Vox the News Cycle

vox storystreamInteresting discussion at Nieman Journalism Lab triggered by a recent post by Vox Media’s VP of Engineering, Michael Lovitt, on launching Vox.xom as a nine week development project. Vox.com has some very cool features, not least of which is the threading of topically related stories into ‘StoryStreams’, including the stream of “How We Make Vox“. Co-founder of Vox, Melissa Bell, explains:

If we wanted to build a digital startup journalism entity, we would behave like the technology company Vox Media truly is: launch fast and tweak often.

The launch of Vox.com has been framed in terms of it being a technology company. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of how they actually approach stories and the production of content. Hopefully, it is not like David Eun’s 2011 master plan for AOL.

Eun used an ‘engineering flow’ type approach to integrating SEO and analytics information into the production of news-based media content. Not very many people were happy about this. As one recent commentator described it:

It’s telling that throughout “The AOL Way”, the emphasis is on what managers and technology employees can do to maximize pageviews, and not on actual writing or video production, itself. That is, the presentation implies that AOL management took its content’s quality for granted.

Bell describes the work of Vox.com as addressing the problem of having to catch up after dropping out of the constant flow of the news cycle.  She became aware of this problem after being promoted into her previous role at The Washington Post as ‘director of platforms’ and ‘blog strategy’. From the same Guardian piece:

“It was amazing to me as a reader how quickly I felt I fell off the news cycle,” she says. “If I wasn’t paying attention to the rapid developments, it was difficult for me to understand what was happening in major news stories. When I took that step back I realised the challenge of being a reader.”

What is the news cycle according to Vox.com? There seems to be more or less topical news stories being explained through the website, but there is also “7 things the most-highlighted Kindle passages tell us about American readers” as the ‘most read’ story.

vox kindle

The news cycle used to be organised around the habits of consumers. The evening broadcast television bulletin, the morning newspaper, or the hourly radio bulletin. It was structural to the rhythms of industry and cultural expectations of news consumers. Not unlike the difference between the ranking of books in the New York Time’s Bestsellers list as compared to the highlighting of book passages through Kindle as an index of popularity, has there been a shift in the character of the news cycle?

Journalism Jobs

The ABC is reporting on a leaked “issues paper” from the University of Queensland (UQ) and that UQ apparently plan to merge most of their Communications offerings. Part of this process is allegedly dropping the journalism course (although the leaked document states the contrary: they have no intention to drop the BJournalism degree).

“Issue paper” author and UQ Dean, Prof Tim Dunne, has definitely isolated some issues that are worth engaging with:

Demand for journalism is declining globally as employment opportunities diminish in the era of digital and social media. In recent years, there has been widespread job loss in the journalism profession in Australia. The Australian Government Job Outlook suggests that job openings for journalists and writers will be below average over the next five years, with an overall decline in the number of positions. At the same time, there is increased visibility (on-line, through social media etc) and new kinds of employment opportunities are emerging, including areas such as data analytics.

I am not sure how Journalism is taught at UQ but I find it very hard to believe that students are not equipped to take on the challenge of new “on-line” platforms in addition to traditional media forms.

Prof Dunne presents a bleak picture for journalism, but it is not entirely correct. What is the current state of the news-based media industry, formally known as ‘journalism’? Absolute numbers are very hard to discern, but trends are relatively straightforward:

The ABS Employment in Culture, 2006 – 2011 captures some trends over the five years 2006 to 2011.

[table caption=”Table 1: Employment in Journalism” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]
Newspaper or Periodical Editor, 4844, 5059
Print Journalist, 6306, 5510
Radio Journalist, 671, 603
Television Journalist, 1059, 1123
Journalists and Other Writers (nec), 1279, 1705
Journalists and Other Writers (nfd), 1414, 2125
Totals, 15573, 16125

Much has been made over recent high profile lay-offs at Fairfax and News Corp, as if they are the only places that hire journalists. For example, the current #fairgofairfax social media campaign to generate support for Fairfax employees has a high degree of visibility on Twitter. Indeed, the number of print journalists declined by 800 in the five years 2006 to 2011, but as a field the numbers went up. I shall return to this below.

When we turn to the Australian Government Job Outlook data it is clear that this increase in the number of journalism jobs is not surprising.

