Author Archives: Patrick Smith

About Patrick Smith

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist and event organiser, and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at and is @psmith on twitter.

Johnston Press Atex system is bad news, but the death of the sub-editor is inevitable

Last month Johnston Press journalists, enraged by a new publishing strategy and online/print content management system (CMS) called Atex, voted for group-wide industrial action. Atex will make reporters responsible for subbing and editing their own newspaper stories using pre-made templates. The vote was thwarted by a High Court challenge; a re-ballot is underway.

Now several other companies including Archant are either using or considering using the same system.

The NUJ has a point when they say that with fewer staff and less checks and balances, more errors will get through – this aberration of a front page in the JP-owned Bedfordshire Times & Citizen recently is a classic example.

Yesterday I questioned exactly why the union was opposing Atex; included in the union’s greviances were baffling and unexplained “health and safety” concerns. The union later told that they meant that it adds to staff stress levels.

But, I went on in conversations both online and privately, isn’t this part of a wider problem? The NUJ has a fundamental belief that sub-editors should sub stories and reporters write them. Like the pre-Wapping ihousen-printers that jealously guarded their very specific, outdated roles, the ideal outcome for the union is to maintain the status quo and protect jobs.

The reality isn’t quite that simple. Atex, as more than one person said, is far from the innovative answer that newspapers need. One person with knowledge of how Atex works, who works for a company that is planing to implement it and asked not to be named, put it to me like this:

We’re still in transition in my newsroom at the moment – we haven’t switched to using it for the web yet. However, if the system goes ahead as planned we will not be able to insert in-line links into stories, nor will we be able to embed content from anywhere else online. It’s possible to build link boxes that sit next to web stories, but it’s time consuming compared to in-line links – and if our current CMS is anything to go by, in the press of a busy newsroom, it won’t get done.

That sounds like a retrograde step. Far from holding back innovation, it sounds like JP journalists are right to oppose the move. This is from a company whose former chairman of nine years, Roger Parry, last week criticised the very board that he chaired for not investing enough in digital media (via Press Gazette). Exactly who else is there to blame?

But it gets worse:

For those of us who possess data skills and want to make mashups, visualisations and so on, this is a massive inhibition – even if we find the time to innovate or create something really special for our papers, we’ll have no outlet for it. It also means we can’t source video or images for our stories in innovative ways – no YouTube embeds or Flickr slideshows – cutting us off from huge resources that could save time, energy and money while enhancing our web offering.

It’s astonishing that we’re even considering such a backwards step to a presumably costly proprietory system when so many cheaper, more flexible, open source solutions exist for the web.

Regional reporters, web editors and even overall editors will read that and find this frustration of digital ideas by technical, budgetary limitations very familiar. The last point rings loudest of all: cheap, dynamic blogging solutions like WordPress and Typepad provide all newsrooms need to create a respectable news site. Publishing executives seem to find it hard to believe that something free to use can be any good, but just look at what’s coming in the in-beta WordPress 3.0 (via @CasJam on Mashable).

So the union’s misgivings in this case appear to be well placed. The drop in quality from Johnston’s cost-cutting is there for all to see in horrendous subbing errors, thinner editions and entire towns going without proper coverage.

Unfortunately, journalists have to accept that no amount of striking is going to bring back the staff that have gone and that times have changed. Carolyn McCall’s parting shot as CEO of Guardian Media Group was to repeat her prediction (via that advertising revenues will never return to pre-recession levels – and don’t forget Claire Enders’ laugh-a-minute performance at the House of Commons media select committee, in which she predicted the death of half the country’s 1,300 local and regional titles in the next five years.

Regional publishers may not all have a solution that combines online editorial innovation with a digital business model right now. But to get to that point, reporters will have to cooperate and accept that their roles have changed forever – “sub-editor” may be a term journalists joining the industry in five years will never hear.

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist, event organiser and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at and is @psmith on twitter.

RSS feeds beat any branded iPhone or iPad news app

There are still so many uncertainties in the media landscape. Media fortunes fluctuate upwards due to the green shoots of cyclical recovery and downwards thanks to the continued – and permanent – failure of long-standing print-based publishing models.

But one thing you can be assured of is that in boardroom and management meetings across the worlds of newspapers, magazines and broadcast media, executives are being asked: “What’s our app strategy?

