalistic ethics and issue of legality in the media is at the forefront of the nation’s headlines.

The disgraceful actions of some people at News International – and the ongoing disputes about who knew what when, who lied to which investigating authority and just what it was about multi-billionaire Rupert Murdoch that attracted Wendi Deng – has already cost one newspaper, a number of chief executives and two of the Metropolitan Police Service’s most senior officers. It’s not inconceivable that further resignations, and criminal prosecutions, will follow.

The role of the Press Complaints Commission has been called into question here, especially after its initial enquiry found nothing amiss at News International, a result of the company withholding evidence.

It seems inevitable that the PCC will be replaced, following the Government’s wide-ranging public inquiry into phone hacking in particular and the press in general. But what would replace it?

Continue reading “What should replace the PCC?”

Jon Stewart’s embarrassment of credibility

I’ve previously expressed my admiration of The Daily Show with Jon Stewart – so much so that, when Channel 4 announced that it would no longer show the satirical comedy show on its digital channel More4, I subscribed to receive episodes via iTunes.

What has always impressed is how he is willing to defend himself from the attacks that come at him, predominantly from the right wing of the US media – because that’s where he finds most of his material.

This weekend, he appeared on Fox News Sunday with Chris Wallace, fulfilling an agreement they made when Wallace was on the Daily Show. He starts off amused, then bemused, at some points seems to get angry, all the while making Wallace’s position seem all the more sneering and smug.

The killer quote for me:

The embarrassment is that I’m given credibility in this world because of the disappointment that the public has in what the news media does.

He also raises the point that a University of Maryland study found that Fox News viewers were more likely to be consisently misinformed than consumers of other news media.

The interview in full:

This isn’t journalism, it’s photocopying

This post started off as a rant against people using deliberately inaccurate headlines on blogs as a means of driving traffic from Twitter, Google News and the like, which I was going to call Headline writers kill kittens. Somewhere along the way, I became angrier about the vapidity of the sort of websites that I was talking about.

As with all good rants, it’s moderately unfocussed. Bear with me.

Got a news story on your blog? Is it about a reality TV show?

Does it contain no original journalism at all, instead relying purely on a vague rewrite of a story previously included in a tabloid newspaper/website that most likely relies on anonymous sources?

Are you worried that, amidst all the online chatter about said TV show, your website may get overlooked?

Don’t worry. Why not misrepresent your story in its headline to encourage people to click on it and visit your website?

Case 1: Cher Lloyd’s ‘collapse’

As pointed out by my friend @JasonArnopp on Monday, Digital Spy ran a story on Monday about X Factor contestant Cher Lloyd. Under the headline Cher ‘collapses after X Factor results’, the story continued:

Cher Lloyd was apparently close to collapse after Sunday night’s X Factor results show.

So – collapsed, or close to collapse? More importantly – actually, or apparently?

(The story itself has since disappeared from the Digital Spy website, but is for now at least still available in Google’s web cache).

As Jason pointed out, at least Digital Spy acknowledged the source of its story – the Daily Star. Which does at least ensure that the chances of its being true are minimal to say the least. Other blogs repeated the story without saying where they got it from. Did they crib it from the Star, or get it via DS? Without any acknowledgement, it’s hard to say.

Case in point 2: Christine Bleakley ‘to replace’ Dermot

Over on reality TV blog Unreality TV, October 11 saw a story cribbed (with acknowledgement) from the Mirror.

Christine Bleakley will reportedly replace Dermot O’Leary on the X Factor, if he leaves to present the American version of the show.

Even in the first sentence of the story there are several conditionals in there. If Dermot presents the US version of the X Factor, due to start in 2011, and if that means he will leave the UK show, Bleakley will reportedly be in line to replace him.

But when first published, the headline to the story was Christine Bleakley to replace Dermot O’Leary on the X Factor. It has since been retitled to more properly reflect the speculation by the anonymous sources that the Mirror cited, but you can deduce the original headline from the keywords in the blog post’s URL. Curiously, that blog post does not reference a story on the same blog from July, which still states that Bleakley will take over from O’Leary [my emphasis], this time lifted from the Daily Mail. Nor does it mention a post from September which suggested that she would be taking over the ITV2 magazine show The Xtra Factor — possibly because, as the show is now presented by Konnie Huq, it would show that the blog’s technique of cut-and-paste copying of stories from tabloids is not exactly reliable.

Let’s be clear, blogs like this are hardly the originators of such a technique. Tabloid newspapers have been lifting stories from each other (sometimes with attribution, sometimes without) for decades. It’s not just the tabloids, either — Tim Walker’s Mandrake column for the Daily Telegraph has, on numerous occasions, lifted either quotes or full stories from The Stage without attribution.

Likewise, the red tops are just as likely to misrepresent a mild story with a sensationalist headline. But just because it’s an ingrained problem doesn’t make it right.

If you want your blog to be an aggregator for news and gossip around reality TV shows, at least do it responsibly.

  • Don’t present other people’s news stories as if they’re yours.
  • Link to your source, adding your own commentary if you think it warrants it.
  • Don’t write sensationalist headlines that you think will generate great clicks when they appear on Twitter, or ‘make great SEO’, if they then misrepresent the story.

If you’re going to go down this road, I think Loulabelle44’s Strictly Come Blogging website does it right. Everything’s attributed, quoted and linked, and it’s clear when she is adding her own comments. There’s no intent to deceive.

