Don’t Teach Data Journalism Without Teaching Mobile-First Design

Big Data, Small Screens

Twice in two weeks, Columbia Journalism School has demonstrated that a) it considers data journalism to be a crucial part of journalism’s future but b) that it still doesn’t get how vital design thinking for data journalism to work on the medium where it will be consumed.

Let me be really blunt about this. You cannot teach data journalism without teaching how to make it look good on a screen smaller than a pack of cards.

Here’s a handy maxim, journalism academics:


Jonathan Stray launched his ebook ‘The Curious Journalist’s Guide To Data’ at a Columbia event recently. It’s good, go read it. It’s also free, so you have absolutely no excuse for not reading it.

On stage at the launch, three lecturers in journalism & statistics joined Jonathan and talked eloquently about calculating probabilities, the use of R, p values and more besides. It was some good in-the-weeds discussion about the concepts underpinning data gathering and analysis.

But then someone in the audience asked how to make all this wonderful data render beautifully on a small screen, and was met mostly with silence and a few shrugs. Scott Klein offered that you have to test everything — mobile is as important as desktop, which is a promising response (device agnosticism is obviously critical) but that answer wasn’t enough. Testing mostly happens after something visual has been made. You need to consider mobile presentation before you make any dataviz. Mobile comes first.

Mobile is now more important than desktop and hence must lead design thinking. Mobile is pretty near everything, being honest. Build for mobile, test for compatibility with everything else.

If you hope to make data journalism connect with an audience at scale, you need to have a plan for getting it onto a small screen in a way that looks appealing and tells your story. That means your visualisation loads quickly, is at-a-glance comprehensible and doesn’t take any work for the reader to navigate. And you have to do that every single time.

Making big data work on small screens is hard but important. At Vocativ, our audience hovers around 80% mobile on any given day, so if something doesn’t work on mobile, it doesn’t work. When it comes to visualisation, you’ll often see me chatting with the team, taking my iPhone 5 out of my pocket and pressing against a monitor to highlight how much space we have to play with in any given viz. We’ve built our dataviz style guide with mobile first as a priority, setting minimum sizes for most of our fonts, minimising and thinking deeply about color scales and palettes and creating everything in a mobile-first way. We favor visualisation styles that work consistently in a longer, more vertical frame rather than favoring the horizontal aspect ratio typical of the desktop screen.

When we make gifs for dataviz, we reduce the number of colors & frames to cut down file sizes and thus load times on the reader’s phone. Vocativ’s just-dropped presentation layer has been rebuilt in React to further help with load time. Because video can be so easily optimised for mobile, you’ll see more data storytelling incorporated into Vocativ video soon, too.

Back to the school thing.

The second publication that made me question how academics think about data journalism was an intro to a report from Columbia Journalism Review describing how to teach data journalism. I was optimistic, until I got to the data journalism within it. 

This bar chart is not great data journalism at all.

It looks passable here, but do what I always do when I see visualizations online — grab the corner of your browser window and shrink it down as small as it will go, to see what the mobile experience will be like (assuming you’re not reading this on your phone, that is.) It means either zooming or squinting, right?

The above image looks fine if small-fonted on desktop, but it’s 800 pixels across at full resolution, with the text still very small at that. An iPhone5 screen is 320 pixels across. Squash an 800px image down to 320px, and you lose a lot of value. If it began as a just-about-legible dataviz on desktop, on mobile it’s likely a useless mess, unless it was designed mobile-first. The bar chart above is a case of very simple, quality data crippled by presentation that fails to consider the reader.

Here’s the exact same data, given a very simple, mobile-first treatment. If you’re not already doing so, check it out on your phone.

Just one example of data journalism in this post. Some nice bars.

This was made in five minutes using Vocativ’s custom template in Datawrapper, to which we sometimes default for simpler graphics. In this case, it’s a static image (Medium, where this was originally posted can’t deal with the responsive iframe embeds) but when we use Datawrapper embeds, the fact that they are responsive is fabulous for mobile, and scales well for desktop.

After six months leading our charge into data journalism and visualisation at Vocativ, my two main goals remain the same:

Help more journalists understand how to tell stories with data

Make it work on mobile every single time.

J-schools, if the CJR report is anything to go by, are waking up to the first goal and seeking to improve how they teach computer-aided reporting— and the CJR report makes some important suggestions on that front. But the second goal—making it work on mobile every time—isn’t on the radar, and data visualization is a poor cousin to the data extraction element of the discipline. The word ‘mobile’ features only once in the entire CJR report. In a world where we communicate and read mostly on phones, that’s bad.

Those two goals are always interrelated. The first is easier: At Vocativ, we reduce the fear around data journalism by creating some really simple processes for journalists to bring data to our dataviz team, and then we involve the reporters in the process of telling stories with that data. Helping the reporters understand the limitations of mobile visualisation and think about visuals up front helps manage their expectations, but also helps them frame what they think is the most important point the data should convey. Two of our team are also building Dataproofer, a tool to help journalists proofread datasets, removing even more impediments to the process.

Making viz work for mobile is the harder of the two goals, and we don’t always get it right, but it’s absolutely crucial to try every time, even if that means over-simplifying. We share our static graphic drafts in a Slack channel, and I try to always to review them through the Slack app on my phone rather than on desktop so that I see them as the reader will. That informs any design-related edits I have, which are most often about finding ways to either reduce the amount of text or bump up its size.