[table caption=”Table 2: Journalists and Other Writers (Job Growth)” width=”500″ colwidth=”20|100|50″ colalign=”left|left|center|left|right”]

Time Period, Occupation (per cent growth), All Occupations (per cent growth)

5 Year Growth, 37.8, 7.8

2 Year Growth, 28.7, 1.9


It seems that the Prof Dunne pays particular heed to this page of the Australian Government Job Outlook data regarding prospects:

Over the five years to November 2017, the number of job openings for Journalists and Other Writers is expected to be below average (between 5,001 and 10,000).Job openings can arise from employment growth and people leaving the occupation.

Employment for Journalists and Other Writers to November 2017 is expected to decline.

Employment in this large occupation (29,800 in November 2012) rose very strongly in the past five years and rose strongly in the long-term (ten years).

Journalists and Other Writers have an average proportion of full-time jobs (75.3 per cent). For Journalists and Other Writers working full-time, average weekly hours are 41.6 (compared to 41.3 for all occupations) and earnings are above average – in the eighth decile. Unemployment for Journalists and Other Writers is average.

So after witnessing jobs growth four to five times the average for the past five years or so, and 10 times the average over last two years, there will ‘only’ be between 5000 to 10000 new positions available.

The broader journalism industry seems like it is in a pretty good state of affairs, which contradicts popularist conservative narratives about an oversupply of journalism graduates. Two years ago The Australian newspaper attacked Journalism Schools and attempted to open up another front of the Culture Wars (or return to old ground after the earlier ‘Media Wars‘). They suggested that Australian journalism schools produce too many graduates, when it is apparent that universities were actually servicing demand. The Australian newspaper does not represent journalism in Australia; in fact, it is a tiny vocal minority.

The bottom line is that there has been an explosive growth over the last decade in journalism and other jobs relating to the news-based media industry. The biggest growth measured in the Employment in Culture statistics for Journalism is in the ‘Not Elsewhere Classified’ category of just under 500 new positions; occupations include blogger, critic, editorial assistant and essayist. The key point is that this growth is not in the legacy media industries areas where journalists have traditionally worked. Most people who work in the media industry know this to be intuitively correct. More media content (writing, filming, recording, producing, etc.) is created and distributed now than at any other point in history.

The real question that Prof Dunne asks, and which is implied by his remarks about the rise of new employment areas, what combination of skills and competences shall serve our graduates in an era that produces more media content than ever before in human history? Or as he states: “What is likely is that there will continue to be a need for strong and vibrant courses in journalism that are practice-based”.

He gestures towards data analytics as an example. Many research projects show how newsrooms have learned to appreciate analytics information about their websites, and increasingly about individual users (in the era of paywalls and required logins). Students report that they feel empowered after the workshop where I give them as editors the task of setting up a ‘dashboard’ in Google Analytics so as to create reports for their team of student journalists. They can see how older forms of journalistic ‘gut feeling’ map onto new analytics information.

Another example is regarding the delegation of editorial responsibilities to more junior staff. Reading into the Employment in Culture figures there has been an increase in the number of editors from 2006 to 2011. Occupations in this role include features editor, news editor, pictures editor, subeditor, and (importantly) website/blog editor. One way to interpret this shift, which is congruent with other observations, is that there has been a ‘flattening out’ of the journalism industry with less medium-specific silos and more network-based cross-platform media enterprises. We train graduates to be prepared to take on some of the responsibilities that used to belong to senior journalists as editors but are now graduate level positions.

Based on proposed five tier funding arrangements there will be a refocus on design and audio-visual studies as the core units of journalism and communication studies. Part of this is because of the very strange separation of Audio and Visual Studies from the other discipline areas in the 1007 Field of Education code so it is in the funding tier that receives greater federal government funding.

Walkleys Conference Notes — Google and New York Times presentations

From my iPhone, WordPress backend interface a bit tricky!

Google Australia Communications and Public Affairs Manager Johnny Luu presents Google 101 for Journalists, covering tips and tricks for using various Google tools, advanced search methods, finding and analysing trends, and creating data visualisations.