Still regarded as something of a secret sauce for newspapers and magazines – Rupert Murdoch believes that all media will find its way to the iPad – the very success and survival of newspapers and magazines apparently relies on us iPhone- and iPad-wielding middle class types going on an App Store shopping spree.

I’ve written on these pages before that, much like an English goalkeeper facing a German penalty, the iPad won’t save anything at all – least of all the news business. Analysts at paidContent:UK and agree.

So here’s another thought: despite their convenience, apps are a limited way of publishing information. The self-constructed, community-based, open, Google-able news eco-system gives the serious media consumer a better all-round experience than the closed off system represented by the iPad and App Store, and all it takes is a little effort to make the most of it.

Most apps available now are primitive, quickly-built bits of smartphone software that publish articles via sequential updates. In the main, even market-leading apps don’t begin to present stories, pictures, video and graphics to readers in the way they should.

The experience of using the Guardian and Telegraph apps is only fractionally as rewarding and revealing as using and – indeed, it’s probably not even as good as those unprofitable paper things. Andrew Sparrow may be the king of political liveblogging, but try reading him on the iPhone app – it’s confusing, jumbled, the links aren’t live and it’s not worth the effort.

Look at’s review of iPhone apps from March: out of 34 leading apps, a measly five allowed offline reading.

So what’s the alternative? Do it yourself, with friends

Since the advent of the iPhone I’ve fallen back in love with RSS. With Google Reader’s mobile version (when in internet range) I can quickly read the 1,000+ feeds I check regularly. When out of range and on the London Underground I use the free NetNewsWire app which syncs seamlessly with Google Reader and works offline beautifully, as does the paid-for Byline app which shows pictures well and partially downloads online-only content too.

But both of those RSS aggregator apps allow me to add articles to my shared items on Google Reader and post things to Twitter. It’s a real-time news diet chosen by me and the community I belong to.

Times Newspapers launched its paid-for products this week and the £2-a-week sites are soon to be tied to access to iPhone/iPad apps, much like the FT’s app. With Times executives openly predicting reader numbers to collapse by as much as 90 percent, News International may be relying on the attractiveness of the iPad apps to shore up subscription numbers. I’ve seen the app in action on an iPad recently – it’s essentially the day’s online and print news digested into a series of regular “editions” – and the ‘liveness’ possible from online news appears to be lacking, as is the sharing aspect.

Of course, the everyday Man On The Clapham Omnibus doesn’t care or want to know about RSS, much less mobile apps that create a mobile version of their OPML file. But readers are media professionals – and I’d wager that most of you are capable of using free or cheap software to create a mobile news experience that no branded premium app can match.

Future of News meet-up: Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

I get tired of bloggers and journalists (let’s face it, like me) who spend their time opining about the problems and challenges for journalists. Which is why I’m a fan of Adam Westbrook’s Future of News Group in London, which he founded to discuss the latest in practical solutions for the news biz instead of lofty theory.

So I came down to the latest #FONG meet-up – concerned with “entrepreneurial journalism” – on Tuesday night to find out more. Westbrook – who himself has a very healthy entreprenuerial streak – kicked off the session by admitting, with blunt accuracy, that “lots of us are coming round to the idea that we can be entrepreneurial journalists, but none of us have a bloody clue how.” Here’s Adam’s take on the event, but here’s what I made of it:

Pick a big market, be your own marketing, wear red shoes

First up was Emi Gal, founder of Brainient, a Romanian video advertising start-up – it adds a layer of contextual or affiliate-led ads over any video content. (I’m not entirely sure how this engages with Google/YouTube’s own increasingly profitable overlay ad programme, but that’s for another time…)

24-year-old Gal is a good person to listen to because this is far from his first attempt at making a start-up work. He founded his first business aged 18, a social network which became very successful, and then went on to found an online TV start-up, which he admits “failed big time”. Brainient was one of six winners at the Seedcamp start-up competition in 2009, which landed it $50,000 in seed funding, and Gal has since received more funding.

Gal has lots of advice for would-be entrepreneurs, though much of it is the kind of thing you will hear from other enthusiastic entrepreneurs: things like pick a good co-founder, get the right team, pick a massive market, figure out the “minimal viable product” that people will pay for. Check out coverage of this Techcrunch’s GeeknRolla conference for similar advice, particularly the excellent Morten Lund (funded Skype at an early stage, made gazillions, went bankrupt) and Rummble founder Andrew J Scott.