We’d love to do more interactives, but frankly, we value load time, simplicity and ease of scrolling over interactivity and complexity. Forcing interaction risks introducing a cognitive burden for an already skittish reader, their attention span frayed by Twitter and media overload. Performance is important, too–they won’t hang around on a page slowed by waiting for something heavy to load. Archie Tse put it really well here, I don’t need to go on about it — go read his notes. Then go read Mike Bostock’s expanded thoughts on why scrolling is the most important interaction there is. Once our team grows to the point where we can spend more time thinking deeply about how to make interaction work well for mobile, we’ll move into that space. Right now, simple visual storytelling, done well, works for us.

Data journalism is a vital part of journalism’s future — the 2.7 terabytes of scandal in the Panama Papers underscores that. Parsing data for stories has never been a more crucial skill to have in a newsroom, and it’s great that colleges like Columbia have courses dedicated to that discipline in isolation.

But visualization of that data is part of that discipline and, frankly, integral to the whole storytelling process. Done well, a dataviz paints a thousand data points (or even more). Done badly, it needs a thousand more words to explain it. Visualisations should move the story along, and show movement that text may struggle to convey.

Increasingly, we can extract all the data we want, but if our journalists can’t distil that into something the reader can consume in the palm of their hand, it’s all rather pointless.

Big data, small screens. Remember that.

Cross posted from Medium.

Decide for Yourself What Journalism to Trust

The Trust in Journalism  debate was sparked by a  Pew Research report that  disregards anyone under  the age of 30. Here’s why it’s no use  whatsoever in helping define the future of news.

Cross-posted from Medium. Subscribe to my newsletter.

When Pew released its survey on trust in the media, there was more than a bit of gloating at who came last (It was Buzzfeed), and a lot of debate about what it all means. The media world’s chin-strokers-in-chief wondered where all the trust leaked out, and how to put it back in. Should you trust the media elders to tell you whose news you should trust, and how? Let’s look.

The behaviour of a reader determines how they calculate trust. In the past, people chose one or two news organisations to trust, and committed to them by buying a paper or choosing one newscast over the other. Now, the delivery model has been blasted to smithereens and trust is not as closely bound to organisations as it once was. The new news consumer is a butterfly. They do not settle for long on any one news source. They don’t choose news as a bundle from one brand, rather, they flit in and out of news items from their social streams.

Arrival at a story is an act of trust, often sparked by a recommendation. There is, arguably, far more trust placed in the communities whose news recommendations we accept than in the news organisations who create that news. We trust our peers, we trust the filter bubbles we create for ourselves. We trust the algorithms which we (actively or passively) allow to access our histories and serve up more of the same. In the Pew Study, Google News is more ‘trusted’ than the New York Times, despite the fact that Google News doesn’t generate any news — it’s a largely algorithmic aggregation of what others produce. And hey, why not trust that? They know you better than you know yourself.

That’s Google News on the right, btw.

If something appears in my Facebook feed from someone I follow and trust, I generally trust that it’s worth consideration. If Nuzzel serves it up, I know that by metrics I defined, enough people have deemed it of value that I should read it. If @MagicRecs suggests a follow, I’ll click, seven times out of ten. If the recommendation sucks, if the story ends up being less than worthy of trust, that’s less likely to reflect badly on the brand than on the person who recommended it to me. Trust attaches to the recommender.

Trust is now like Pageviews. You earn it every day

How does a news organisation operate in that environment of detached trust and increased brand disloyalty? News organisations have to think of trust in the same way they think of pageviews. Editors now know that every story is sold separately — the bundle is dead. Each story earns the trust and time of the reader individually. You have to assume that you earn whatever small slice of trust attaches to a story every single time they arrive at your site. When you earn that trust, you get paid back by your story being pushed out to their trusted circles. And over time, sure, there’s longer-term trust to be earned for your brand.

This is why journalists get so worked up about getting their stories to thrive on Facebook, or being blocked from doing so by shifts in the algorithm. They’re desperate to get their content into people’s circles of trust. If a story becomes the focal point of a conversation, every share is a bolstering of trust. Facebook shares (trusted recommendations) are valuable, they are sticky because they are a commitment by the sharer and the more something is shared, the broader the circle of trust that sees it .

Don’t trust Pew’s definition of trust

There problems with trust as defined in the Pew Research study, however, or rather trust as not defined by the Pew Research study.

For starters, what is trust, for the purposes of this survey? What are we measuring by asking respondents which organisations they trust? The study is about political polarisation, so does ‘trust’ mean ‘this news organisation represents my personal political standpoint’? ‘I am comfortable with the views expressed by this organisation in its news coverage’? If so, that’s a problem, because trust should be based on the perceived proportion of empirical truth in an organisation’s coverage, not how closely it adheres to the viewer’s comfort zone or worldview. But then again, trust as defined in the Pew study has little to do with actual trustworthiness, less again with truthiness. It says it’s measuring:

[H]ow open people are to the political news and information put forth by various outlets, including those they do not actively consume.

