News needs to go Netflix

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The way we buy news is a ridiculous bundling mess. The news needs to go Netflix.

I don’t buy weekday newspapers now, that change happened years ago, because no one newspaper is going to have all the news I want to read. Simple fact. Buying one paper means a lot of redundancy. Take Thursday. There was an article by David Aaronovitch in yesterday’s Times which I wanted to read. Tweets suggested that it eviscerated Ed Miliband over his Syria reaction, and it sounded like it was a surgical piece of assassination prose. (Being honest, you could piece it together from all the online analysis within hours of publication.)

I wanted to read Aaronovitch’s column, but not enough to go and buy a copy of the newspaper – largely because I didn’t want to read the rest of the paper. Buying a paper is a waste of time and money if you’re only seeking out one article. It’s a really inefficient bundling of goods for the reader. If you went to a supermarket for one item, but were forced to pay for a bundle of 20 assorted random items to get it – would you? Of course not.

As Ben says, though, newspapers have struggle with pricing models. The bundle is king, he says. I’m not so sure. I think matching your content to your customers’ behaviours is more important (I’ve written about it here and here).

Let’s look at Netflix. It hosts hundreds of shows and films, which would effectively be competing inefficiently for attention, were they shown across numerous disaggregated channels in fixed time slots on traditional TV. Hugely inefficient for the provider, who are taking an educated guess at when best to hit the audience, and do it in one shot. It’s worse for the audience, who have to bind themselves to time-slots if they want to see their favourite content as it gets released.

Netflix lets the provider empower viewers to fill their available time in a way that suits them. Got five hours’ to spare? Binge away on one series, episode after episode (no week-long gaps). Want to watch your content in 15-minute snippets? That’s fine too, it’ll re-start where you left off. (Be honest, have you ever snuk a sneaky five minutes of Breaking Bad while on the loo?) Want to mix original movies with ShowTime series with AMC with some classics? Go for it. Kevin Spacey gets it. Allow the user take control.

Take a cohort of 40 shows on standard cable. Let’s say that three of the 40 interest me, and they happen to overlap, time-wise, or be on three different channels, one of which would require a subscription I don’t currently pay for. Unless the rest of that channel matches what I’m interested in, it’s unlikely I’ll shell out for it on the basis of one show.

The same goes for news articles. If you think of the David Aaronovitch article as a TV show, and The Times as that channel I don’t subscribe to – I’m not going to buy the entire channel for the single show. I lose out on access, the newspaper loses out on revenue.

But if there was a Netflix approach, where newspapers pooled content and I could pay a all-in fee, without having to commit to one single outlet, I’d pay for that. (Kind of like Oyster is trying to do for books)

Maybe, in an inarticulate fashion, it’s the kind of bundle that Jeff Bezos was talking about at the WaPo, and which he could use his infrastructure to bring about. It’s not a direct translation of the model, however, because news organisations compete with each other in a different way than TV shows. TV shows are not competing on the basis of first-past-the-post with the facts, they’re not racing each other to explain a topic. They’re vying for a slice of the audience’s valuable time, but not with barely-differentiated content, as news orgs do.

Pooling news content (or a differentiating portion thereof) in a Netflix/Spotify-style system, with subscribers paying monthly for unlimited access, would require a critical mass of providers joining up, and would mean figuring out new criteria for selecting the portion of content for ringfencing. Perhaps, once an article starts to trend, administrators flick a switch to push it behind the Netflix-style paywall, thus motivating the reader to sign up for that nominal monthly fee.

Until that comes to pass, until the media orgs make it easy for me to pay in a way that gives me convenient access to the content I want, when I want it, I’ll continue to do what I do now. I won’t buy any newspapers during the week when my time is precious. I’ll buy perhaps two or three papers at the weekend when I have time to browse through a bundle. And I’ll continue mainlining the available content as it suits me, with no-one getting any revenue benefit from that media-hungry behaviour.

Edit: Sept 10, 08.30am – adding a few of the online responses here…



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.

The SEC, Twitter, and unknowable ‘known knowns’

From MKHMarketing on Flickr

Donald Rumsfeld once famously spoke of ‘known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns’. That clip is at the bottom, a famous moment of international political hilarity. Until this week, the financial world had a few of its own ‘known knowns’ that traders had to officially ‘unknow’, until they were known in an official sense.


