Monday, 29 October 2007

Who will cultivate the gardeners?

Say you are a keen amateur gardener. Where is your natural home on the web?

You read the newspaper gardening columns, you watch Gardeners’ World, you read a magazine or two. You may be a member of the Royal Horticultural Society. Most, if not all the off-line places you indulge your hobby will have a web arm. Some may be impressive in many ways. The RHS, for instance, gives you an extensive plant finder database online, not to mention posting you a glossy monthly magazine called The Garden.

Online, any gardening outlet worth its salt could be building a community that its readers or viewers will want to join, and which will provide a natural extension to the material offered in print or on screen.

They could do. Many don’t.

Of those that do, few have mastered the concept of community and belonging, and none have grasped the importance of hyper-local content.

As a keen gardener, I’ve been looking for a home on the web for some time. I’ve looked at all the brands I like and trust, and have been disappointed with them all.

Here’s what I found

It really knows its stuff; offers advice, guidance and training but not a lot of entertainment. No community, no interaction, nothing to share. And very impersonal. It has none of the warmth and enthusiasm of a gardening column or a programme presented by committed gardeners who you get to know and like.

Gardening Which?
A website largely for subscribers to the magazine, full of facts and advice, but no community.

Some sites, such as this one, are into e-commerce above all else. I do want to buy from the home I find, but I don’t want that to be the only reason they want me around.

Daily Telegraph
The Telegraph understands the need for community, but the contributions are thin, which suggests it hasn’t yet captured the imagination of this core area of its readership.

There is a fledgling community, and you can post a question for other readers to answer, but most have no replies, very few more than one. So it’s not coming alive yet, but is certainly one to watch

Amateur Gardening has only a couple of pages online, which offer you the chance to subscribe to the print publication, but little more. That’s a shame, because this is a very lively print product

The BBC should be the daddy.. It has all the advice and mutlimedia content you’d expect, plus vibrant message boards where the posts run into six figures. But you can’t blog here, and it has no hyper-local element, although the organisation has the resources to fix that.

So, looking to the brands I know and like, I don’t find a home.

I look further afield, and do find several very strong communiites. But at Dave’s Garden
the writing is amateurish and, while it has community in spades (sorry) with over 1,500 gardeners blogging, almost all are American. I’m not going to find a home here.

Likewise Organic Gardening which has good community, but offers no local UK content or community. You are pushed to subscribe to the allied magazine to access all the online content.

Community and hyper-local content seem to me to be the keys for making the internet work for print and broadcasters. Spotting communities that can be nurtured is essential, if established publishers and broadcasters are to avoid losing these readers, viewers and listeners. It might be classified advertisers, gardeners or any of the dozens of other interest groups that buy newspapers and magazines, watch TV and listen to the radio

In short, create communities or die

I haven’t found a home on the web that gives me all that I need, so I’m going to build my own. It’s just beginning to take shape here and here. I’ve no idea how it will work out, but I’ll keep you posted.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Don’t mention the Daily Mail. (I mentioned it once but I think I got away with it.)

I had one of those “Don’t mention the war!” moments last night. I was sitting next to a Catholic priest at a dinner party and found myself talking about the Channel Four sit-com Father Ted.

Too late, I realised that this could be compared with Basil Fawlty goose-stepping past a bunch of German guests with his finger under his nose. Not tactful, to say the least.

Mercifully, it wasn’t just any priest I was seated alongside, but Father Michael Seed, often referred to as “the priest to the stars”. His Guardian online profile plots his connections with the famous: “The former Liberal Democrats' leader, Charles Kennedy, and his wife, Sarah, the Barclay brothers (the Telegraph's owners), John Gummer, the classical musician Nicola Benedetti, the singer Suggs, of Madness, and Jeffrey Archer - all know him well.” (I know, too many commas, but you get the drift.)

It adds: “The celebrities he has cajoled into contributing to his books … make for an ecumenical rollcall: the Duchess of Kent, Hillary Clinton, John le CarrĂ©, Sean Connery, Prince Rainier, Jilly Cooper, Ned Sherrin, Richard Ingrams, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, Terry Wogan, the Dalai Lama, Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre.”

As it turned out, I hadn’t put my foot in it – I’d struck a chord. I discovered Father Michael has just written about Father Ted for a forthcoming Channel Four book commemorating the station’s 25th anniversary. He chose to treat the show seriously.


So we chatted on about one of the very best sit-coms of the past 20 years. Father Michael loves the programme, as I do, and sees it as a wonderfully warm and sympathetic portrayal of ordinary priests working against the odds, sandwiched between a church hierarchy that is not always in touch with its flock and a congregation that shows all the human foibles.

We talked about our favourite characters, scenes and lines: the disco dancing priest who dances himself to death; the pack of priests trapped in the underwear department of a Dublin store (“It’s the largest lingerie department in all Ireland …so I’m told.”); the contest to see who can kick Bishop Brennan up the arse; and Brennan’s response when Dougal insists on calling him Len: “Dougal, ya little bollocks!”