Openness to something is not trust, and trust is, admittedly, a pretty slithery thing to define. I trust Bill O’Reilly to spew polemic every time he appears on television. I trust USA Today to dilute news to the point of homeopathy so that it doesn’t really interfere with breakfast buffet decision-making in hotels around the country. And I trust Jon Stewart to skewer absurdity five days a week and lean to the left. I trust only one of those three to be accurate and well-researched on a consistent basis.

Trust, in the Pew sense, is an understanding of what each news brand promises, and a measure of how consistently they meet that promise, and how that means they’re welcomed by the respondent. It’s not real trust.

Alright, fine, let’s go build some actual trust

So the conversation moved to building trust. Google News’ Richard Gingras argues, among other things, that all news organisations should publish ethics statements and statements of expertise for authors. This smacks of a yearning for another data point to feed into the Google News algorithm to help it determine what’s trustworthy, and pass that on to the reader. Given how much trust people already put in that algorithm and others like it, and how angry journalism gets when they don’t appear to work (read the comments), I suppose that’s not a bad thing. But at the reader/article nexus, these statements won’t make any practical difference. No reader is going to click into an article and, before reading, look for and/or read an ethics statement or expertise note, and then make a decision on whether or not to proceed based on their subsequent findings. That simply ignores user behaviour. Understanding user behaviour is the key to winning in journalism in the next ten years, so if trust is important, why would we spend valuable time ignoring the user in doing so?

Ethics statements should be nailed to the wall internally, for sure, and baked into the journalism we do every day to make it trustworthy. Publishing them widely for checking by readers is fine, but will do far more for supposed trust-based elevation-by-SEO than for the journalism itself, and to suggest they’ll matter to the vast majority of modern readers is simply not true.

The Trust Equation is Evolving

Let’s look at the headline loser of this so-called trust survey, butt-of-the-joke, bottom-of-the-heap Buzzfeed, whose untrustworthy journalism is crushed under the weight of all the trustworthy news organisations (Fox! Breitbart!) who outrank it.

Buzzfeed’s ranking is a giant honking siren of how irrelevant the survey is. Of the organisations included in the survey, it’s the only one of the new breed of news outlets chosen. No Vice, No Gawker, no Vocativ, no Vox, Fusion, Mashable nor 538. Screw those pesky under-30s. (How well represented were they in the survey? Hard to tell. Details on Pew’s methodology don’t include demographics)

Is Buzzfeed (and those like it) deserving of more trust than captured in this poll commissioned by the granit-collonade establishment? For its news, you betcha. Their foreign coverage, and often their political coverage, beats the pants of much of the mainstream on a regular basis. (Good note on that here, btw).

But this archaic way of measuring of trust doesn’t work for new media organisations, because they are odd beasts which don’t have the nicely defined trustworthy shape of the trusted news establishment. How can you trust a listicle factory, FFS?

Does Trust Really Come Into This?
Does Trust Really Come Into This?

Well, that’s a generational question. And it’s also a business model question. Old news models don’t pay because the generation before failed to future-proof the industry, so you have to figure out a new way to pay the electricity bills, and–guess what–it may not look like the news of old. The businesses doing good journalism may look hard to trust, by old measures, but not to the generation they’re built to serve.

Buzzfeed and Vice, to take the two most high-profile examples, have placed genuine, trustworthy journalism as hood ornaments on subtantial commercial vehicles which built their momentum via other means. For Buzzfeed it was memes, quizzes, all the frivolous entertainment material that props up their business model and gives them a firehose of young eyeballs. for Vice, it was a slightly seedier, but no less valid accumulation of youth culture cred over two decades of immersion. They powered the train with sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, and then hitched on a carriage of journalism at the last stop. None of this takes away from the journalism, which sells itself as trustworthy on a story-by-story basis.

The younger you are, the more you trust these brands. That trust is built on a mutual understanding — I know they understand my demographic, I can see some transparency in how they communicate with the outside world. There is no ivory tower any more, it’s made of perspex. I sat in a room not long ago, and the further you went towards the young end of the spectrum of those assembled, the greater the trust in organisations like this was visible.

Emily Bell may have inadvertently put her finger on it in a tweet in which she says:

Accurate and good journalism is distrusted by those whose interests it damages

If there’s good, accurate journalism that isn’t being measured, or, worse, is being held up as untrustworthy by the old guard, could we argue that because the new models threaten their existence, they’re deemed untrustworthy by the establishment doing the measuring? I think so.

Rebuilding trust in news can’t be done by the old metrics. Trust is evolving. New generations trust news organistions for different reasons than did the outgoing greybeards of the news industry. The basis on which we calculate trust, the equation of trust has been redefined.

I should clarify. There’s one old metric that we can all trust. Truth. And any organisation that consistently focuses its journalists on uncovering that, regardless of its odd commercial shape or the results of bonkers surveys, is one that I’d trust.


Could stringwire finally bridge the UGC gap?

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Stringwire is buzzword of the week in so-called ‘social journalism’ circles, with the Monday announcement (furiously copied-and-pasted) that NBC had acquired the company to help it in its bid to source live UGC from breaking news events.

Nearly all of the previous attempts to garner precious breaking world news content failed because they didn’t take into account the behaviours & motivations of people who record video on their phones. Most of the previous attempts, however, were apps which, in order for them to work for the benefit of their creators,  you had to a) download and then b) select in a chaotic moment of breaking news. That simply wouldn’t happen, for the most part. Let’s look at why that is.