Welcome to the world of material non-public information and insider trading. The concept of insider trading was initially designed to level the investing playing field. No longer would the rich, the powerful, well-connected ‘insiders’ have better information about publicly traded companies than the typical retail investor. By insisting that trades could only legally be made based on public information that was accessible by all, any misuse of information asymmetry would become punishable by law.

That imbalance of power (information is power, remember?) was facilitated by a lack of technology. In the pre-mobile days of Gordon Gecko, information from the inside of a corporation was hard to come by and harder to verify than it is now. Unless, of course, you were an insider or had one in your back pocket. You had to have a leak, and the means to confirm that leak, before making a trade on the back of it. Imagine that in a world without mobile phones. Unless you had a watertight source of information, you had to receive information in some other form (fax/landline, perhaps) and then locate someone who could corroborate that for you. That meant getting them on a landline, which (remember this?) wasn’t always guaranteed. Not everyone was right by a phone all the time.

Because information was far harder to share, you could reasonably infer intent or recklessness if that sort of valuable information was shared and then traded upon at a profit before anyone else had a chance to do likewise. The phrase ‘insider trading’, in those days, made sense.

The SEC, in the Netflix case, found itself in a ridiculous situation, the opposite of what the insider trading regulations were designed for. When Netflix CEO Reed Hastings posted on his public Facebook stream that Netflix’s monthly online viewing surpassed 1 billion hours, it became public knowledge. However, because it wasn’t released through official investor information channels, this information was classed as ‘material non-public information‘, and not legally tradable. The law which was meant to prevent Joe Punter from an imbalance of information was being applied to protect the class of investor who used to be on the other end of the see-saw. The institutional investor, who would once have had access to more information is suddenly at a disadvantage.

What’s more, all class of Joe Punter, technically, should not have been trading on this new information. It was unofficial – material, but non-public. Not. Tradable. Effectively, Joe Trader was being asked to ignore, or ‘unknow’, this information until the institutional trader could catch up via a traditional release on a traditional channel. It was, for a short time, an unknowable known. The desire for level playing fields aside, this is crazy. It is not ill-gotten information, it is relevant, accurate, and, above all, PUBLIC.

Mobile, instant communications have turned companies inside out. An ‘insider’ is just as likely to be an outsourced consultant, working remotely, as they are a wonk sitting in the centre of HQ. Hell, it could even be a CEO who has pinged his Facebook followers with a relevant update. We all share content dozens of times a day and companies, inadvertently, wear their insides on the outside, courtesy of their employees.

The ruling from the Securities Exchange Commission tries to bring things back to the centre. It says that it’s okay for corporations to share material information via social media now, and for that information to be considered tradable.

The line being jumped on by most people is:

‘Most social media are perfectly suitable methods for communicating with investors, but not if the access is restricted or if investors don’t know that’s where they need to turn to get the latest news.’

The most important lines come in the final paragraph of the SEC release on April 2, most of which is pure caveat:

“[D]isclosure of material, nonpublic information on the personal social media site of an individual corporate officer — without advance notice to investors that the site may be used for this purpose — is unlikely to qualify as an acceptable method of disclosure under the securities laws. Personal social media sites of individuals employed by a public company would not ordinarily be assumed to be channels through which the company would disclose material corporate information.”

What the SEC is saying is that it’s okay for a company to release info via nominated accounts, but only those which are flagged to investors. But if there’s a disclosure from an employee’s twitter account, not flagged to investors in advance, and you trade on the back of that, it’s still insider trading, even if the name of the crime doesn’t really fit.

It’s not going the whole way to opening up social media as an insider information free-for-all, but it is redressing the balance again. Only this time, it’s not in favour of the masses, because the masses already have the upper hand. It’s almost like the SEC read the last line of this Forbes article entitled ‘It’s time for the SEC to join the digital age’ and implemented every word.

There’s further to go, of course, and it will be interesting to see what the SEC does next. Will they wait for another loose, stock-surging tweet or make a pre-emptive move to define in greater detail how companies should regulate information disseminated by their people? Will it lead to even greater restrictions on social media use in publicly-traded companies? What of the non-nominated channels in the interim, the coder who hints at a shipping date on Twitter and just happens to be followed by Joseph Weisenthal from Business Insider who blabs it to the entire financial world? It’s like chaos theory. If a geek tweets in China, what happens when it causes a financial tornado in Texas?

And, wrapping up, hats off to Netflix. Not alone are they disrupting the TV & movie industry distribution model, they’re doing the same for distribution of financial information.