But for me the best advice Gal had for news professionals looking to either sell themselves of a product they’ve built is that “you are marketing, your product is marketing, your mum is marketing.” In other words, everything you do as an entrepreneur should contribute to the buzz about your business.

Being personable and memorable when meeting people is a big part of that: it sounds flippant, but Gal made a big deal of his vibrantly red shoes. But, he says, at least it makes him memorable.

But how do you fund journalism about human rights?

Up next was YooDoo, which provides advice and tools for new businesses. Tony Heywood and Nick Saalfield talked about what they do – I wasn’t entirely sure how they might specifically help news entrepreneurs but I’m sure they’ll offer help to some people out there and the service is free.

This was Saalfield’s harsh but accurate approximation of the print media: “Start feeling sorry for newspapers and publishers. They’re badly managed, they work very slowly, they’re fragile and not very agile.”

I was more interested in the debate that started after their talk. Deborah Bonello – aka @thevideoreport – founded and carved out a niche as a multimedia freelance journalist (she spoke at the Frontline Club alongside Adam last month at a great event on freelance journalism).

Bonello hit the nail right on head by describing the economic barrier for anyone wanting to make a living from original content: the FT can make money from writing about stock markets and emerging markets; Gizmodo sells ads by writing about gadgets – this is all actionable content, stuff that will inspire readers to click on an add or affiliate link and buy something.

But what about reporting focusing on human rights? Who’s going to click on an ad surrounding that? She said:

The problem is, if you’re not writing about the decisions about why people make investments, [but about things like] immigration, or culture, art… there’s not that same market for people that might like to pay for that.

As she so rightly says, “as journalists we’re taught to questions the powers.” The plan for most people who go into the industry – I would say – is not to think about how to give the capitalist classes exactly what they need to make more money.

Here’s what content entrepreneur Evan Rudowski said on paywalls on PCUK in February:

The paid content opportunity is greatest if the content is unique, actionable, targeted at a relevant niche, frequently updated and from a credible or trusted source.

Availability of free alternatives can be a limiting factor, but not the determining factor – there are barrel-loads of free content about wine, for example, but plenty of people are nevertheless willing to pay FT wine columnist Jancis Robinson £69 a year for her unique expertise.

So “actionable” is one of the things journalism needs to be to be profitable. But could you tick the other boxes on Rudowski’s list and still make a living? Or, more likely, is there a public or charitable solution to this problem that takes news production out of the corporate, profit-driven, assembly line model?

I have no “bloody clue” either but I’m looking forward to more FONG meet-ups in the hope of getting closer to some answers.

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist, event organiser and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at and is @psmith on twitter.

iPhone apps compared – how do news publishers shape up?

The news industry buzzword of the year so far is just three letters long: “app”. Newspapers, magazines and broadcasters are falling over themselves to grab a slice of the burgeoning mobile app economy, led to a huge degree by Apple’s iPhone.

But how developed is the news and publishing app market in the UK what features are now standard? To find out we examined 36 leading apps on the Apple App Store in detail. The apps are varied in style, origin and purpose, but all present information, news and data to the palm of readers’ hands.

Here’s the spreadsheet in full:

(You can download it here…)

And here are some key findings:

  • Price: 24 of the apps we researched – or two thirds – were free. Six require subscription charges.
  • Multimedia: seven apps have a dedicated photo channel, 13 have a video feed and six have a dedicated audio stream.  Some apps, like the broadcast-heavy ITN, feature much video without a specialist channel.
  • Social sharing: Email is by far the most popular story-sharing tool with a third of apps we looked at offering it. Next comes Twitter which features 15 times and Facebook with 12; 11 had no social sharing tools at all.

  • Search: Surprisingly, only 11 apps had a search feature and just two – Guardian and – used a system of tags for navigation.
  • Offline reading: Seven offered offline reading.
  • Ads: 17 apps offer display or pre-roll ads – half of those we looked at. The solitary app to offer classified advertising was Kent News, from KoS Media and PageSuite.

What does this show? That the gap between the desktop-based digital publishing world and the mobile web is still wide, despite huge leaps in functionality in the last six months. The Guardian’s app, developed in-house with back-end help from 2ergo, is a clear leader by offering a mixture of text, audio and pictures, offline reading/listening and an intuitive content tagging system.