Think about the though process that kicks in when a person sees something and the urge to record it takes hold.

A) See worthy scene >

B) take phone out of pocket >

C) select camera >

D) switch to video >


Nine times out of ten – more, probably – that red button is going to belong to the native camera/videocamera built into the phone. For a specific thired-party app to be chosen, there would have to be a thought process between B and C during which you consider where you’d like the video to end up and be convinced that it’s a better option that your regular, simple video app/YouTube combination. Will it be the AP, with their video-capture functionality? Or will I select CNN’s iReport? Perhaps I’ll use the Small World News app or Guardian iWitness.

Bullshit. The average punter is not motivated to do any of that. They MIGHT consider letting the news orgs have the content as an afterthought, but the primary driver which pushes someone to take a phone out is a selfish decision to capture an event. Post-facto, it’s likely that amateurs (i.e. regular members of the public) will share it with friends on YouTube or Facebook. At that point, if it is compelling enough, it will be found and become part of a media free-for-all. The key thing is to identify the user’s behaviour and see where you can merge with it, rather than trying to change it.

Stringwire, if it works as smoothly as in its demo video, is relatively clever, because it jumps in earlier in the thought process, between A and B. It prompts the user to take the phone out of their pocket, perhaps before they have even thought to capture video, and asks them to point the lens at the action. The desk staff (NBC now, most likely) pings the  potential broadcaster via Twitter, including a direct link through which they can start broadcasting. No app download.

That’s the key thing. It trips the system. If the process from there is simple enough, and the benefits to the uploader are clear enough, there’s a much lower barrier to cajoling the uploader into taking some video.

Its success then rests on the (NBC) people identifying their targets sharply, and then coping with the output responsibly. Their outreach has to be non-threatening and effective – it’s no coincidence that NBC also owns the @breakingnews team, who are perfectly placed to take advantage of something like this – and they have to respect copyright, etc. We haven’t seen any terms & conditions yet – it’ll be interesting in the context of how Bambuser and AP decided to take ownership of content.

Finally, to out-shout the fanboys, the fact that it’s not going to work on iPhone yet is probably not all that critical. Android is outpacing iOS globally, in any case, and the populations which are more Android-heavy are the geographies where you want news content from.


Why journalists need to think like fighter pilots

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Journalism and America’s airborne military might have more in common than you might think, but not in the sinister, stealthy, death-from-above way. It’s a state of mind thing.

The shift that’s happening in how newsrooms have to think is redolent of changes that revolutionised air combat in the 1960s. A virtuoso fighter pilot called John Boyd walked away from the war in Korea and set about redefining air combat, starting with pilots’ thought processes. He knew that if could enable fighter pilots to streamline their decision-making processes in the air, and make quicker decisions on how to manoeuvre, they would less likely to be beaten in a dogfight. His theories, the OODA loop concept in particular, shaped the design of the F-16, and redefined how aerial combat was viewed. His thinking about thinking also trickled into the world of business, forming the basis for the ‘lean startup’ movement, in which the loop is not about a tactical combat manoeuvre, rather about product iteration, and rapid reorientation/iteration of product. (Read this great piece on John Boyd’s tactical thought for more).

Boyd’s thinking boils down to this: Agility, the ability to think and change direction fast, is prized above all else. Speed in a straight line is only good in a drag race, to win in an ever-changing environment, you must be able to parse all the information from your surroundings in an instant, and be free enough to act on them.

That’s a good way to sum up both the daily news cycle, and the broader changes journalism is going through right now. As journalists (and as media consumers, in many cases) we’re all exposed to greater torrents of fast-moving information than ever before – it’s as if our plane has sped up dramatically. Journalists need to rapidly identify the important and accurate signals from that torrent. If you’re in the business of making, reacting to or explaining the news, you need to organise the incoming information in a way you can sift effectively, be agile enough to shift your direction, and free enough to readjust at the same pace as the news. And, of course, all the old standards still apply too. Accuracy, legal obligations, grammar, tone – these remain crucial. On the slower scale, newsrooms need to be looking around to re-orient and innovate as new platforms emerge, as new routes to the reader gain traction.

What’s responsible for the change in pace? Speed of publishing, largely. Better tech. News consumption behaviours. And, of course, social media. There is no going back, either, so journalists need to do what John Boyd did, and

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rethink how their teams think. Newsrooms need processes with foster that fighter-pilot agility of thought, which make room for innovation, and they need people for whom coping with fast news is a matter of muscle memory. When the AP Twitter account was compromised in April, the teams who had people with that internal muscle memory avoided a very public news facepalm. The ones who got it (the selection pictured) are the kind of people newsrooms need to be hiring more of. They combine speedy social media nous with old-school news skills: a mix of skepticism, curiosity, a willingness to pick at something persistently, and the experience to to know when to slow the news process down at times.

That’s right – sometimes they might have to SLOW THE NEWS PROCESS DOWN. Boyd’s thinking, remember, developed the F-16. Not the fastest fighter in the sky, by a long shot, but the most nimble. In Top Gun fighter pilot terms, slowing the news down is like when Maverick tactically hits the brakes and watches the Ruskis fly right past into a position of weakness. It’s so crazy, it actually works.