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. >

Karibu Kibera


Before going any further, the word Karibu means ‘welcome’ in Kiswahili, and it’s one you’re likely to hear on a regular basis here.

This post issues after a flying visit to Nairobi, where I arrived on Friday after a long journey from Dublin with delays at both ends. In Amsterdam our engines wouldn’t start. In Nairobi, the visa queue moved with all the urgency of cold honey. Thereafter, things picked up pace. Less than twelve hours after stepping off the plane, I was in Kibera meeting with the Kibera News Network team. KNN film news in Kibera as it happens, videoing the footage on small Flip cameras and uploading their edited clips to Youtube. They’re often the first on the scene, and get some great interviews from major events that would otherwise go unnoticed. They deserve more attention than they get.

The KNN team came to my attention through Map Kibera, one of the projects I’ll be examining in detail as part of a project funded by a Simon Cumbers Grant. ‘What you measure, you’re more likely to improve’, an athlete once told me. Map Kibera has helped civilian teams measure every inch of the Kibera slum, mapping resources, sanitation facilities, black spots for crime and everything in between, quite literally putting Kibera on the map. Go to Google Maps, and Kibera’s a blank, just as it is on Kenyan government maps. It is a vast nebula of humanity, hunkered under a wavy canopy of rusting tin rooves and a hum of commerce, music and motorized mayhem. Nebulous things are hard to map, or so the excuses run.

We spent yesterday talking to several Kiberan residents about some aspects of their lives in the city. I passed on what little filming and photographic skills I had to help them with their interviews, and together we set about putting together some material for an upcoming project of theirs. I also introduced them to two Kodak zi8 cameras donated by the good folks at Storyful, which they’ll add to their arsenal.

There was a group of eleven of us tramping around Kibera at times, so I won’t name everyone, but the KNN team was hugely hospitable. They were fun, welcoming, and rightly proud of their home town and the people within it.

Kibera, for its troubles, fulfils many of the slum sterotypes. The houses are small, dark and close together. The roads are muddy. The sewers run as trenches in the middle of alleyways, shallow and fast in some spots, deep and fetid in others. It’s not a nice way to live at times, and the KNN guys, all Kibera residents, acknowledged the problems their home faces. Their whole raison d’etre is to draw attention to the highs and lows of Kibera life in the hope that the good stuff will be recognised and the bad stuff rectified.

Highlight of the day was meeting a man called Mike Aziz. Mike was a KNN interviewee in a story produced by Joshua on a fire in the area. I recognised Mike and we bumped into him at one point when the KNN guys were filming some material on that topic. He was gobsmacked (as were the KNN crew) that I knew his face from an online video, and we interviewed him in English for the piece.

On to Mombasa, where I’m currently visiting Komaza, a sustainable forestry NGO based in Kilifi. I visited Kilifi in 2003, and plenty has changed. More on that, Map Kibera and the rest a little later.

Editors/producers interested in contacting Markham for material from Kenya & Tanzania, please email Markham (dot) Nolan (at) gmail (dot) com or call +254-732-580-147.

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”

‘Normality to Richard Pryor in four short years’


This was one of the hardest articles I ever chose to write. My mum had a short but intense battle with MS in her mid-forties, which she ultimately lost. I paired up with Damien Mulley, who had been diagnosed recently, to write about our experiences of the condition. It’s heavy.

I wrote this six months after my father died, and some people remarked that it was an article I could never have written while he was alive, given the situation it describes. It doesn’t attach any blame to him for his response, but it would have been….awkward. And as for the motives behind it – I don’t know. Therapy, I guess. It’s still hard to re-read, and seeing it in print was much harder than the process of writing it, which I undertook pretty much on autopilot. I picked up a copy of the paper and went into a coffee shop to read it that day, and nearly collapsed when I saw the pictures of my mother in the paper. Anyway, here it is:

Sunday Business Post, September 07, 2008

MS, which attacks a person’s nervous system, directly affects more than 6,000 people in Ireland. Diagnosis often prompts a frenzy of research, as the new patient scrambles to arm themselves with as much information as they can. Often, the first stop is someone whose life has already been affected by MS.

For Cork-based journalist Damien Mulley, diagnosed this January, his first port of call was a fellow journalist, Markham Nolan, whose mother died in 2004 after an unusually brief time with the illness. Here, they share their very different perspectives on a condition that is a familiar presence in thousands of Irish homes. Continue reading “‘Normality to Richard Pryor in four short years’”