Big changes

I have a job.

That may not be a startling revelation unless you know that I have not had one for the last eight years, as I was self-employed.

The story of that time is simple: I had a young family, did not enjoy the profession I was working in, wanted to get back to journalism and wanted flexibility.

Freelance journalism was therefore a great way to make a living.

But in the last year or so I had started to take on large and complex freelance projects, like launching and editing magazines. I did this because I felt I had outgrown simple fee-for-service work in a “write a story and get paid for it, repeat until children fed and mortgage paid” mode.

I had also reached the conclusion that the kind of work I did could not scale beyond my own efforts: while I was the product, I could not hope to maintain cashflow and do much more than write and edit.

So when a job came along that offered me the chance to keep doing what I love – writing and editing – but also offered me a chance to work in a team and therefore have the chance to realise some other long-held ambitions, I took it.

It’s been a bit jarring, organisationally. I have to commute, 1.5 hours a day. Buying and eating large lunches from food courts is denting my budget and expanding my waistline. But I do get more time on my bicycle – I try to ride to the office whenever possible.

So … what do I do now?

My title is pretty fancy: I’m Managing Editor of CommStrat, a publishing and events company. I edit Government Technology Review plus My Business magazine and its new website. I also work with the editorial teams on our other publications, Council Manager, Roads and Public Works Engineering.

I’m also a contributor to SearchStorage ANZ. It’s my journalistic hobby. I am no longer the Editor of TechTarget ANZ.

What this means

These changes mean I have a new work email address.

It also means that my personal outpourings, like this blog and my Twitter stream will change a little. But not a lot. I decided long ago that I would never blend my personal output with work output without letting the audience know. So I used the code [plug] to let the world know when I was plugging a story instead of just being myself. It may also mean less personal stuff – I’m really, really, busy.

In the near future there’ll be a lot more of the [plug] as one of my new duties is editing the My Business website. I’m congisant that most of my followers did not sign up to get stories pushed at them, so will try hard to keep the usual stuff coming.

If you’re in PR or marketing, feel free to call for a chat to learn about the new role and what it means for the way we work together.

If you are a mate, I’m now much easier to catch up with.

If you’re a cyclist, let’s sit on each other’s wheels over the harbour bridge.

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Ten reasons this journalist is not banking on anyPad to save my career

I wrote a few weeks ago about my newspaper holiday.

I haven’t been enjoying it. The Australian feels like an endless stream of admonishments from a schoolmistress. I’m always reading that something is badly handled or could be the harbinger of bad times, or that vested interests are somehow being unreasonable in pursuing their vested interests. And I am more offended by a headline attributing personal responsibility for the arrival of refugee boats to the Prime Minister than I am by the illogical, biased and ridiculously-swayed-by-movies opinions of Miranda Devine.

The thing that really grates is News Ltd’s deification of itself and its values. Of late that has meant endless gushing coverage about the iPad, along with generous hints about the publisher’s commitment to the device.

For the record I am yet to behold the device, although I do not doubt reports that it is lovely to use. Apple products tend to be that way. Apple products also tend to sell in the multi-millions, which means there’ll be an audience for content on the iPad. Everyone expects there’ll be competitors, so there’ll be a decent market for content in this form factor.

I cannot see it “saving” journalism – not for years and years, anyway.

Here’s why.

Firstly, the initial audience will be small. You don’t save anything with early adopters. You make something new, so I expect whatever media these devices spawn will not flourish in the ways people now hope or expect. The street, as William Gibson put it, finds its own uses for things.

Secondly, the price is high. I know – d’uh! – it will come down, but exactly why I need to spend $500 on a device so that I can then subscribe to a newspaper is beyond me. My newspaper sub costs $29 a month and I’m cool with the blend of broadsheet accessibility and the lesser iPhone experience when I’m on the move. When News Ltd is willing to give me a tablet/slate – like it happily doles out set-top boxes – I may become more interested.

