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. >

Play the hand you’re dealt

Last week I took a bunch of college students back to school. After three hours of poker, I stood up and walked away with 70 of their softly-bludged euros. It was a rare, rare win.

While I was busy fleecing them, we got talking about work, and the fact that I’m back freelancing again. The lads started asking me about what articles I most enjoyed researching. I’m not a big poker player, but when I mentioned a long feature on student poker, and promptly scooped another hefty pot of chips, there was a collective groan. He’s a fucking shark.

The article appeared on the front of the Agenda magazine while I was still a student myself.

Sunday Business Post, Feb 27, 2005

Poker School

It’s 7.30pm and the last of 270 students are trickling through the doors of the Gresham Hotel. Ten to a table, they sit and make guarded small talk, eyeing each other nervously.

With a top prize of €1,500 on the line, there’s little time for making friends, and everyone is anxious to get down to business. Niall Hughes of Trinity College’s Card Society announces to much applause, that the prize fund has reached €6,500. Continue reading “Play the hand you’re dealt”

“When my clients die of Aids … I count those deaths as victories”

It’s not easy to like a man who says things like that. Even less when he fills a book with similar throwaway phrases and sundry self-aggrandising sop, and you have to read the whole thing and turn in a review at the end.

I like reading books. I count book reviews as a perk of working in journalism, but this death row lawyer-cum-author made me want to fly to Texas just in the hope I’d get to punch him.

Sunday Business Post, January 31, 2010

David R Dow, the high profile death-row lawyer responsible for Killing Time: One Man’s Race to Stop an Execution, would have us believe he is among the highest ranks of legal martyr. His job is, after all, an endless moral conflict. Continue reading ““When my clients die of Aids … I count those deaths as victories””