The general view in the Catholic Church is probably that the programme is very bad publicity. Infact it’s very good. It presents priests as fallible, but very human, and Catholicism in a warm light. And it gets the Church on prime time television.

Father Michael has an instinctive understanding of how to communicate through the mass media.

This ability has sometimes got him into hot water. When he agreed to write about his childhood, and suffering at the hands of an abusive father, for his close friend John Blake, one-time editor of The Sun’s Bizarre column turned publisher of Jordan’s ghosted autobiography, he got some stick.

He got more when the book was serialised in the Daily Mail, house journal of the antichrist as far as many liberals are concerned.

The Mail blurbed it thus: “Michael Seed's childhood was one of the most shocking you'll ever read about. But in a testament to the human spirit, he became a priest and friend to Premiers and royalty. His story is at once haunting and deeply inspiring...”

In it he writes: “I have never, for one moment in my life, ever forgotten the most minute and horrific detail of [my abuse at my father’s hands] and yet, in the 45 years since it first occurred, I have never mentioned it to another soul.

“I only do so now, in all its horror, not to shock, but in the hope that others, facing similar torment, can identify with me and start to believe that there is some hope in the future.”

The book might be classed in the maudlin genre of ‘Mis Lit’ – yet much good has come of it. That good can be measured in the response of the readers. While Father Michael wrote it purely as an account of his suffering, he has had many letters, from some of the 40,000 who have bought the hardback, about how inspiring they find his story, and his triumph over his past.

One among the comments on the Mail’s website reads: “I read this book in a day, I couldn’t leave it. I wanted to know what was going to happen but at the same time afraid of what that might be. I am so happy that Father Michael was able to break free of his past and create a future filled with positive energy, but my heart breaks for all those little children who cannot break the chains they become tangled in and lead a life of pain and misery. We read about the children who have overcome but who speaks up for those who can't?”

Of course, Father Michael didn’t have to serialise the book in the Mail, but he was right to do so. His book, and the publishing and publicity strategy behind it, is a model of how the mass media can be used for good ends.

At this point I will begin to sound a bit like a sermonising vicar who performs a crunching gear change from what the Bible says to something that happened to him this week

So... on to something that happened to me this week.

I was teaching headline writing to a group of people from a charity. The charity was being rebranded and they were required to get on message, and learn to project this new image through the headlines, and other content, they wrote on its website and in print communications.

Rebranding. Sounds nasty. Especially if you are a fairly lefty sort working for a very serious and well-established charity.

I admit it didn’t sound great to me either. I imagined all sorts of abstract concepts and lots of money spent on logos and detailed instructions on where to place them on the page, but little thought given to how to talk to, and persuade, potential supporters.

I was quite wrong.

The rebranding material I was given to work with meshed perfectly with the headline-writing course I was delivering

Because the rebranding was all about good communication; about identifying, and communicating with, a given audience. It was about grabbing people’s attention: making them read, making them want to learn about the material to be presented beneath the headline.

Also, although I didn’t quite dare tell the delegates this, it was very tabloid. Because it talked about writing with commitment and passion. (We hacks call that bias, which the tabloids are great at.)

In talked about having an agenda, and writing with passion to that agenda. That’s the approach which has made the Sun – and more particularly the Mail – great.

So, my rather vicar-ly point is…the mass media can be used to get an important message across: one that connects with the average punter in a very profound way. That goes for TV and the press, but equally for charity websites and press releases.

Friday, 12 October 2007

Is the web making or breaking writers?

That’s a good question, but not one I came up with. It’s the cover line on a magazine for writers put out by the Authors’ Licensing and Collection Society.

This is a great organisation. ALCS does the business by finding out who owes us cash. There are obscure sources of income such as royalties from photocopying, which were new to me. The Germans seem particularly assiduous in recording when they photocopy someone’s book. Why, I made £37 in the last quarter that way.

The ALCS magazine covers some good stuff too, but I was frustrated when I tried to find the piece that accompanied that coverline. I had to play hunt the article.

You get this too often with B2B titles, and occasionally with consumer ones. They put something on the cover with one line, then hide it by having an entirely different description of the piece on the contents list, and use yet another tack with the actual headline. Sainsbury’s Magazine used to be great at this, but then they spoilt the fun by putting a little asterisk in the contents against things they’d plugged on the cover.

Anyway, eventually I found what I concluded, by a process of elimination, was probably the article. It was a column headlined Reading versus Cyberspace.

Unfortunately, the column didn’t answer the question posed on the cover. Or not in the way that I had hoped.

I’d hoped to find an article that would look at whether writers benefited or suffered because of the web. Did people read more or less, did writers now get paid more or less, were they more or less likely to get published…that sort of thing.

Instead, the piece was about how distracting the web can be and how, if you are a writer, you need to get away for the weekend to somewhere without broadband and mobile phone signals to get any work done

An OK column, but not the one I wanted.