How you hire these people, and where you put them, can prove tricky. Why would you label someone a social media editor any more? (Will Bloomberg & Reuters reinstate social media editors after being left without?). It could be argued that ‘social media editor’ is an anachronistic title already. Social is simply an integral part of what you do now as a journalist. If you’re hiring someone with special responsibility for social, they should be rolling it out to the entire team and then rejoining the newsgathering and news innovation at the core of the team. Social is now how you source, how you define the news agenda of the day. Your social graph is now your little black book – it’s what lets me ping that guy who can verify a pic from Tripoli airport in Libya, or how I can find out that the Taliban have been issuing statements about pink balloons. Social is also what makes news interactive and will be an integral part of any innovation in news delivery. If you’re not prioritising it, you’re not operating at full capacity. You’re that person who rang in the year 2000, still refusing to use email and demanding people fax you.

Stop being an luddite. Start being a fighter pilot.

Journalism closes a door, brands open a window

via noodlepie on flickrI got involved in a tete-a-tete over the concept of journalists as entrepreneurs on Twitter on Wednesday. The essence of it was the question of whether or not journalists should stick to journalism, and not worry about the selling/entrepreneurial part of things. If they stick to journalism, the argument went, they will be better placed to maintain the quality of their work. I disagreed (you can read the whole thing here).

That discussion was about individual journos, selling their own wares, largely in the news sphere. We didn’t tackle the broader ‘grand repurposing’ of journalism. Marketeers have come to realise that rather than trying to convince journos to ‘print their stuff’, they’re going all in and hiring them to do what they do naturally, then piggybacking on it and basking in the reflected glory. They call it brand journalism. Bizarrely, it often offers journalists, photogs and filmmakers the freedom to do the stuff they’d desperately love to do. For money. I know.

This repurposed journalism, in which journalists are hired to create great content for magazines, websites and even TV channels conveniently  owned by brands, is on the rise. It’s the advertising world’s rising MO and an area in which smart companies are willing to invest heavily and build big, creating talented teams to turn out top-quality content.

They’re hiring, and hiring fast. (Net-a-Porter are hiring right now, so are Patagonia). Take Patagonia. They now have a team of ten journalists, developers, designers and an editor-in-chief creating their blogs, websites and tumblrs. It seems to be working.

From Digiday:

Patagonia does not rely on outside agencies for any of its marketing, another unique aspect of its approach. “By doing things ourselves, we are just removing the layers,” Boland [Bill Boland, Patagonia’s digital creative director], said.

“Proving ROI isn’t a big challenge,” he said. “Our biggest challenge is that we have more content than we could possibly publish, which makes it hard to figure out what gets in and what does not.”

The whole project, every fullstop and pixel, exudes ‘Patagionaness’. They even take counter-intuitive environmental stances against their own product from time to time. Damn hippies. Minor scuffles aside, it’s clear that Patagonia’s editorial team are advocates for the company and its philosophy – they speak the language of their customers, they are wholly into it, which is why the whole thing works, and why they have become magnets for relevant content.  And that’s crucial if brand journalism is to to be practical, and credible. Jez Frampton, CEO of Interbrand, spoke of the importance of that in the content marketing context. It’s essential that everything that emanates from a brand newsroom is in tune with that company’s ethos.

‘Every message from a brand is viewed in the context of that brand: its market position, personality, values, competitive stance etc.  In other words, it shapes the way we interpret the message, and in a world where our communication with brands is increasing exponentially, a clearly articulated and defined brand becomes even more important.’

Translation: If there’s a sniff of your team being false, or trying to be something you clearly don’t believe in, the reader will shred your credibility in a bloody marketing pogrom. The media houses with a strong brand and who understand their brand, are the ones that are surviving, and that’s not restricted to fashion houses or FMCG entities. The FT and the Economist are thriving. Al Jazeera is spreading like nits in a kindergarten. They are all well-defined brands. And then there’s Red Bull. Originally a fizzy drink made (so the urban myth goes) with the stimulating freshness of a bull-testicle extract, Red Bull is now a global media empire (which just happens to sell a beverage).

From Mashable:

‘Lately, every conference PowerPoint on the future of advertising or PR seems to mention Red Bull as a — if not the — shining example of a brand-turned-publisher, what every future-leaning agency encourages its clients to emulate.’

Red Bull has gone from emblazoning other people’s events with extreme soft-drink bunting, to running the events, ending at a point where it producing high-grade expeditionary documentaries, magazines and the rest off the back of their extreme lifestyle advicates and has become a global leader in content marketing. They sell drinks on the side. No-one would question the quality of the film, photography and interviews they produce. Their team are outstanding. The content they create is stunning.

‘It [the Red Bull behemoth] recently released a feature film, The Art of Flight. The movie cost a reported $2 million to make, but when it hit iTunes in 2011, it parked atop the charts for more than a week — bringing in $10 per download.’

Remember a time when brands used to pay for ads in the traditional media? Step through the looking glass into the Red Bull content pool. It’s a place where the traditional media can go to pay for professional content produced by people who once tried to sell you fizzy can of caffeinated cough mixture which they advertised in the traditional media. Dizzy? You should be, particularly if you work in the traditional media. Former advertisers selling you the content you once used to use to sell them advertising? It’s like someone invited you to dinner, got you drunk, and then stung you with the bill. Red Bull describe their content pool thus:

‘A one-stop gateway to our full media catalog: plug-and-play web clips, documentaries,news piecesphoto shoots, the latest interviews, and accompanying editorials. With over 50,000 photos and 5,000 videos, the Red Bull Content Pool is the finest dedicated global content source in existence for sports, culture, and lifestyle material.’