Third, the idea that dead tree distribution is broken is wrong. It actually works quite well – as Alan Kohler observed, it take a well-oiled machine to get my newspaper onto my front step every morning. Its non-trivial to arrange that distribution system, and if you want proof is there still a milko or bread delivery person in your neighbourhood? More importantly, the business of spreading pigment on sheaves of cellulose, then delivering it to retailer and/or consumers is something publishers invented, so it formed in ways that suit publishers and was even quite vertically integrated until relatively recently. Sure, publishers eventually outsourced lots of the process, but they had invented it to start with and innovation came in specialist areas like logistics.

The iTunes distribution system was not designed by a publisher. It was designed by Apple to make money for Apple. As Apple constantly enforces conditions that crimp its rivals’ activities to preserve its own preferred modus operandi (think Adobe on iPhone), I expect its distribution system will eventually prove to be less-than-ideal for publishers. Just look at its intransigence on music pricing and the small-but-significant number of artists who get on just fine without iTunes – this system is not for everyone!

Fourth, slates do represent convergence of media, but not convergence of devices just yet. Think about it – do you still wear a watch or has your mobile taken over that function? Do you play music or movies through your PC? When we can get it, we want a swiss army knife of a computing device and the iPad and its immediate, 1st-generation competitors aren’t there because they force us to have one device for media consumption and another for other tasks. This will restrict adoption as many people persist with good-enough laptops and PCs for the stuff that slates do exceptionally well.

Fifth: Artefacts matter. I have a room lined with books and 15 years worth of magazines. They look great. People are packrats by nature and artefact hoarding won’t go away in a hurry. Don’t forget the social function of artefact display, either. Your collections say a lot about you and it’s not like someone can come into your house and appreciate your values by seeing your iPad!

Sixth: People are subscription-averse. All the magazines I have ever been associated with get perhaps 20% of their readers from subscribers. Newspapers do better. Quite why we’ll all decide to buy more subs just because they get pumped into a tablet/slate is beyond me.

Seventh: How much value does extra images and video add to news? For me, not much. I’ve almost never opted in for an extended interview online, because for me the news is about getting a concise dump of pre-edited material. I TRUST journalists to bring me the best bits (I know, such naivety!) because I am time-poor and want a quick, digestible content nugget.. Extras slow me down and will need to be bloody good to add value. It takes expensive, collaborative processes to make rich media. Are newspapers really going to invest in the stuff that makes for a satisfying 3-minute video to enhance printed coverage? The small amount of newspaper-created video I’ve seen to date generally does not betray massive mastery of other media – journalists speaking to camera are dull – and I have no information that suggests iPad inspired investments are in the pipeline to change this.

Eighth – The iPad model is terrible for trade publishers, who often rely on “controlled circulation” strategies of sending unsolicited magazines to a desirable audience. How many CIOs are going to give out their iPad Ids to let this happen digitally? SFA, IMHO, ergo the iPad is very unlikely to save trade media, a segment of media that is very large but generally excluded from discussions about the wider media!

Ninth – I just don’t see journalism as having the same susceptibility to iPodisation as music. I’ve long felt that the iPod thrives at the intersection of instant gratification and freedom of choice. Not too long ago, if you wanted to listen to that obscure b-side you last heard sometime last millennium, it was painful to find it and more painful to re-acquire. Now it’s either in your iTunes file or for sale on the iTunes store. Either way, you can access it in less than a minute. Now … name the written product you crave in the same way. I’m betting it takes longer to think up that great article you’d like to experience again than it takes to do the same for a song. I think this is important because the impulse buys and impulse listens that make the iPod so great won’t happen for other media.

Tenth: One of the reasons the mainstream media is in strife is that there are now more outlets in the market. Quite how the iPad or any similar device will stop leakage from MSM to new media is utterly beyond me. As the eyeballs go, the ad rates drop … I see no way out via. an iPad.

All of these reasons mean I am not banking on the iPad to save my career. I’m sure there will be some lovely innovations that emerge, and I hope to be able to participate in some. But I do not expect an immediate – or even short term – uptick in the media’s fortunes as a result of these devices.

Oh and I’m also going to go back to the SMH, even though it means more Miranda …

Does the ABC belong in tech media?