Search smarter tips & tricks


Results page

-Fact box, breakout
-Ads, like editorial & advertising
Advanced search functions
-search for time and date
-search for different forms of media
-search in other languages & google translate
-search within a particular site
-search with a particular domain
-search for a certain filetype:
-John Tedesco example sanantonio.gov damage claims
-Go to advanced search feature
Keeping your finger on the pulse
-hangover example, Saturday peaks
-Gillard vs Abbott search term popularity
-news headlines option match up with graph
-insulation scheme trends
-Australian university Indian searches drop off, violence and visa changes
google.org flu trends example
-YouTube advanced search
Data journalism and visualisations
-google fusion tables
-download trainer
-San Francisco bike accidents google.org
The New York Times Interactive News Editor Aron Pilhofer discusses the latest methods of engaging readers by blending editorial content with social media, interactive data journalism and other digital innovations.
Break the template to fix it
-future lives outside the CMS
-just one more game
-Olympics example, river of news, bring in social media, bring the data/results
-photos page
-schoolbook example, local education featured education content, get people not through our homepage, incorporate comments elevated comments
Building for mobile
-work has tripled, 45-47% traffic came through mobile on election night
Readers have come expect interactivity
-dump the days paper online
-database interpretation of blog
-question and answer format
-reporters dedicated to answering q during debates
Social is a second homepage
-Oscar ballot, Oscar party in a box
-why replicate something exists in the world
-using Facebook as part of the platform
-sharing your contribution to the page, rather than sharing the ‘page’

Fairfax Media and Newspaper Next

My colleague Jason Wilson has attacked the Finkelstein Independent Media Inquiry report in the context of the Fairfax restructure announced today. Jason writes:

The Independent Media Inquiry bent over backwards to demonstrate the peristence of media power in order to build a case for regulating it further. But the real story is that traditional media are in a death spiral. These have been major social institutions. Despite what many see as their poor performance in recent years, it’s not clear what exists to replace them in that role.

The Independent Media Inquiry investigated whether or not governmental regulation and/or support would be appropriate in the context of the shifting composition of an industry sector. All major media companies in Australia made submissions that suggested that government support would be unwarranted. The report references a number of submissions and introduces and then quotes from the Fairfax submission thus:

Notably none of the established newspapers felt there was a need for government support. The submission by Fairfax Media states:

No one can deny that the traditional media business models have been severely challenged by the growth of the Internet. That said Fairfax does not support the proposition that independent journalism needs assistance by way of Government subsidy or tax breaks as have been suggested by some submissions … Media organisations need to transform themselves to account for the changing needs of audiences as the digital and online platforms continue to evolve. Existing revenue streams need to grow and new revenue sources need to be found and sustained.

It seems that is precisely what Fairfax are doing at present.

Two other points are worth making in the context of the analysis by the Independent Media Inquiry Report. Firstly, the report analyses the democratic function of the news media (what Jason refers to in terms of them having been ‘major social institutions’) from the government’s perspective, not the perspective of individual journalists or companies. I do not agree with Jason that the Independent Media Inquiry was tasked or even should have been tasked with providing an industry with strategic solutions to their commercial problems. Chapter 12 of the report engages with the problem of ensuring industry-wide ‘journalistic capacity’ to produce ‘quality journalism’, which is slightly unconventional for a media analysis. Most media analyses fall into the political economy perspective or correlating ownership or the identity of news producers in general with a normative sense of ‘diversity’. ‘Diversity’ was mentioned in the terms of reference, but this was developed into ‘journalistic capacity’ in the report. Nor does the report explore even a single example of a specific news outlet or business model. Clearly, this would have been inappropriate. Imagine the furore unleashed by the culture warriors at The Australian if the report made forthright suggestions regarding how businesses should operate!?!


Is this a ‘desperate’ move by Fairfax?

Here is a brief extract from a discussion I had with Jason and Jonathon on Twitter.

Clearly, they both believe, as does Jonathon Green, that Fairfax’s move to be ‘desperate’. Is it?


The Long View

The second point to be made about the Independent Media Inquiry is regarding the absence of the kind of suggestions (as noted by Jason) and if they are not in the report, then where such information can be found. A fantastic starting point for anyone interested in how this may (or may not) play out is the Newspaper Next experiment from the the American Press Institute. Proper historical research is required to analyse the last two decades of of shifting business models, as a way to ward off the boosterism of an always future leaning opinion makers. Less ‘this is what you should do’ (or in the case of Fairfax the schadenfreude of the inverse boosterist ‘this is what you should have done 10 years ago’) and more ‘this is what has and has not worked in this context’. The chronic boosterism of ‘internet evangelists’ manifest in the rush to be ‘in front’ of every other voice in the marketplace of opinion means that existing experiments such as Newspaper Next are often forgotten.   

Two major reports were released as part of the experiment, and a third smaller report. One from 2006 announcing the project, another two years later reporting on those media companies following through with the Newspaper Next experiment and a third on using ‘Interactive Databases’ (I’ve uploaded the first two reports to Scribd, because it seems that the API has removed Newspaper Next from its site). I’ve got an academic article in the works that analyses both major reports in terms of the way they discuss ‘opportunity’; it is a curious example of thinking ‘opportunity’ as the necessary restructure of markets (by way of attempting to forge new stabilising social neworks that reproduce markets and therefore stability of revenue streams, etc).

