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Arab Spring – A Broadcasting Revolution (or Broadcaster Evolution?)

16 May, 2011 2 comments

This post and all other business-focused posts are now being held on the Seven League blog.

 

“You should see my four-year-old with an ipad / mouse / iphone / tv remote / [insert relevant period technology]”.

This is one of the phrases that winds me up most when I’m at a conference, listening to someone speak about the internet with the new-found fervor of the recent convert. Don’t get me wrong, I love converts and their enthusiasm. I love tech-savvy four-year-olds  – but I don’t want to be sitting in an audience being lectured about a 10 year old behaviour pattern they’ve only just discovered. That’s stage 1: zealotry. Tonight was all about stage 2 but more of that in a minute.

The event was the Bafta hosted Arab Spring – A Broadcasting Revolution with a top quality panel of journalist experts from across the mainstream media.

It was Jon Williams of the BBC who raised my heckles. “Twitter is nothing new, it’s just like another tips line” he said, clearly feeling no need to put any qualification around that, and “social media doesn’t replace journalism, it complements it”. Of course he ended the discussion saying “we are privileged to be reporting such extraordinary moments” but only after he’d sidelined twitter as just another source. In fact, it was left to Jon Snow to be excited – to point out that the difference with twitter is that one comment can lead to another and another from multiple sources which can lead to links, data, pictures and video – and all within seconds because the scale and range of the network is so huge in comparison with anything we’ve known before. Sadly this glimmer of excitement and enthusiasm quickly faded as he realised that he was supposed to be chairing – but it seemed like he knew more about social media than anyone else on the panel.

Stage 2: Ennui.

‘It’s nothing new. We’ve seen this before. The story isn’t the technology, it’s the people. The technology is just a platform.’ These are all phrases with enough truth about them to cause plenty of damage to a media organisation. They cause damage because they breed complacency and they downgrade awareness of and investment in new technology.

At this point, I should caveat that I don’t know Mr Williams (@WilliamJon). In fact, I used to work with Sky’s Sarah Whitehead (@swhitehead1) when she was at the BBC, but other than that, I don’t know the panellists and I haven’t worked inside a news broadcaster for 10 years – so there’s a chance that last night’s panel wasn’t the best representation of what goes on within the BBC, Sky, ITN, Al Jazeerah, etc. But seeing as the second half of the evening was supposed to be dedicated to debating whether social media had been shown to revolutionise broadcasting in the case of the Arab Spring, I felt we didn’t even scratch the surface. Ironically, but not surprisingly, there was no hashtag for the debate, but thanks to @IanKearney for tweeting.

The stories on covering conflicts were impressive, harrowing, fascinating. The journalistic credentials were unparalleled. But the level of digital media debate was low. Perhaps I was in the wrong place, but it’s not just that I wanted to hear more geek talk. It gave me genuine concern that a lack of discussion might cover a lack of knowledge or interest…

Stage 2: Ennui is what happens when Media Executive A has gone through the excited digital stage. In fact, they’ve been through fear, opportunity, hope, excitement, over-excitement, disappointment… and now they’re just bored of the excitable digital-types who used to invade their newsrooms (publishing offices, media centres etc etc). Now they know all the TLAs, they’ve been on all the digital media courses, they know the difference between a follow and a retweet – and to the bosses on high (who know they don’t know anything) they sound digital. Or digital enough.

Other options

The panel was made up of hugely experienced and esteemed journalists with long and decorated careers in journalism and broadcasting. Sadly, there were no other voices involved – none that could have talked through the importance of social media. Oh for a Clay Shirky or Jay Rosen or Jeff Jarvis or Emily Bell or Aleks Krotowski or Kevin Anderson or any of a long list of others. Steve Herrmann (@BBCSteveH), the BBC’s News Online Editor would have had an interesting perspective, perhaps.

There was no discussion of ‘twitter to break the news, facebook to organise, youtube to share’. There was no mention of journalists being held to account by online communities who know the subject matter better – and by the impact of that on working processes – how being part of an ecosystem or a conversation has revolutionised reporting at the Guardian and other media institutions. Yes, I could have spoken up – but questions from the floor by digital media practitioners always end up sounding like rants – and that never helps the cause. The debate itself needed to be more balanced – or at least more focussed on the practice of using social media in newsgathering. Yes, there were interviewees in the VT piece about social media who knew what they were about, like Alex Gubbay (@alexgubbay) (formerly,  BBC News social media chief, now moving to Johnston Press), but these weren’t the voices on tonight’s panel.

There was some good conversation stimulated by @stewartpurvis around impartiality. But there was scant discussion of anonymity and the essential and interesting place it holds within internet-based discussion. And there appeared limited awareness of the fundamental scale of social media and the power of the scale of the network.