So let’s think about writers, journalists – and creative people generally – and ask whether the web is benefiting them.

Is the web making or breaking musicians, for example? A great deal of their work gets stolen, that’s for sure. The band Radiohead has made radioheadlines, and other sorts, by telling people to pay what they think the music is worth

Other bands give their music away and are convinced that musicians’ income in future will be from live performances and merchandising.

Is there any parallel here for writers and journalists?

Well, it doesn’t seem you can sell your content online, if you are a newspaper or magazine. The few newspapers that have tried it are thinking again and removing the barriers. So you need other revenue streams: e-commerce, charging for what is really valuable, or wrapping web access up in subscription charges for the print edition. Some B2B magazines seem to be making the latter work.

The question is: How are we writers going to get paid? We know we are going to be read - the rising popularity of websites is testament to that.

What I think we need is cyber fee collecting, a cyberspace ALCS that spiders the web, just like Google, matching content with its creator. Then, however the site makes money – through advertising, subscription or whatever - we the content creators don’t fill it for free.

The individual fees will be tiny, just like those for photocopying books. But they mount up – maybe to as much as £37.

I think it will work. If a site has an income, it can afford to pay the content provider a few pence. And, just like the newspaper column serialised around the world that picks up a relatively small sum from each paper that prints it, the sum total can be substantial.

Wednesday, 10 October 2007

Crash, Bang: want a picture, want a photograph?

The consultation on the future of press photography I’m conducting for the NCTJ is underway. The end goal is to modernise the syllabuses trainees study to ensure they deliver photographers with the skills editors need.

To kick things off, it seemed worth asking the industry a big question: Given that reporters often take routine pictures, that video journalists almost always come from a reporting background, and that readers now take dramatic pictures of fires, crashes and other newsworthy events, what should the role of the professional press photographer be?

If you’d like to take part in the consultation, you can do so here

Everyone is welcome.

Among the key questions we want answers to are:

Should press photographers be trained in video?
- If so, to what level of competence?
- Higher than the average video journalist?
- To the same level as they are trained in stills photography at present?
- Should their role be confined to filming video, or should they be skilled in editing it as well?
- Should photographers be able to create a professional video package for online?
- Should they be able to conduct the interviews, gather the information and voice up the report?
- Should we create a distinction between press photographers, who do the image gathering, and photojournalists, who are all-rounders capable of creating finished video packages?

Already the comments are coming in, and while views differ it's clear we are asking the right questions.

I’m not just relying on the blog to get debate going. I’ve also e-mailed a personal invitation to take part to over 100 editors, picture editors, photographers and academics.

In doing so I’ve done a fair bit of trawling around newspaper websites looking for e-mail addresses. And, guess what, it’s very hard to find a picture editor’s e-mail, let alone a photographer’s.

Virtually all newspaper websites have some e-mail addresses. If they offer more than just a generic one they usually include the editor, the news editor, and often the chief reporter, the features editor and the web editor. But very few include the picture editor. Even sites which list all the reporters’ e-mails often don’t list those of photographers.

Why is that?

I’d be interested to know.

Anyone got any ideas?

Saturday, 6 October 2007

What the web can do for you

I got chatting to Dave King, who began his new job as editor of Newsquest’s Swindon Advertiser this week, at an NCTJ markers’ meeting.

Dave’s unconvinced of the merits of video for regional dailies, and said he was more interested in podcasts. So I told him about Soundslides, which I think could be one important way forward for local papers on the web.

I’m developing a one-day course for regional newspapers entitled What the Web can do for You, and I’m featuring Soundslides there, among many other innovations.

Soundslides are sophisticated slide shows to which an audio track can be added. The Croydon Advertiser uses them very well. Here’s one I like for its relaxed professionalism.

You’ll see plenty of papers using slide shows minus sound to present a series of still image of, say, a football match featuring the local team.

Then again – at the Middlesbrough Evening Gazette’s award-winning Gazzettelive site, for example - you’ll find sports reporters talking to camera in video reports of a local match. Here’s a recent one.

Combine a Soundslide presentation with your football reporter giving his account of a game and you have a wining formula. Because, let’s face it, most football reporters aren’t so lovely you want to watch them talking for five minutes. However, run their expert analysis under high-quality pictures of the key moments of a game and you are on to something.

Soundslides are one interesting development. Here’s another…

To my mind, the key benefit of the web for local papers is that they allow them to be local again. When I was in the provinces I constantly got readers telling me the paper wasn’t local any more.

They were right.

Pressure on space meant that the extensive reports of local events, including clubs and societies, were no longer carried. The web means all that local material can find a place again. At Middlesbrough they are pioneering hyper local coverage, where content is divided by postcode.

This strikes me as a hugely significant development. Oh, and guess what, they all this area Communities. They aren’t arrogant enough to call them Gazette Communities – but that’s what they are.