But then, nor is her blog attempting to make money out of her passion for her favourite series. Maybe that’s the difference?

Well done, Joe. Go, Clare. Naff off, AA Gill

Two stories about gay people in the media have made the front pages of the national newspapers today – and demonstrate generational differences in writers’ (and editors’ and readers’) attitudes to out gay people.

The first revolved around BBC presenter Clare Balding, who via her Twitter account (@clarebalding1) has been documenting her correspondence with the Sunday Times over some particularly puerile comments by its television critic, AA Gill, and editor John Witherow’s condescending reply to her objections.

Continue reading “Well done, Joe. Go, Clare. Naff off, AA Gill”

Can the NY Times grab the best of both paywall worlds?

Yesterday’s post about whether people will continue to share links with their friends if content is behind a paywall was appositely timed, as it turns out: the two new websites for The Times and The Sunday Times are now live. To access any further than the front page, you must register (and, from next month, pay).

Visually the sites look good, despite the occasional teething trouble: I’ve been assured by the Times’ assistant editor, @TomWhitwell, that the eye-crunchingly tight leading of the body copy is being addressed. But neither the visual look, nor such other ‘enhancements’ such as requiring all commenters to post under their real names, will get round the problem of people being unwilling to share links with their friends if that means asking their friends to pay.

After I wrote yesterday’s post, the BBC’s technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones (@BBCRoryCJ/@ruskin147) wrote his own blog post making some similar points, including reference to both Caitlin Moran’s Lady Gaga interview and the twitterings of political columnist Daniel Finkelstein.

Over in the US, the New York Times has, in the past, experimented with putting its OpEd coverage behind an all-or-nothing paywall. The TimesSelect program, as it was called, was far from a financial success, but also faced opposition from its contributors, who found themselves being shut out of a wider conversation. Those factors helped lead to a dismantling of the paywall, and OpEd coverage being returned to the open web.

According to Cellan-Jones, Finkelstein is not worried about that side of things:

I asked Danny Finkelstein whether it bothered him that from now on none of his journalism would “go viral”, with the risk that he’d be left invisible on the sidelines as the online debate raged through news sites without paywalls. “No,” he insisted,”I want my employer to be paid for my intellectual property.”

The NYT will shortly embark on a paywall system once again, but one that seeks to acknowledge the value in allowing its readers to engage with content through their social media links. At All Things Digital, Peter Kafka writes:

…the Times is building a “metered model” where visitors to the site can read a certain number of articles per month for free. That’s designed to keep attracting the casual, drive-by readers that make a up a large chunk of most sites’ traffic. Even better: Bloggy links to the site won’t count against readers’ limits.

So says Times spokeswoman Stacy Green, in response to an email query I sent her yesterday:

Once the pay model is implemented next year, the majority of our readers will be unaffected when using the site and will continue to have the same experience they have always had. Readers will only be prompted to pay after reaching a certain reading limit. The pay model will be designed so readers that are referred from third party sites such as blogs will be able to access that content without hitting their limit, enabling to continue being a part of the open web. We have not yet set the reading limit and we will communicate that once we have made the decision.

It seems to me that, if reader payments are ever going to work on the web, the New York Times’ approach is more likely to succeed than the [London] Times’ is. Given the animosity between Rupert Murdoch and the Sulzberger family, who own the NYT, there’d be an extra level of irony available if that did turn out to be the case.

Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls

On Saturday, Times columnist Caitlin Moran (@caitlinmoran) tweeted that:

I’m not being funny, but you really won’t ever read a better interview with Lady Gaga than mine

And it’s true. The interview in question is, quite frankly, one of the best pieces I’ve ever read. I said as much on Twitter and, according to the statistics provided by link-shortening service, my tweet contributed (at the last count) a paltry 113 clickthroughs to the total of 57,595 that have currently been recorded by that service.

By any measure 60,000 page impressions is a phenomenal amount of readership coming to the Times website that would not otherwise have done so. The actual number of links distributed from person to person is likely to have been even higher, as many Twitter and Facebook users use other third-party link shorteners or share the link in full.

Next month, of course, both the Times and its Sunday stablemate will go behind content paywalls. To view even one article on the website, you will have to pay either £1 for access to the whole site for 24 hours, or £2 for access for a week. For practical purposes that means that articles such as this will become much, much harder to gain any sort of traction in the wider field.

Continue reading “Caitlin, Gaga and paywalls”

Dixon: Cut too much, and you won’t sell anything

Breakingviews founder Mike Dixon, speaking to Chris Tryhorn in [The Guardian]( _(via [Press Gazette](

> The temptation if you’ve got to cut costs by 5 per cent is just to salami slice and everyone works a bit harder and quality just deteriorates a little bit more. What you end up with when you finally decide to put it behind a paywall is something that’s not good enough to persuade people to pay for.
> Media groups have got to focus much more clearly on what is their unique selling point – keep the investment there, possibly increase the investment there, and everything else, which may be necessary as part of a package, because a newspaper is a package, they don’t have to produce themselves, they can buy that in.

I’m not convinced by anybody’s arguments that paywalls are a viable way to make internet services pay, particularly if current qualities are anything to go by. Once you lock away your newspaper content from a public gaze, you then have to devote much more energy and resources into marketing that content in order to gain conversions to digital subscribers — and that will likely eat up most, if not all, of any revenues which a paywall may generate.

Concentrating on a USP is far more likely to generate increased returns.