Second source? How about hundreds?

There was mention of getting a second source – but this wasn’t extended into the idea to get multiple sources – that scale means mass-corroboration as well as mass-collaboration. I’ve always found an important premise is to understand a user’s provenance online – their history and profile within the community and conversation ecosystem where they reside.

[alert: incoming personal anecdote confirming experience of conflict reporting and internet heritage]

When I worked on the Kosovo Special Report on BBC News Online in 1998, there were 3 of us in the team. I handled what we’d now call the data journalism of updating the daily record of allied bombings. But if social media had been around I could have corroborated those stories – I could have shown pictures of schools bombed-out when Nato said it was an armoury. However, this also highlights the issue of scale again: with twitter, facebook and youtube – and the need for broadcasters’ representatives to reside in the online community so that you can know the reputation and reliability of a source, or to use mass-corroboration as your principle – you need resource, huge resource, to be able to effectively operate as a broadcast journalist body. It’s a manpower challenge.

What worried me most about Mr Williams comments – and the rest of the panel – was that there seemed to be no sense of being in a media revolution. As Clay Shirky says (and I paraphrase)

“In a revolution, no-one knows how it’s going to play out – not even the revolutionaries”

But if you think twitter is just like another tips line – then you might not have your eyes on the horizon. You might not realise that we don’t know what the next massive step will be in the digital impact on how we report news, cover elections, reflect revolutions. And if you’re not constantly adapting and working on changing your organisation to the next technological thing that comes out, then you risk missing the nuances of revolution because all you can do is react to the barrage of voices that hits you when massive news stories break.

Why does any of this really matter? The panel all agreed that our journalistic purpose is to uncover truth  – to go, to see, to tell what we see – but my worry is this: if you’re not alert to the nuances of technology; if you think that we’ve been through the digital revolution and we’ve got it covered; if you think that all your journalists are more than capable and digital-enough then the risk is that the authorities, like those in Bahrain, will learn to use the internet and social media in better and more effective ways – and truth will just become increasingly difficult to find. Complacency about the need to be alert, to invest and to adapt our media organisations to the ever-moving point in the revolution of digital media felt heavy in the air tonight. I hope that digital revolution in these companies is still going on and that we haven’t slowed it down into a complacent, bored, regressive stage in broadcaster evolution.

It would be a mistake to judge an entire organisation by the one person who was picked (or available) to speak on a panel. I’m sure there are some excellent digital people in those companies and I would ask Bafta, next time, to get them in on the debate.

Tonight’s panel was chaired by Jon Snow ( @jonsnowC4) with

James Brabazon, Freelance Journalist & Trustee, The Rory Peck Trust – @james_brabazon

Ghazi Gheblawi, Libyan Author and Blogger – @Gheblawi

Bill Neely, International Editor ITV News – @billneelyitv

Jacky Rowland, Senior Correspondent Al Jazeera English – @jackyaljaz

Sarah Whitehead, Head of International News, Sky News – @swhitehead1

Jon Williams, BBC World News Editor – @WilliamsJon

@richardayers

www.linkedin.com/richardayers

FA Cup Final day

15 May, 2011 1 comment

This post and all other business-focused posts are now being held on the Seven League blog.

 

What a day.

Everyone from MCFC is exhausted. The build-up has been unbelievable (as Micah Richards would say – it’s his only adjective) and then you add the adrenalin, the pressure, the happiness… and I don’t really think it’s sunk in for them all.

When I left the Mandarin Oriental at midnight, there were a smattering of stragglers, but the majority of the party had made its way to bed. No hijinks, no madness, none of the high-rolling scandal the papers might talk about. This was a bunch of people who are knackered and genuinely over-wraught.

As one said to me, her first game was in 1977, when she was 6, and the last win had been 1976… so it’s been all her life – all of it – that she’s been waiting for this moment. The emotion was palpable. Several times people talked me through how it felt and nearly came to tears. Bless him, but the match-day operations director has, in the last 10 days, become a father again, seen the club he’s worked for for 14 years reach the qualification stage of the Champions’ League… and now win the FA Cup. Remarkable.

The digital media team have done me proud as well. 16 pieces on video which will make more than that by the time we’ve edited and divided it into chunks, text stories, picture galleries, fan reaction, twitter commentary, Match Day Centre live coverage,…

One of our guys has followed the cup all the back to Manchester on the train.

We had 20 minutes IN THE CHANGING ROOM! which is unheard of and will be great viewing.

And, as Garry Cook said in his emotional, inspirational speech – it’s just the beginning of more great things to come…

Make yourself redundant, it’ll be a good thing

9 May, 2011 2 comments

This post and all other business-focused posts are now being held on the Seven League blog.