Red Bull are streets ahead of most brands looking to get into this game, and there’s a frantic game of catch-up being played.  Everyone wants in, but the road to creating a newsroom from scratch is daunting.. In a Harvard Business Review blog post, Newsweek/Daily Beast CEO Baba Shetty said brands need to be more like newsrooms:

For messages to be heard in 2020, brands will need to create an enormous amount of useful, appealing, and timely content. To get there, brands will have to leave behind organizations and thinking built solely around the campaign model, and instead adopt the defining characteristics of the real-time, data-driven newsroom — a model that’s prolific, agile and audience-centric.

That’s easy to say, but not easy to do. Agility and timeliness are particularly challenging, because it means your creative wordsmiths also need to be skilled at monitoring all the relevant incoming news and/or social media signals to find whatever it is they should be reacting to. Digiday provide a dose of reality.

Any publisher will tell you that operating a newsroom is an expensive, arduous task. It’s also incredibly difficult to do well, especially if it’s not your business.

Amen, brutha. (Sorry, SISTA). It’s tough. Say you’re a clothing retailer, your core competency is, well, clothing. Not editorial (exceptions aside). There’s an enormous skills gap. It’s a gap into which journalists should be leaping to make a buck. Some are – in the form of companies like /Newsroom and networks like Contently, springing up to fill the content gap. As newsrooms shut their doors, there are windows opening in the world of brand journalism. But journalists may be reluctant to break in. In fact, they may board up the holes. Why? More to follow.

Go long, journalism. Go long. Just not every day.

Pic by starmanseries on Flickr

If working in social media news has done one thing to me, it has done its best to screw my attention span. It has been comprehensively obliterated. (Thankfully it’s not irrevocable – I prescribe a long-form article a day). Going by the umpteen laments and half-assed social media rehab attempts by prominent tweeters, I’m not alone.

Joe Weisenthal, known as @TheStalwart on Twitter, confessed that he can’t sleep at night due to the fear he might miss something which he should be writing & tweeting about.

In a New York Times profile which described Weisenthal’s ADHD work-day, it says that his 15 or so daily articles are paralleled by a constant presence on Twitter (88,723 tweets and counting). He seems to work 17 hours in a non-stop frenzy of three-way communication.

[A]ll the while he holds a running conversation with the roughly 19,000 people who follow his Twitter alter ego, the Stalwart. He spars, jokes, asks and answers questions, advertises his work and, in the spirit of our time, reports on his meals, his whereabouts and whatever else is on his mind.

Weisenthal’s profile was held up as describing what real-time journalism has become, a mind-bending, frenetic, sleep-deprived hamster wheel. Weisenthal recently profiled another speed-news freak, Kevin Reynolds, who runs Bloomberg’s ‘speed desk’, which doesn’t take its name from amphetamines, at least not officially. Reynolds runs what is considered the world’s best smash-and-grab news filtering operation in the world. They offer the quickest turnaround, the most market-moving nugget of news in any given situation, and they jangle their nerves in the process. As Weisenthal explained:

“[I]f you think that the internet has killed your attention span, then feel pity for Reynolds: ‘I have no attention span… by the time I leave here, someone has to explain comic books to me.'”

If you’re a thumb-twitching social media junkie, the chances are you’re consuming your news in a headline-chugging way, downing intro paras like a frat boy downs Jagermeister shots. That’s the way that Weisenthal and Reynolds churn it out – at a livid pace. The antithesis to this staccatoed news consumption is good, long exploratory hunks of journalism, the kind of thing that sticks with you for days. People would like to think they want to read that every day, but the analysis doesn’t bear that out. At News Rewired on February 15 this year, there were two standout observations from a panel on paid-for content models (read: the alchemy that is making actual money from journalism). One came from François Nel, an academic who made one wager in the middle of his meandering presentation that struck a chord. He bet that within five years the New York Times would abandon paper on weekdays and only print a real inky paper on the weekend. The likelihood of this hypothetical, based on new reading behaviours and time poverty among readers, was backed up by stats presented by Tom Standage from The Economist. Standage said that The Economist’s guilty secret was that ‘the main reason people cancel their subscriptions with The Economist is that they don’t have time to read it, and it just piles up and they feel guilty’. That’s print subscriptions, by the way, not digital. Magazines piled unread in a corner exert shame in a way that the iPad has yet to mimic. Standage followed up his comments on The Economist’s time-poor customers by saying those who consume the magazine through their app tend to take between one and three hours on the weekend to sift through its content at length, getting through a staggering volume of content. That behaviour is at odds with weekday interaction, which is largely via web and much more fleeting. It’s that lean-back phenomenon you don’t get Monday to Friday. You don’t lean back at your desk, where you’re meant be looking busy, and you don’t lean back during your commute.

The weekday/weekend divide is getting deeper and deeper, which tallies with my own loosely scientific (i.e. not at all) surveys, which I nearly always take when I speak on panels or at conferences. It tends to go something like this:

Audience: Is social media killing journalism?

