Friday, January 29, 2010

A Ranter? Moi?

I’ve just made my debut on Gentlemen Ranters, a hilarious forum for old Fleet Street farts and others to reminisce and remind ourselves things aren’t what they used to be. Behind those anecdotes though lies a wealth of history that tells you all you need to know about the Fourth Estate.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

What barrier a paywall?

US blogs have been jumping all over the story that the Long Island weekly Newsday has gained a mere 35 online subscriptions in the three months since they put their site behind a paywall.

It’s a worrying figure, given extra resonance coming as it does on the back of the neighbouring New York Times announcement of a paywall from 2011.

But without knowing the full extent of their subscription model, I’m not clear what it tells us. The sums are clear: online-only subscribers pay $5 a week (or $260 a year) giving an annual return of $9,000 against a capital cost of $4 million, which is what new owners, Cablevision spent rebuilding the site with the wall in place.

But given the massive subscriber base the company already has via its print home deliveries and Cablevision customers – all of whom get online access as part of the deal - these may be irrelevant in terms if the business model, especially if such access was part of the upsell.

In other words, they have near-saturation already, the 35 are incidental. Rather like the guaranteed circulation publications (freesheets to the plain-speaking) delivered to every house in town but available for a quid “where sold”.

More interesting is the massive fall in traffic since October: uniques are down from 2.2 to 1.5 million. Again, that could be a direct result of the barrier or something to do with the popularity of the redesign. I can’t recall the old one, but there are some on the newsroom floor that have been less than complimentary.

Behind all this though is another business question: how important are page impressions?
The Guardian has just set a new record for a UK national newspaper, recording an incredible 36.98 million global uniques for December - a 62 per cent rise from last year. Digital Director Emily Bell, who must take a wallop of the credit, puts it down to their coverage of the Copenhagen climate change conference, which is in itself interesting.

I say that because, despite high-minded claims to the contrary, hits are normally driven by the quirky, the bizarre or the risque; Elvis reincarnated as Man in the Moon, cancer man grows tree our of his head or Cheryl Cole takes a skinny dip; the sort of stories that would lead Sunday Sport in the eighties. And a lot of it’s down to cleverly cynical use of SEO, even Googling phrases and penning stories to catch the wave.

Hit inflation has been responsible for digital newsroom high-fiving since Fleet Street properly caught on in the mid-nineties. And the Guardian is not alone. The Mail, second in the online premiership table, saw a 67 per cent rise, for example.

So, the question is: just how many more eyes do we need on our sites – and how important are these masses as against, say, a more minimal, closed, core readership?

Few of these conversations can take place in such broad terms. If anything, publishers will have to seek alliances outside the industry if they are to seek traffic of proper relevance.

I wouldn’t be so quick to write off the Newsday debacle. It has to be down to individual business models to determine what these figures mean. In the meantime, there was a quirky one worthy of note, if a comment on one posting is to be believed: 35 is the exact number of senior executives at the paper.

Monday, January 25, 2010

More scandal at the town hall

So, the Audit Commission doesn’t think local councils are misusing public funds by producing their own papers. No surprises there.

And equally without shock value is the news that that the Newspaper Society is now calling for the OFT to examine the “damaging impact” on local media businesses.

Two questions: Are these the correct bodies to be dealing with this issue in the first place? And what happened to Lord Mandelson’s pledge of support?

Chief executive Steve Bundred didn’t seem to think that these freesheets were published often enough “to be viable media for most local advertising”. Someone needs to tell him just how little there is to go around.

And he didn’t seem to think that councils were using public money to further their political agendas, saying there were “adequate safeguards”. Someone needs to show him one.

If all else fails, may I suggest a few editors offer their services to empty dustbins? Bad example. It was going through a councillor leader’s dustbin a few years back that got me the sort of splash that you’d never see in Town Hall Today.

Actually, not such a bad example, come to think of it.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Dear hacker, we know where you live

We found the hacker. We know how he got in, what he did and even spotted him coming back to check on his handiwork. We also now know a fair bit about him – and so do the police who are talking in very joined up terms about liaison between the Public Protection Unit, Special Branch and Interpol. I envisage cuffs being snapped on a wrist in a Turkish internet cafĂ© sometime soon.

Monday, January 18, 2010

Rounding on the hackers

A hacker managed to make a minor incursion into the Jewish Chronicle’s news site yesterday, placing a pro-Palestinian message across the home page.

It was a clever intrusion and we had to take the site down and reboot to wipe what we could and probe around the back-end to see how it happened. That’s ongoing but we went live again this morning with a two-fingered message to the perpetrators.

But I was impressed by the massive reach of the readership. Within minutes, I was getting calls and text messages from readers, alerted by the sort of people I’d never assume read the site, let alone on a weekend.

The editor, the MD and the IT head had them as well: and on they went into the night and the following morning. There was obviously intrigue in that it involved the Mujaheed and a site that takes such a deep interest in Israel. And the fact that the suspect IP address was Turkish, given the diplomatic spat between the countries at the moment.

But I got a cosy sense of a circling of wagons from our wider community as word – and real concern – spread so quickly by less technical means.

The geeks are on it now. And they love this sort of thing. They go into Silent Witness mode in their dark corners, examining every router, server, source, port and a few things I can’t pronounce.

Not sure what they’ll find, but I’ll let you know.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

I wouldn’t be too eager to change the Beaver

Damn these email spam filters. How dare they force one of Canada’s oldest magazines to change its name?

Winnipeg’s finest, The Beaver, has been doing very well for the past 90 years, thank you very much. Until, that is, readers found their online queries bouncing back.

Whatever next?

I just hope this doesn’t discourage others from taking their erstwhile local publications online. Residents of the County Donegal village of Muff may experience a few problems, not to mention those in the Savoie village of Pussy.

It wasn’t like that in the good old days of innocence when all we had to worry about was the good old black and white TV. I remember well my mum’s favourite programme; a light-hearted singalong show with Noel Gordon on her pre-Crossroads days. Its name: Lunchbox.

Sorry about that. But I've just done wonders for my SEO.

Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Got a job? On yer bike

The story of journalism student Lindsey Cole's plan to cycle through Africa in time for the World Cup Finals was a little sad, given that the only reason she's doing it is because she hasn't found a job since graduating with a Masters last year.

But her appeal for someone to go with her will probably not go unheeded as she’s hardly alone in her plight.

Whether through a sense of pastoral care or to fuel my own suspicions, I recently enquired after some of my students when one got in touch for a reference, having failed to secure anything approaching a proper reporting job for the best part of a year.

At a rough count, and after a bit of Facebooking on his part, we estimated that of about 12, three had found work on papers, two had gone back into education and the rest had variously, completed endless intern placements while living at home or working part-time in offices and two had quit to travel or given up and changed career.

Sadly, none of them were privileged enough to be able to live for free in London while looking, or the family connections that enabled them to coast their way through a graduate scheme on a national.

Worse still, all my advice about packing a bag and being prepared to travel “to any local paper in the country” seemed to rebound when he told me of the applications he'd made.

My only dread is that he ends up taking a job on one of those awful council-run freesheets that are at the heart of the demise of these newspapers.

Got a job anyone? He comes with a reference.