Rural media have, of late, expressed concern about the ABC’s plans to create a series of regional news websites, each dedicated to news about and/or from a town or region. Worried that ABC content will drag eyeballs away from their own offerings, rural media has complained long and loud that the national broadcaster could reduce their audience, thereby reducing the likelihood anyone will want to advertise in their publications.

IT media may now have the same issue to confront, because Auntie has recently advertised for an Editor, Technology and Games.

The job description says the successful application will, among other things, be expected to “Develop an agenda setting online destination for audiences interested in both consumer and business aspects of digital technology.”

Yep – you read that right: head on competition for the IT media.

Quite why the ABC feels the need to get into our business is anyone’s guess. Diversity seems not to be a sustainable argument: regional areas seldom have more than one media outlet, but IT is replete with dozens of outlets.

If the aim is to supplement current offerings like Good Game, I think the ABC is on the wrong track because I don’t get how it serves the public to air a show that basically consists of  free publicity for commercial products. (Ditto The Movie Show)

So I suppose I should get all upset that Auntie now wants to challenge the publishers who help me to make a living … except for the fact the ad also says the successful application gets to commission outsiders to provide content.

Seriously, though, this job does raise important issues about why the ABC is coming into tech media.

A personal dictionary

I’m trying, this year, to be a little more precise in my writing and speech.

Here are some items in my emerging personal dictionary:

  • “Greatly dislike” or “detest” – My substitutes for “hate.” I dislike hate becase of the way it is used in contexts like “hate crimes.” It seems to me there are few occasions on which I experience emotions with a similar strength and/or negativity (not to mention irrationality) to those expressed by perpetrators of hate crimes, so am trying to use milder, more precise language.
  • “Exceptional” – my substitute for “great,” which is horribly overused. Alexander the Great conquered half the known world before his 30th birthday. An exceptional cricket shot cannot therefore be great.
  • “Brawl” –  I find the use of war as metaphor for commercial conflict to be inappropriate for several reasons. If there are only two combatants, I feel language that reflects the conflict more precisely does readers a better service. So you won’t see me writing about companies going to war or battling.
  • “Demise”, “decline” or “descent to irrelevance” – I feel that we in the media often oversimplify things by declaring that markets only produce winners and losers and that the losers are “dead”. This belittles numerous niche vendors who make perfectly good livings without being dominant or prominent. Think of dot matrix printers, for example. So rather than writing that a technology such as tape is “going to die” I would rather write about it becoming less relevant to mainstream users or something along those lines.

I’ll update this post as more entries come to mind.

Post 32,2009: A tail of two emails

A couple of days ago,  I received an email from a local operative at a large, international, PR agency. The content of the mail was simple: it asked me to send the operative a copy of a 2010 feature list.

The mail opened with “Hi there” and did not mention a publication.

By now you have figured out that this was a mass mailer.

I find that pretty odd. Here was a PR person asking me to devote some time and attention to them, and they could not even bother to personalise an email to me.

This agency, for what it is worth, uses the following phrases to describe itself on its web site:

  • “… passionate, straight-talking …”
  • “We embrace technology and know how to make brands relevant and stand out from the crowd by talking in a language that everyone understands …”
  • “… we’re passionate about communication …”

I imagine that anyone who is truly “straight talking”, “embrace[s] technology” and is “passionate about communication” would realise that using “Hi There” to open an email is pretty poor.  To say it in “language that everyone understands” it is, IMHPO, pathetically lazy and a betrayal of the values professed on the company’s site and makes a lie of PR firms’ general assertion that they understand media, have great relationships with us all and are especially cunning communicators trained and expert at delivering their clients messaging.

Now for email number two, from a local agency.

It was a Christmas greeting and contained a simple graphical card in which, miraculously, my name had been emblazed across a Christmas tree decoration.

It was simple, cute and the addition of a single word – my first name – demonstrated a little care and attention had been paid. That, to my mind, is professional communication.

The first email was an embarrassment of a sort that, sadly, a significant minority of PR firms still practice.

Post 32, 2009: Why are online image libraries *STILL* so amazingly shit?

One of the most disappointing things in the journo/PR interface is the continued patchy availability and quality of online image libraries.

The need for online image libraries became glaringly apparent in about 1996.