The first report presents some of the conceptual background in thinking about the changes to the US newspaper industry based on notions of ‘disruptive innovation’ and the main points are capture in above diagram (page 19). Some rightly criticised the experiment and the report specifically for being ‘all talk’. Indeed, it does have a certain boosterist tone about it. There is some good ideas amongst all the enthusiasm however.

The second report presents 24 case studies of new products and seven examples of how newspaper companies organized and financed innovation. The most relevant example in the report is The Chicago Tribune. Unfortunately, even at this stage of the experiment it was clear that no newspapers would be willing to ‘make the leap’. As Rick Edmonds at Poynter reported at the time:

However, many of the experiments have stuck too closely to traditional core competencies, making money, for instance, by reverse publishing online material into print, still the comfort zone for the ad sales force. The result: the pace of change is unprecedented but not quick enough; most projects are too small and too slow to develop revenue on the scale needed. So the report urges newspapers companies to “make the leap” beyond news or even news and information.

Then check out this post by Steve Buttry, one of those involved in the Newspaper Next experiment. He was also apparently behind the third report on using interactive databases as a new kind of journalistic product. Steve’s point is that none of the news companies that engaged him or others to make presentations wanted to impliment the Newspaper Next blueprint.

The results were pretty much the same as the response to N2: Executives praised the ideas generally, but lacked the vision, courage and/or freedom to make such dramatic changes in their declining companies. Either N2 or C3 could have led the newspaper industry to a more prosperous future if companies had truly followed them. Instead the business has followed a defensive course of slashing costs, throwing up paywalls and waiting for a miracle.

My point is a very simple one: there has been a huge amount of work carried out in other local, national and international markets on what has worked and what has not worked in attempts to restructure individual companies. It is clear that Fairfax has to undergo a transition to a new business model. It is far from clear what transition model works best.

Maybe I am the only person (at least in my Twitter stream) who thinks that amongst all the commentary about the ‘desperation’ of Fairfax that they actually did something right in holding off from undergoing this transition? Does anyone have any figures on how much money has been wasted at other media organisations on ‘restructures’? obviously some changes should have been made sooner (such as the ‘digital first’ strategy and the integrated newsroom). However, if they had attempted to lock themselves into a new business model even a few years ago would they have the information they have now about what works, what doesn’t and the various different contexts and range of outcomes in between? Business leaders are inherently conservative, they are not going to invest in a company restructure that requires a market restructure at the same time. Not unless they have the ‘killer app’ anyway, but there is no ‘iPod’ solution to the challenges faced by the news industry.

News Ltd moving to Methode CMS

News Ltd has anounced they’re moving to the Méthode content-management system. Méthode seems to be the favoured newsroom CMS for a number of publishers. A part of the News Ltd announcement focused on the integration of social media streams into the newsroom. This is possibly the least interesting feature in the rollout of Méthode. In most circumstances Méthode is an attractive CMS for large cross-platform publishers (newspaper, magazine, web, app, etc.) because of the way it deals with content.

What is Methode?

I’ve come up with a list of features of Méthode largely framed in terms of how I have taught my ‘Online News’ journalism unit this semester. My main focus for part of the unit was to introduce students to using a CMS for editorial production purposes. (The other focus was ‘data-driven journalism’ and presenting students with the challenge of finding, assembling, analysing and incorporating ‘big data’ into their set of practical journalistic skills.):

1. Integrated cross-channel publishing platform.
This is the “One CMS to rule them all” approach. In LOTR there was a single ring of power; in publishing land, there are integrated CMS packages that bring together all publishing channels into a single integrated production flow. Méthode is produced by Eidos Media. Eidos calls this cross-channel publishing. A properly integrated cross-channel publishing has been the ‘holy grail’ of publishing:

The holy grail of the CMS producers has been creating a onesize-fits-all solution; something which seamlessly integrates the reporters producing the content, the production journalists, and the website and print production software and hardware.

This has a few practical implications.

2. All staff engage with the same production process interface.
Everyone is (or at least can be) working through a CMS. Copy is not ‘filed’ as much as it is copied and pasted into specific fields. I am currently typing in the ‘body’ field of a ‘new post’ in WordPress. There is also a title field and various SEO fields. (I experiment with new SEO plug-ins on my site for teaching purposes.) I also have access to my site’s media library for inserting multimedia files. Méthode is integrated with industry-standard Adobe software for the designers to do their thing. Eidos even treats advertising the same way with advertising copy and so on entering the production work flow. It is not surprising that the most advanced in-house or custom content management systems I’ve seen are normally organised for advertising sales and placement.