Me: Um, well let’s do a survey – how many of you buy a paper during the week? Hands up, please.

[No Hands]

Me: How many of you buy one or more papers during the weekend?

[Lots of hands]

Me: So none of you get any news during the week apart from the evening news when you’re finished work?

Audience: Duh, we get it on the internet

Me: And do you pay for any of it?

Audience: Eh, no.

Me: Do you see a connection between you not paying for news during the week and journalists losing their jobs, and the standard of journalism falling?

Audience: Oh. Yeah.

Standage’s observations, Nel’s and my own haphazard surveys are actually fine behavioural analysis for a long-form, lean-back perspective. The way people consume news corresponds directly to how much competition there is for that time. During the week, most people have capacity to ingest the what, where and when of the news before their attention spans burn out with all the other options available to them.

They’re commuting, worrying about that damn spreadsheet from the Indian tech team, thinking how Roz from HR is stiffing them on holiday entitlements and checking whether Saturday night’s photos made it onto Facebook. They might skim some news, but that’s it. At the weekend, they’ll sit back and get into the how and why of a story, and luxuriate in the features section. Their mind is less cluttered. There’s less competition for their attention.

What does it mean for journalists who want to do long-form? It just means that the journalism has to be even more stand-out than ever to coax someone to either commit to it on a weekday or save it for later via Readability, Instapaper or something else. As an aspiring long-form journalist, you have two days in the week to get a reader to invest time in your material (Saturday and Sunday). So, be awesome, and be creative about distribution. Like, say, Marc Herman, one of a growing batch of journalists who are taking all those leftover words in their notepad and Twitter-addled brains and selling them as ebooks. Herman’s ebook from his trips to Libya during the revolution paid him more than the original commission. (It’s damn good – get it here).

The problem is, good long-form reporters are increasingly rare, particularly among the junior ranks. In the same way weeds can choke the good bits of a garden, the proliferation of less honed writers writing more often online has meant that the skills needed for good narrative writing have died off. It’s a lot easier to spit 250 words and a few embeds onto a webpage than it is to construct a proper story that will keep a reader hooked, paragraph after paragraph, for 3,000 words. Sarah Lacy, founder of Pando Daily, says that they are committed to mentoring the young would-bes, but it ain’t going to be easy.

[U]nfortunately the last six years or so of commodity free content on the Web and shrinking newsrooms in old media has conspired to destroy the bench of good, investigative journalists and long-form storytellers. These simply aren’t disciplines you’re born with and there hasn’t been a demand to train people in it.

I hope Lacy, and whoever else is still bankrolling good in-depth reporting can pull it off. Like most people, I don’t do in-depth during the week, to a large extent, unless I really need a switch-off. But on a Saturday and a Sunday I’ll buy the papers for a handful of heavy feature articles. I’ll lean back with a coffee in a comfy chair and soak it up. I’ll scour my Twitter list of longform sources, pick one and immerse. Longform is for weekends, holidays, commuting delays and bouts of insomnia. The format doesn’t matter. It might be an article on the design of the human penis that I’ve stored on Readability, or a new Gonzo journalism project from Greece that I’ve downloaded via Kindle, or just a hefty piece on Hipstamatic’s hipster panic l that Flipboard spat out at me. It just has to be good enough to hold my attention. Because if it fails in the first 4oo words, there’s another half dozen things queued up on my phone ready for reading.

But here’s the thing. The two days a week where I sit back and hoover up lengthy news truffles are the minority. The rest of the week I’m in search of the subtle skim, the best-curated bit that helps me digest news in a time-efficient manner. The profile of Joe Weisenthal, insomniac newsaholic, mentioned at the start of this piece spawned a lively debate when the NYT published it. A journalism professor from Florida called Weisenthal’s modus operandi out on several footings. He said that Weisenthal’s work was too short, too prolific (and inaccurate at times) to be something to aspire to, and that Weisenthal was on a short path to burnout and had no life. Students should aspire to be more like the late Anthony Shadid, he said, who immersed himself in his topic and wrote at length. Weisenthal’s boss backed him to the hilt in response, saying that Weisenthal (best business journalist of the year in 2011, by the way) was not trying to be an Anthony Shadid. He was fulfilling his brief: provide a rolling, non-stop index of need-to-know info for Business Insider’s readership, presented in entertaining form. And his boss agrees that he’s insanely good at it. One can assume that he is paid commensurately.

The world needs Weisenthals and Shadids to fill a news week, probably in a 5:2 ratio. To be a Weisenthal or a Shadid means being gainfully employed, producing consistently top-quality journalism in your chosen sector bar none, and breaking your ass to do it. All of those items are things to aspire to. And depending of the day of the week, both are worth reading.

News is like cycling

Me, Friday.

Breaking news is like road cycling
Everything else is mountain biking

On Friday evening I fell while mountain biking. I misjudged a corner, launched over the handlebars and landed hard, the left side of my rib cage creating a flat smack as it hit the damp earth. My elbow gouged a patch of muddy gravel. It was stupid. Thirty seconds later I was dusted off and back on the trail.