Since then, I reckon less than 50% of vendors get them right. I have no idea why as a good image library is a blindingly obvious idea.

Some holdouts, I suspect, wish to control distribution of their images. I cannot imagine why.

Others have just been lazy.

Whatever the reason, let me state this now, loud and proud, for the last time.

IF YOU HAVE REALLY GOOD IMAGES ONLINE THAT JOURNOS CAN GET ASAP, YOU WILL GET MORE AND BETTER COVERAGE.

So get to it!

Post 31, 2009: Oh no! I’ve become one of those journos who always asks a boring niche question

One of the things that can get a bit tiresome at media events is journos with niche audiences who have to ask a question relevant to their audience and pretty much their audience alone.

Journos from channel mags, for example, always ask about channel strategy, a topic of little interest to 90% of the assembled media.

Business newspaper reporters always ask about money, often in considerable detail, again provoking rolled eyes from many other media in the crowd.

It’s sooooooooooo boring when this happens.

Yet as I prepared to ask a question of a visiting CEO last week, I realised that I have become one of those journos. Editing searchstorage.com.au means I must now ask  boring niche questions no-one else cares about.

Sorry, my colleagues, it’s a dirty job covering storage, etc …

My PR readers now get to put something else in their briefing documents about me!

Post 30, 2009: My HackiPod

About a year ago, my old iPod died. I’m pretty sure it is what Apple calls a “Clickwheel” iPod. The disk started making odd sounds and it stopped working.

I looked into replacing the disk, but 1.8 inch hard disks are rather expensive these days.

So I hunted around on the net and found several articles asserting that it is easy to replace an iPod’s hard disk with a compact flash card. (I’ve lost the bookmark for the site I used, but this one seems fine.)

To do so, one needs an adapter to convert a 1.8 inch IDE hard drive connector to a CF card converter. Happily, I found such a device here.

Next step: opening the old iPod. As you probably know, iPods are sealed units and are not designed to be opened. As luck would have it, I had dropped this iPod and its white casing was knocked ever-so-slightly off-center and had left a small gap. That gave me the space I needed to insert a watchmaker’s screwdriver into the gap and prise it open a little. The next tool I used was an awl, a.k.a. a pointy piece of metal with a handle attached, to widen the gap further. Eventually, the white casing gave a little pop! and the iPod came apart.

Next, removing the hard drive. This was not hard, but required a firm tug. It came off quite easily.

The adapter is easy to fit, as it is readily apparent where the pins will fit. Adding the CF card was a doddle (we had a spare 1GB card around the house gathering dust), then the white component of the case clipped back together easily.

The CF card and adapter are not as voluminous as the hard disk and lack the housing found inside an iPod, which meant the iPod connector jangled around a little ominously before I closed the case. But once I snapped it shut, everything fell into place.

I connected the iPod to my PC and iTunes recognised is straight away, installed the iPhone OS, reformatted it, then let me synch to it. In less than ten minutes, it was a working iPod again.

I’m impressed that Apple does not prohibit iPod rebuilds of this sort.

So … what am I doing with what I have decided to call my HackiPod? Well … it’s now my iPod of choice for bicycle training. I use it out in the shed on the static trainer. At 1GB it does not have a heap of content, but it can store far more than I can listen to in a single training session of (typically) 45 minutes.

The adapter cost about $23, inc postage. The iPod was originally $799 and we have since replaced it with a$329 iPod classic. So this was no money-saver. And it means we now have five working iPods in a four-person household (two iPhones, the HackiPod, the Classic and a new Nano for Mr 8).

But it was fun to hack this iPod back to life.

Post 21: Cricket and the push/pull of the information age

I’m a cricket fan. I adore the longer form of the game.

Part of me understands that a game which spans thirty hours over five days is anachronistic and I see why some say Test cricket is dieing. It’s easy to see the logic that asserts that condensed forms of cricket tailored to the hectic demands of modern life make more sense than a game invented to prevent Victorian men from feeling bored.

Except they don’t, because Twenty/20 cricket still needs a big slab of one’s time to watch. Matches require at least 150 minutes, a long-ish period to devote to a contest that generally lacks the tension that comes with a tactical game in which thrust and counter-thrust are part of the play. Twenty/20, in my experience of the game, has few moods. Things are either going well, or badly. There are few shades of grey.