3. Every editorial element in Méthode is a database element.
‘Data-driven journalism’ normally refers to stories produced by critically engaging with a dataset. Méthode transforms all editorial copy (and other elements) into database elements. A good example is the way Méthode handles images:

When several channels are being served from the same content base, images will be required in a wide range of formats and resolutions, both during the workflow process and for final publication. Wherever an image is published, in a print page or an online channel, it must first be tailored to the resolution and ‘colour space’ requirements of its destination.

When an image is uploaded to the CMS it auto-formats these images to be used according to the necessary standards of each page template of each publishing channel. There is a single content base which is repurposed across multiple channels. Every different element of a story/package can be published in a number of different ways, including body copy, standfirsts/ledes, headlines/titles, captions, etc. The same headline may exist as a print headline, website post title, email newsletter subject line and so on. Eidos calls repurposing of editorial elements and republishing of stories across channels ‘compound stories’:

4. Automation.
I don’t know if News Ltd print designers use templates and if they do to what degree, but Méthode enables the sophisticated use of CSS templates, which will save a great deal of time. This means copy can be posted and the formatting and design work is already done at the template stage. I imagine that some competent journalist/editors will be given responsibility of some sections without any design input (beyond the template stage) whatsoever.

Not everyone thinks that the use of templates is a good idea, however. A few creative directors will be very unhappy if the level of customisation possible from non-template design was ever completely removed from the production process. As one CMS developer told the Press Gazette a number of years ago:

The efficiency of any technological publishing solution is dependant on the amount you are willing to use templates. The CMS companies can provide this – but editors are generally unwilling to make too much use of templates on newspaper and magazine pages because they want to have the creative freedom to display stories as they see fit, so this is where the idea of having a fully integrated system breaks down.

Even in the design-heavy world of magazines, the use of templates in some parts of he production process would surely free up valuable time. There are many staff writers who have been given the unenviable task of preparing copy for email newsletters by hand normally using the editorial copy of magazine ‘contents’ pages and simply copying and pasting the headlines and standfirst/extracts that reside in the contents descriptions. Contents pages, email newsletters and other regular sections of magazines (‘Coming next issue’, ‘News’, etc.) could easily be based on templates and only require very minor tweaking.

5. Future-proofing the production process?
Méthode is an XML-based system. Basically, this is the web designer/developer/engineer way of saying that all the editorial content is being translated into an XML database. Through the use of filtering with appropriately categorised data (editorial) elements, any piece of data can be repurposed for any given XML-friendly platform, even those that do not exist yet. Eidos has already produced an iPad version of the CMS editorial interface, which basically turns the iPad into a mobile mini-newsroom.

CMS Thinking? Journalism Education

Perhaps the introduction of an integrated CMS will see other changes at News Ltd. Amy Gahran argues that “tools embody mindsets” and she suggests that journalists need to develop a ‘CMS thinking’:

Content management systems have become the core tech tool of the journo trade. These days, journalists absolutely need to know how to use a CMS — not just to file stories, but also at least the basics of how to set them up for projects, integrate stylesheets and themes with them, choose the right CMS tool for the job, integrate content from a variety of sources (including feeds, databases, and XML), and creatively distribute and promote their stories.

Gahran further develops this line of thinking in the discussion around her original post:

Think of content as modules that can be structured, mixed, mashed, and reused — rather than thinking strictly in terms of narrative stories. This is a key point where hands-on experience with a CMS affects journalistic practice. When you start thinking of your end product as a series of modules that can be configured in a story but that can also be used and distributed in other ways on your site and beyond your site, that can affect how you go about doing the reporting.

We’ve decided on using WordPress in class. It is a cheap and relatively powerful system. It does not really allow for a properly integrated approach across non-online channels, but it does present the opportunity for students to begin developing their ‘CMS thinking’. I use the Edit Flow plugin to transform the blog-based CMS into something closer to an actual newsroom CMS. As part of the changes to the UC Journalism course we are creating a final year ‘Newsroom’ unit that is designed to provide students with the experience of using a CMS in limited ‘newsroom’ conditions. We are gradually going to incorporate greater functionality into our WordPress-based publishing platform.

As a sidenote, the font I’m using in headers does not render accents above letters (the é in Méthode) and apparently neither does The Australian’s font package.