But though that app is priced at £2.39 and has had more than 100,000 downloads and counting, it has no advertising and currently no video. As Guardian News & Media digital content director Emily Bell told me recently, the plan is to launch more apps in the near future, rather than look at more ways of monetising its flagship app.

Only 11 apps we looked at have a search function. But does that matter? Mobile, on-the-go readers checking football scores on their phones while on the bus don’t care what happened two months ago.

However, that is assuming that readers will come back every day – what if readers only care about news on Africa your app hasn’t published anything on it for last week? What will readers do? Go somewhere else.

It’s food for thought for a growing sector and don’t forget – this is all before the iPad touches down, which could set off an apps arms race of its own…

Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist and event organiser, and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at and is on Twitter.

Frontline Club debate: social media is important, but not a kingmaker yet

MPs, Westminster hacks and activists might be addicted to expressing themselves in 140 characters or less, but don’t expect this year’s general election to be decided on which party has the best social media strategy.

Then again, politicians and the media shouldn’t dismiss voters’ digital engagement, according to a panel at a Frontline Club debate on the importance on social media for the upcoming election.

You can watch a video of the whole thing here

Twitter certainly has the  potential to land politicians in mini-media storms; the panellists agreed: if David Wright MP had merely told a reporter verbally that Conservatives are “scum” it’s unlikely to have got much coverage, such is the continued novelty of Twitter to many news editors.

Paul Staines, better known as mischievous Westminster blogger Guido Fawkes, argued that no matter how well connected parties are, with Labour, Conservatives and Lib Dems towing similar centerist policy lines there was little to differentiate them for the ordinary voter: “If they are all marching in the centre ground, there’s not much to market, is there?”

And as for reporters, they’re “not going to get a scoop from Tweetdeck”, he warned. “There are about 500 of us (in the Westminster village) listening to each other aren’t there?”

Channel 4 News presenter Krishnan Guru-Murthy said social media buzz doesn’t determine what C4 leads its 7pm bulletin with – but Twitter got the network’s reporters in touch with someone in the audience at Nick Griffin’s notorious Question Time performance.

But all this is missing the point, according to Chris Condron, Press Association’s head of digital strategy:

If you ask any journalist what they think about a phenomenon like Twitter (…) they tend to think about what it means for journalists, but where its potential really lies is for audiences.

The “disintermediation” of news – where readers can go straight to the source of news, such as an MP’s Twitter stream – was a challenge for the media, but Condron is confident that “the reporters’ gathering and filtering of raw news was still essential.”

More events coming up at the Frontline Club:

  • Reflections with Richard Sambrook – a one-to-one conversation with the BBC’s outgoing director of global news. He’s headed for a new role as vice-president of PR firm Edelman, but how does he look back on a rich career and what is his view of journalism today?
  • Iraq: The Media Inquiry – a special panel discussion to examine the media’s reporting of Iraq since the invasion in 2003. With Nick Davies, author of Flat Earth News; Patrick Cockburn, The Independent’s Middle East correspondent and journalist David Rose. Moderated by Paddy O’Connell, presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Broadcasting House.
  • Insight with Timothy Garton Ash – the columnist and Oxford professor will be in conversation with Channel 4 News anchor Jon Snow will be in conversation with Channel 4 News presenter Jon Snow. Garton Ash will be talking about his career, the transformation of Europe over the last thirty years and what Barack Obama will mean for the United States and the world.
  • On the Media: Is the age of celebrity-obsessed media coming to an end? We discuss whether the ubiquitous presence of pseudo-famous faces on newspapers and news bulletins is here to stay. With comedian and journalist Jane Bussman; Popbitch founder Camilla Wright; Heat magazine editor and broadcaster Sam Delaney. Chaired by Robin Morgan, former editor of the Sunday Times magazine. This event is in association with the BBC College of Journalism.
  • This post also appears at the Frontline Club’s Forum blog.

    How much is an article worth? ‘Dead tree’ thinking could hinder digital content economy

    Could you spare 10p for a news report? Maybe 5p for the sports results? Many in the news industry would like us to pay to see news articles that we’ve previously enjoyed for free, whether it’s via websites or hand-held devices.

    But one of the problems of this brave, new paid-content world is that the news publishing industry has yet to move on from long-held assumptions about the value of content, inspired by centuries of physical, print distribution.

    For example, just look at the sheer size of national newspapers: they are huge products, especially on weekends. Big is better, goes the saying – and mass reach gives you more circulation and advertising revenue.