For me, Test cricket’s ability to provide a finely graded spectrum of states of play is its strength and the reason I appreciate the game. Appreciate, however, may not quite be the word. I’ve long thought of Test cricket as a not-unpleasant anxiety to be endured. Just knowing there is a match in progress makes me ache for information about it. When I can devote my full attention to it, I will do so. At other times, I seek out the less sensorily intensive  ways of covering the game. For me, the sound of an Australian summer is a slight increase in urgency of the sounds emitted by an AM radio, the increased noise being a sign to devote more of my attention to the goings-on in a  game I cannot stop myself being curious about.

I also adore technology and the way it enables communication. Tools like Twitter allow me to immerse myself in my friends and sources of information I value. Myriad other services let me watch or learn or hear what I want to, when I want to.

Today, those tools are applied to cricket following old models. They insist I pull information, rather than anticipating my needs. Test cricket, it seems to me, can thrive if it inverts the pull and instead embraces the fact that while it is hard to immerse oneself in 30 hours of action, it is possible to deliver a variable drip of information that gives those with interest but little capacity for full attention the essential experience of the game by blending short updates, near-relatime video and other ways of presentingthe game.

If cricket can get this right, I believe it will create an experience more compelling than any two-hour hit and giggle.

And I’ll happily pay for this partial-attention experience,  rather than for subscription television. Especially as the latter is giving away summaries for free! But that’s another story.

P.S. I know I owe you all a third way of funding journalism in the future. I’ve also got a fourth. I’m working on them and you can expect a post … eventually.

Post 16, 2009: Two new ways to fund journalism

I think everyone now agrees that while newspapers in their current form are in strife, nobody wants quality journalism to disappear.

But no-one knows how to fund it.

I’ve got three ideas and in this post I want to deal with two.

1. Industries should fund journalism directly

I cover a couple of obscure industries that have little dedicated media and only a very small number of writers with any appreciation of the technical nuances of the fields concerned. I’d argue (in a self-interested way, of course) that these industries are the poorer for their lack of a full-time focus on their activities, services and products. These industries also lack the vibrant hub that a good publication creates. They also miss out on the chance to reach prospects and customers through a medium they trust, namely journalism.

So I can imagine that farsighted industry associations could start to talk to publishers about subsidising a journalist’s wages, in order to ensure there is a resource dedicated to covering their industry. An Association’s investment in a journo could benefit its members by creating a virtuous circle in which the dedicated writer means a publication becomes more attractive to readers and therefore more useful as a marketing vehicle.

Is this feasible? I do some work with an industry association that could probably not afford to do this. But not by a vast distance.  (Obviously this is my personal opinion and in no way reflects the position of the association, in case anyone knows the association concerned)

2. License PRs to access journalists

I think the way PR relies on journalists, but does not pay for them, is in many way analogous to publishers’ complaints about the way search engines monetise their content without any financial contribution.

I recognise that PR probably lowers the cost of operating a publishing house by providing content and/or making it easier to access (albeit with the content groomed for commercial intent, rather than reader value). But let’s face it: PRs are stuffed without influencers to influence!

I can imagine publishers licensing access to their journos to PRs that have paid for the privilege. Such a scheme could be run through a PR industry association and would involve a sliding payment scale,  so as not to disadvantage small PR shops. But unless a PR had paid their dues, a publisher’s journos would not take their calls. Blocking their email would be simple.

I imagine PRs would hate this regime. Everyone hates it when new costs arrive in their industry.

But seeing as the way we fund journalism now is borked, costs are going to land somewhere. And right now, PR cannot exist with media but does not fund it at all. Maybe that needs to change to help journalism survive.

These ideas are both thought experiments and have obvious problems in terms of how this kind of funding impacts’ media independence and the likelihood of fearlessly critical coverage. They both also devolve to industry paying for coverage, either through associations or via. increased PR bills. I suspect that, over time, industry will miss having a media to read about itself in. Or maybe not – which is a whole other kettle of fish and something I will blog about with my third funding idea soon.