online publishing

The news flow: Dealing with the fire hose

In the Seventies, Peter Herford, CBS bureau chief in Saigon, used to send his stories the physical way: rolls of 16 mm film, usually shot with an Eclair (a French camera) and sound tapes (recorded on a Swiss Nagra recorder, a jewel of those analog times) were shipped to HongKong, courtesy the US Air Force, and then transfered to a regular US-bound flight, with a stop in Hawaii or Okinawa. “The CBS Evening News was hosted by Walter Cronkite who wanted half of its newscast filled with Vietnam stories”, Herford told me. Hence the daily routine. But once the stories were sent, Herford and his staff had time for reflexion, for working their sources and for thinking about the next stories. No satellite link, no cell phones. “Today, I would be stuck doing live reports all the time.” Hereford is in no way nostalgic about this totally analog era. As he was in Paris for a conference, a couple weeks ago, he was constantly taking pictures with a professional Canon camera. Today, he teaches journalism at the Shantou University in China and still exudes unabated enthusiasm for journalism.

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam (Feb. 1968) -- National Archives

Walter Cronkite in Vietnam (Feb. 1968) -- National Archives

Revisited with today’s journalistic tools, coverage of the Vietnam war would be different, in many ways. Live would be de rigueur.  Think about it. We would have had:
- a TV correspondent doing a standup (or rather a duck-down) right in the midst of the Khe-Sanh siege
- the Tet offensive twittered or live-blogged
- a retired general bashing the “delicate” tactics of carpet-bombing on his blog
- a heavily linked-to chemist-blogger, for his expert depiction of the horrendous effects of Agent Orange, a defoliant spread for ten years over the jungle (400,000 deaths, 500,000 birth defects). We can be sure it would have triggered a national outrage in the US, forcing the Kennedy/Johnson administration to stop
- the My Lay Massacre inevitably leaked, thanks to a disgusted soldier posting a video on YouTube soon after the the fateful day of March 16, 1968. Instead, we had to wait 18 months for a reporter for the Saint-Louis Post Dispatch to break the story; his name was Seymour Hersh, he was to become an iconic investigative reporter, bound to reveal the 2004 Abu Ghraib abuses in Iraq;
- for good measure, North Vietnamese bloggers would give the world a different perspective on the war as, on the other side, US soldiers-bloggers would have lifted the veil on the low morale, drug abuses among the troops, and their acceptance of inevitable defeat;
- in the end, the April 30th, 1975 evacuation of Saigon would have been reported live using citizens and evacuees cell phones and twitters. More

Can Data Revitalize Journalism ?

Get a demo of a Bloomberg terminal. You’ll be is blown away by the depth of available data. Thousands of statistics, historical tables, sources… Everything is available through the proprietary terminal. Bloomberg started by offering a real-time news flow dedicated to the needs of the financial community, traders, analysts, etc. Over the years, the system expanded in two directions. First, remarkable journalistic work grew Bloomberg from a unidimensional newswire into a multi-product company providing breaking news, features stories, in-depth reporting, TV feed, radio, podcasts, even a magazine. The service is encapsulated in a terminal rented for a fixed price (€1800 a month), no discount, no complex pricing structure, just one product, that’s it. (This choice of integrating content into a piece of hardware reminds me of a famous Cupertino-based fruit company). Bundled with the product, you get raw data, lots of it. That’s the other Bloomberg’s gem. The ability to tap into big databases is an essential journalistic tool. It undoubtedly helped Bloomberg to reach its status in the financial information sector. More

The real cost of genuine journalism

Updated with a video on PolitiFact Guide to Fact-checking

The idea for this column came to me last March; I was flying back from Stockholm. Schibsted, the Norwegian media group I work for, had asked me to be part of the jury for its yearly Schibsted Journalism Award. I was both honored and curious to be part of such a delicate process. The group’s publications, in Scandinavia and abroad, submitted entries in several categories: best storytelling, best innovative entry, best scoop. Altogether, 27 entries were compiled in a hefty kit sent by Fedex to each member of the jury; the kit included a couple of binders — facsimile of original pages, translation in English, CDs, memory stick, etc. Serious work. Then, we gathered in Stockholm to select the nominees and the winners.

Of course I’m bound to secrecy, I’m not going to be specific about the discussions.  But I feel an urge to write about the event because I was surprised by the level of journalistic ambition
demonstrated by many of the entries. Among them were several investigative pieces: a bribery scandal in Russia, a huge Bank fraud in Norway, or revelations of a hidden part of Norwegian war history, just to name a few. We were faced with difficult choices — happily.  On my way back to Paris, I thought this was the perfect illustration of how, true, genuine journalism differentiates itself from blogs — even good ones, simply because news organization will invest time and money in the genuine article, so to speak.