On Saturday morning I was out again, road cycling this time. I managed to stay on top of the bike, thankfully, but while grinding up a hill between Enniskerry and Glencree I came upon a traffic jam caused by a downed road biker. He must have hit the deck hard, because a paramedic had him in a neck brace while they waited for an ambulance. He wasn’t getting back on his bike.

There seems to be a misconception among would-be cyclists that road cycling is a safer option than mountain biking. Prima facie, it seems all about grunt effort on flat surfaces – keep the bike pointed in the right direction, apply force, and you’re onto a good thing. Off-road biking, on the other hand, meansovercoming all manner of obstacles. Rocks, streams, puddles, slippery tree roots, wildlife (you’d be surprised) drop-offs and plenty more. Surely that’s risky business? Surely flat, predictable roads must be safer?


On a mountain bike, you are most likely to fall as you slow down to deal with something in your way. Most crashes are slow-speed affairs, a silly topple here, a forced dismount there. What you land on can be rocky and jagged, but just as often it’s soft and forgiving. Mud, bushes, pine needles, grass and the like – all soft, earthy & accommodating to the human body. And, crucially, you hit the deck slowly. Roads covered in tarmac are less yielding.

Downhilling at speed on a road bike, as any mountain biker who has tried it will tell you, is an insanely risky business. It is non-stop, squeaky bum terror.  Your contact with the ground is via two tiny areas of slick rubber, each about the size of your thumbnail. The stopping power of hydraulic disc brakes, which you enjoy on a mountain bike, is replaced with temperamental rim brakes which you dab gently, unless both your wheels are in line. Unless you’re skilled and alert, danger is ever-present, particularly for the unskilled. Brake badly and you fall. Hit a patch of gravel and you fall. Hit an dodgy patch of road at speed and you fall. Hit a wet patch or a white line at the wrong time and you fall. Lose concentration and you fall.

Falling at speed on a road bike is a torrid affair, it means grating the skin of swathes of your body, breaking collarbones and worse, not to mention the risk of being hit by cars. I topped out at 63kmh downhill on Saturday. Next time you’re driving your car at 63kmh, imagine jumping out the window with only spandex for protection.

What has this to do with news?

Reporting breaking news is like cycling a fast downhill on a road bike.

Reporting news at a traditional pace is like mountain biking down a trail.

The faster try to break news, the better you need to be and the more alert you need to be. Because the faster you do it, the more likely it is that you will fall, unless you are very, very good. And when you fall, as with cycling, you tend to do damage. (Think CNN and the SCOTUS judgement or the AFP getting hoaxed by a fake Muslim Brotherhood website) Your relationship with the story, at that pace, is like your bike’s relationship with the road. It is infinitesimal, it is fleeting. One bump and the two threaten to separate and it all goes tits up very, very quickly.

Regular reporting, on the other hand, affords you the opportunity to look around more. As with the mountain bike trail, you must appreciate the surrounds and the conditions at play in order to pick your line. You take the reader around and over the bumps in the road. When you stumble, it is easy to recover. You notice the unusual things surrounding a story (metaphorically represented by the beautiful views on Friday, and the deer, hares and stoats that we saw in Ballinastoe). Regular reporting (and mountain biking) present risks, but the rewards are richer. It’s not purely about speed, it’s about the appropriate combination of speed and context.

There’s a huge surge in road cycling at the moment, matched in the news world by an ever-increasing desire to report faster.  Neither cohorts seem to appreciate the risks. As the news business approaches breakneck speeds (they’re called that for a reason) only a tiny minority are willing to acquire the skills they need to do it safely. They are hurtling downhill, failing to brake when it’s appropriate, ignoring the road conditions, going so fast that they struggle to keep in contact with the facts. And people (read: news organisations) keep hitting the deck. Hard.

Knowing when to slow up is crucially important. Knowing how and why you should dab the brakes is equally important. Mountain bikers, for this reason, often make good road bikers, because they know when to brake and when to let things roll. Last year’s Tour de France winner, Cadel Evans, is a former mountain biker, as are a swathe of the top-ranked riders, including current green jersey, Peter Sagan.

So what’s the ‘takeaway’ here? If you’re a road cyclist, hire or borrow a mountain bike for a week and learn how to downhill on it. Your speedo won’t hit 63kmh, but the skills you pick up at a slightly slower pace might save your life on the tarmac. And for media types – learn when to slow down your breakneck news reporting to sensible breaking news. It’s better to be right than first, and why risk having your failures sprawled out on the tarmac, a mess of road rash and jutting bones?

There’s a sporting saying: To finish first, first you must finish. In cycling, that means you must finish the race. In journalism, it means you must finish all the normal checks before pressing ‘publish’.


<Quick charity plug – I’m cycling 160km in aid of the Mark Pollock Trust in September – donate here. >

Asleep at the Table

If your taxi driver had  been awake for the guts of 57 hours, would you be happy to let him drive you home? No?

What about if your doctor had been awake for 57 hours – would you let them take out your appendix?

Didn’t think so.

Sunday Business Post, August 07, 2005

Working around the clock, grabbing a snooze when there’s a lull in the action, going without meals and pepping themselves up with caffeine – how long can Ireland’s over-worked junior doctors keep going under these conditions? ‘You wouldn’t want your mother or father on that operating table,” says the junior doctor, yawning down the phone. Continue reading “Asleep at the Table”