    But in the global, decentralised, just-Google-it content economy, it doesn’t work like that: the publishers that will win through will have the most relevant, findable, highest quality content – not just lots of it.

    To illustrate the mismatch between offline and online economics, I’ve gone through Wednesday’s edition of the Times to find out just how much is in it…

    • News: there are 42 separate substantial news items in today’s Times, not including some of the smaller NIBs, and at least seven separate analysis pieces;
    • Comment: including the three leaders, 13 comment pieces make their way into the main book;
    • Sport: 21 news stories and two features;
    • Then there’s the diary section: five lengthy and well-written obituaries, crosswords, weather, travel and the Register pages of interesting factoids;
    • The Times2 centre pullout has 10 features, some short, some long, as well as four reviews.

    So our grand total for today’s Times is more than 100 articles. The quality of writing, pictures and editing is, as you would expect, consistently high.

    But if these articles were available via a pay-per-view offer, how much would you pay? If they were priced 10p each, that means to buy everything in today’s paper, you would have to pay £10; at 5p per article, that’s £5 per issue. But my copy of the paper only cost £1.

    News International boss Rupert Murdoch will more likely opt for a subscription model for the Times and Sunday Times websites – just as he’s succeeded in selling long-term pay TV packages around the the world.

    But to reach a competitive pricepoint, he and other publishers will have to massively realign the value of each piece of news and comment from its current-day, paper value of one or two pence to fractions of pence.

    In reality, the real market value of news is what people will pay and the danger is that for an entire generation of readers weaned on the free-to-air internet, that price is nothing at all

    [See also: What’s the average cost of a news article?]

    Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist and event organiser, and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at and is @psmith on twitter.

    Why the iPad isn’t the saviour of journalism as we know it

    The hype surrounding Apple’s new touch-screen mini-computer, predictably, is huge. Just like film studios, book and textbook publishers, news producers are hoping the iPad can boost the online, mobile content marketplace.

    Here’s a “source”, who purports to have worked with Apple CEO Steve Jobs, telling the Wall Street Journal exactly what it wants to hear:

    Mr. Jobs is “supportive of the old guard, and [he] looks to help them by giving them new forms of distribution”.

    One publishing CEO was even moved to write poetry about it (via and Apple fanboys and news executives will no doubt be glued to their screens when Jobs takes the stage at around 6pm (GMT) tonight to announce the details.

    But when the hype dies down, will the journalism business really be in better shape? These people have taken a welcome dose of reality juice:

    • Craig McGill, a former journalist now plying his trade at digital PR firm Contentlymanaged, quite reasonably asks who is going to create all the content for new organisations’ multiplatform mobile packages given all the job cuts in news publishing in the past year.
    • Forrester analysts Charles Golvin and James McQuivey consider that maybe the iPad won’t be all it’s cracked up to be: “It is flawed in meaningful ways: It’s a computer without a keyboard, it’s a digital reader with poor battery life and a high price tag, and it’s a portable media player that can’t fit in a pocket.” (via
    • I couldn’t put it better than David Campbell, a professor of cultural and political geography, did this morning: “Information and distribution are separate. Journalism is information, tablet distribution. Can help journalism circulate but can’t ‘save’ it.”

    Much is made of iTunes and its successful monetisation of mobile applications and music – the Financial Times is even planning to imitate (via PCUK) its “pay-per-view” micropayments model, although told last week that paid-for day passes would come first.

    The model is attractive: there are more than 100 million iTunes accounts with users’ credit cards pre-loaded and ready to go. A new shiny, powerful device – somewhere between an e-reader and a netbook – could just persuade people to buy the news subscriptions the New York Times and Rupert Murdoch so desperately want to sell them.

    But Apple’s new device is just another distribution platform for words, pictures, videos and data, just like PCs, mobiles and print. Recreating a print experience on another device is not going to solve the economic crisis news finds itself in: Google will still be more efficient at selling advertising and will still point readers to free content.

    The future of news is about distributing content as widely as possible and monetising not just content but relationships. Devices will be a big part of that, but they’re not the answer.

    Photo credit: Mike McCaffery, from Flickr, via a Creative Commons licence.

    UPDATE: This post was amended to reflect the announcement of the name of the device, iPad.

    Patrick Smith is a freelance journalist and event organiser, and formerly a correspondent for paidContent:UK and Press Gazette. He blogs at and is @psmith on twitter.

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