To make my point, I’ll just focus on the cost, yes, in euros or dollars, of such journalism. It could sound like a trivial way to assess editorial performance but I believe money remains a much-needed fuel for good journalism. More

The success story of a technology-enhanced media brand

‘A fan of ours wrote an iPhone application, just for the sake of it.’ How many media companies can make such a bragging statement? One does: NPR, the American National Public Radio. Bradley Flubacher, is a professional programmer who moonlights as a volunteer firefighter in a small Pennsylvania town. A few months ago, Brad decided he wanted to learn a new programming language and to develop for the iPhone. Et voilà: NPR Addict, a free app that gives access to thousands of podcasts in a simple and efficient way. The author didn’t make a dime in the process: his app is free. If you want to give a few bucks, he will encourage you to do so directly to a local NPR affiliate. This is what I call a true fan – and a testament to NPR’s place in American culture.

Two thoughts to be drawn from this anecdote. First, the relationship a great media brand such as a Public Radio enjoys with its audience. Second, how such bond can be boosted by a clever use of digital technology.

In France, we praise ourselves as being the champions of public broadcasting. We have many brands around Radio France, great shows, excellent journalistic crews and so on. Brands such as France Inter or the all-news channel France Info appeal to a large audience; others, France Culture being one example, target only small circles and feel themselves totally liberated from vulgar strictures such as attracting large audiences. Fine. More

The Internet Creative Deflation

When LG, the cell phone manufacturer, started work on far-reaching future concepts for handset, it had two choices. The most obvious one was setting up a competition between world-class design firms, getting a stampede and a bidding war as a result, and picking one firm to work on its concept-phones. The Korean electronics giant took another path: crowdsourcing.  LG Mobile Phone teamed-up with CrowdSpring, a marketplace for creative works, to organize a contest, with the following pitch:
“Predict what’s next. What do you think mobile phones should look like in 2, 5, or 10 years? We are asking for your help. We’re NOT looking for a long list of specs or phone ideas that already exist. We’re looking for a cool new concept or “big idea” supported by usage scenario illustrations”. More

Measuring time spent on a web page

How much time is actually spent on websites? New technologies are emerging, starting with time spent on individual pages and drilling down to page segments. Such technologies will lead to improved monetization; they could even spell good news for paid sites.  Here is why.

First, display ads. Banners and other modules still represent  30% to 45%  of the sector (depending on the market). For a brand, display ads remain the best way to actually be seen on a web page, as it is seen in a magazine or in a newspaper. At least in theory. In fact, there are several catches. The first one is the discrepancy between the size of the average computer screen and the length of the average web page. It takes about 5-6 scrolls to get to the bottom of a page. (Some sites require as many as 25-30 scrolls – the gateway to carpal tunnel syndrome.)

Evidently, not all modules get the same amount of viewer attention. As a result, all modules do not hold the same value for the media, nor do they create the same ROI for the advertiser. However, today, ad spaces are sold roughly at the same price, the main variable being the type of page and the editorial context (home page or article page, in a sport, business or politics section of the site).

The second catch is the advertising module’s actual goal: is it supposed to be just seen (Chanel brand awareness, for instance) or clicked-on (win a trip to the Bahamas)? The latter sort, clicked-on, conflicts with the editorial environment. On the one hand, the media (its editors, at least) work hard at making the content compelling, relevant and interesting; therefore, the last thing they want is visitors clicking away and going to the Bahamas vacation site. On the other hand, the advertiser wants editorial context without too much ability to retain attention. In short, so-so content will make visitors more inclined to click on the Bahamas banner. In these conflicting goals lies one of the main problems of internet advertising: a growing number of advertisers want to pay for performance, i.e., when people actually click on the module.

This makes time-measurement relevant. More

The New Papyrus

Once upon a time, in 1986, Bill Gates commissioned a book, The New Papyrus, subtitled: The Current and Future State of the Art. I recall an animated conversation with Bill as we were having dinner on top of Seattle’s Space Needle. He was hard at work promoting the CDI, the interactive CD and pushing Japanese manufacturers to give momentum to the CDI-PC, a personal computer centered around the huge storage capabilities (seven hundred megabytes!) afforded by the new medium. Imagine: an entire encyclopedia would fit on just one CD-ROM. The New Papyrus was the future of paper. And, for a while, I thought Bill was right. I treasured the OED II (The Oxford English Dictionary, Second Edition) on CD-ROM. I had lovingly paid about $10K for the paper edition on night at the old Kepler’s bookstore in Menlo Park, happily loading the 20 volumes in my car’s trunk (boot for British readers). A few years later, the CD-ROM edition cost only $700 or so… This was the future. More