 

It’s Friday afternoon. The page has been prepared, it’s live on the web, only no-one knows it’s there.

Maybe I could just quietly leave it there for a while, unpublicised, and no-one would ever see it… then I could go on working here, having a fine time, and I’d never get replaced. Hold on… that’s not the plan. So I write the tweet and hit send.

“This is a very good job. Really. I should know, I’ve been doing it for 6 mths. You want it? http://bit.ly/kOuV1W #jobs”

<gulp> The I go to linkedin and do the same. <gulp> There’s no going back. I’m making yourself redundant.

And…. breathe.

Once, twice, three times redundant…

Making yourself redundant is a bizarre experience. Even though each time it has been part of my plan, it’s always weird.

I’m not talking about the “looking for a payout” redundancy that The Idler so deftly advises, nor the “I’m a Director, how can I make myself redundant” advice that’s needed for financial and legal reasons when you’re shutting down or selling a company.

No, I’m talking about when you make the “Right” move because it’s right for the business… and because you’ve done your work, delivered what you planned, and now need to take a step backward.

At Magic Lantern Productions we decided to restructure the company and as the MD I was in the odd position of planning to reduce headcount – including getting rid of my own position. Felt odd, and (of course) it was a move full of concern for my financial future – but without a doubt it was the right thing to do for the business.

At Trinity Mirror, I was the first Web Publishing Director in Regionals… so on an interim role to see if it worked, set up the strategy, be an agent of change, get things going… and then hand over to someone so they could run it full-time. It was supposed to be for 6 months and ended up being for 20.

And now, at the wonderful Manchester City FC I am going through it again. City is at a wonderful point in its digital growth and the job is, quite genuinely, the best I’ve ever had… good people, clear decision making/focus/audience/subject matter, passion and a load of good business to do around the club. What’s not to like? Only one thing… I think you need to be in Manchester and run full-pelt at this stage in the company’s growth. And I’m going to become a father in London very (very!) shortly… so I don’t want to be spend nights a week away from all that. (or maybe I’m mad and it would be the perfect way to get some sleep…hmmm..)

Let go, be happy (and effective)

Management books often say you should aim to make yourself redundant – and it’s often credited to Henry Ford – but whoever said it, I believe in the epithet. It means you train people to do what needs doing better than you can do it as part of your role. It means you hire people who are brighter than you and work hard to make their work easier. It means you set yourself free to look upward and outward and to spot the next new, exciting thing to work on.

As Bre Pettis of MakerBot said to me the other day:

“If I spend more than an hour a day on it, then it should be someone’s full-time job. So I go get someone.”

Of course, the downside is that you have to be live through the insecurity and the network’s reaction.

Friday evening saw a deluge of tweets, emails and texts from people saying “so, you’ve decided to move on? why? what’s wrong?” or “Why aren’t you doing it, if it’s so good?”. It’s easy to see how people get the wrong end of the stick. Which is why I thought it would be a good idea to write this up. Although I hope to stay involved with City from a distance, I don’t have the next (non-parenting) project lined up. I have no doubt that I’ve done the right thing (again) but that doesn’t stop me being jealous, already, of the person who gets the job.

10 years experience – too much?

Speaking of which, let me give a little context on why I’m asking for 10 year of experience in the role profile. City’s inestimable HR director asked the question :

“Why is it so important to have 10 years experience… with technology moving so fast, does it really matter?”

To which I answered:

10 years is important because …
1) everyone claims more experience than they actually have – so if we set the bar at 10, then people with 5 will still apply but also, much more importantly,
2) ten years ago the .com bubble burst… so what i’m asking for is people who were around *before*. Why? The people who were involved in the first wave of growth of new technology then had to live through and deal with the aftermath of over-excitement. they were the ones who learnt to adapt and be flexible with creativity, technology, commerciality. the people who came later didn’t learn those skills of adapting which are so key to the stage this business is in.
3) Ideally we want someone who has similar skills and experience as I had 5 years ago… and I’ve been doing this 16 years, so 10 is about right.

You’re right, the technology changes fast. But that’s why it’s essential you get someone who has long and hard-won experience of driving a business while dealing with / adapting to change.  It’s not that there aren’t good people out there who have 5 years experience – it’s just that there are lots of charlatans and I wanted to set the bar high.

If you’re applying for this role, thank you and good luck.

Full role profile and job application details here: www.mcfc.co.uk/joinus

In case you arrived at this page looking for some good advice on redundancy, then here are some useful links:

HMRC Advice on redundancy

In-Business.co.uk: How do I make myself redundant

Phil Gyford’s excellent guide to being a freelancer

Employment lawyers I can highly recommend: Audrey Onwukwe at Levenes (UK, London and Birmingham offices)

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