January, 2018

The Tabloid Guardian

It has now been over a week since The Guardian, and sister paper The Observer, both rebranded. Perhaps more saliently, they also reshaped themselves, moving from the unique “Berliner” format to a tabloid.

Now in some respects I feel unusual these days in still buying a physical printed paper.

“It’s all online.”

“You can get it free.”

“Why do you pay for it?”

These are some of the responses you get when people see you with a newspaper.

It’s true that my station has a well-stocked bin of Metros in the morning, and I can easily pick up an Evening Standard on the way home. That’s before you consider editions of Time Out, NME, Stylist, Shortlist or a load more freebies in central London.

I have a phone and a tablet, so I can get the news on that.

And it’s also true that sometimes when I get to the paper, even in the morning, I find I’ve already read the article on line the day before. Sometimes with arts material it can be several days before (The Guardian seem to put its book coverage up around Thursday ahead of the Saturday “Review” supplement).

But printed papers are great for lots of reasons. You can get them all over the place, and you can read them anywhere. They don’t go flat, and they (can) have powerful design.

There’s also the editorial nourishment. When presented with a digital list of stories, we tend to click on the things we’re interested in. Actually these days, we probably don’t even go to a homepage (although with Facebook’s recent announcement about downplaying news in people’s feeds, we may see a greater importance of these), but tend to get to stories via links shared in social media.

I buy The Guardian because it has strong editorial. Much of the news in free newspapers is bland agency copy. Metro is never going to invest in major investigations like The Paradise Papers for example.

A week in, my first impressions of the paper is that it looks an awful lot like The Independent did once it had gone tabloid. Not so much in content as in style. It seems slightly harder to differentiate papers in a tabloid world than it is in a broadsheet one.

The new version of the paper has obviously had a major redesign, beyond simply shrinking the paper, with a new masthead and new fonts. The Guardian has always been more likely to go through redesigns than other papers. When The Times went tabloid, it was more about how they could continue to use the same fonts and stylistic devices in the “compact” format.

The Telegraph has not really had a major redesign at all. With the FT, it is now alone as a broadsheet (The Sunday Times notwithstanding). Of course, it is a hollow remnant of what it once was – a bit like one of those new-builds where they’re required to keep the front facade.

There’s a strapline above the masthead on the first day said that the paper had two pullout sections. Originally I thought that these might be G2 and Sport as previously. But Sport has returned to the back of the paper, which is probably a good place for it to be, since in truth, some days it really felt as though it was being padded out to fill even 8 pages.

G2 is a pullout as before, but the second pullout is Journal – essentially the opinion parts of the middle of the paper, alongside obituaries, and the puzzles that used to form the back of the main Berliner section of the paper. Indeed the back pages of both pullout sections contain puzzles now.

Having Journal as a pullout does mean that one of my favourite features of the Berliner format paper has been retained – Eyewitness, which acts as a double-page spread for a featured photo.

Seeing photos printed big is another reason that printed newspapers remain superior.

The new tabloid Guardian is now printed by Mirror Group presses – part of the cost savings that the shrinking of the paper is designed to help with. I was a little worried that the printing quality might deteriorate, but in fact it’s perfectly fine.

I’m less certain about the new masthead’s design, but as with previous iterations, it’ll no doubt grow on me. All lowercase does feel very “90s”, and the return to proper capitalisation is to be admired. But the change of font, masthead, paper size and overall design means that everything has changed at once. This isn’t a half-hearted measure.

What you can’t help noticing is the number of advertisements in the paper – or lack of them.

Print advertising continues to decline across the industry as digital advertising cleans up. While I think print always did well, over-achieving for its readership, advertising was and remains a vital part of the mix for a publisher, and those advertising declines must hurt.

Diamond Geezer notes that fewer “newsagents” carry print at all, becoming convenience stores rather than purveyors of printed material.

In fact, I don’t think lack of access is the real killer for newspapers, but it almost certainly is for magazines. Newsagents carry ever diminishing ranges of magazines, meaning that if you don’t subscribe to a title, you may struggle to find it on any shelf space anywhere. Even W H Smith, the last bastion of magazines in the High Street, seems to allocate less space to them. (W H Smith is a bit of a basket case anyway, not knowing really what it wants to be. Only the travel branches in stations and airports seem to have got the mix right, even if they wildly overcharge for confectionery)

Friday’s paper is always a late week highlight since it carries film and music reviews. The revamped G2 still carries these but somehow there feel, at least in the first week, to be fewer of them. Not so much films as music. Previously you could expect perhaps a couple of pages of pop/rock reviews and then a page of other music including classical, jazz and, well, non-pop music.

There seems less of that now, and I’m going to miss that. I still like reading printed music reviews, and while I know that I can find music blogs to help, they often feel like they serve certain niches. I want to read about a folk release alongside the big mainstream pop release, and a new classical album.

Saturday’s Guardian was always my favourite day of the week, even if I shed certain sections as quickly as I could. I barely ever opened the Family section, while the Travel section would only grab my attention if there was somewhere I was interested about on the cover. The Cook section would always get recycled unread. I’d flick through the magazine, and get stuck into The Guide. But key for me were a chunky main section, a good sport supplement and most important of all, the Review section.

The new-look paper has been rejigged a bit. Cook becomes Feast and is printed on higher quality paper. They expect people to hang onto these as they’re even selling boxes to collect them in! I must admit that it does look good, and they’ve poached Grace Dent as their restaurant critic, and she’s always worth a read.

The Guide is broadly speaking the same, although sadly it seems that David Hepworth’s radio column has bitten the dust. (It feels there are barely any radio critics left. Gillian Reynolds has just left the Telegraph after 42 years, although she’s apparently taking over Paul Donovan’s position at The Sunday Times, even though she’s 82! There’s also Miranda Sawyer at The Observer, who now covers podcasts as much as radio, if not more. Is there now actually anyone else?)

Sport is still in place, and the main section of the paper seems to be broadly unchanged. None of the features I liked to read seem to have gone anywhere.

And I’m especially pleased that although the Review section has had a massive redesign, it’s importance remains. It’s now printed on high quality paper and although it too may have slimmed a tiny amount, it treats its subject properly and is probably the best newspaper book section.

The Observer also has a new masthead, making it clear that it’s the Sunday edition of The Guardian rather than a separate entity. The main section stays largely in place, while sport is as good as ever, even if it has an unhealthily skewed belief in the importance of rugby union. The New Review is largely as it was before, just rejigged and resized. And the magazine remains largely unchanged, in that I rarely even bother to open it up (although it does at least review the odd bicycle alongside cars in their transport bit).

Also notable in the rebranding has been putting the new branding into all The Guardian’s various digital assets. That seemed to happen very smoothly even though you know it must have been a complex procedure.

Overall, I’m pretty happy with things. I’d like the new font to be a little more different to those used by The Times and The Independent (when it was still being published), and it’ll be interesting to see if they ever succumb to the temptation The Indie had to keep using the front page to cover single issues.

(As a sidenote, I saw The Post last weekend, the new Steven Spielberg film starring Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks, covering the story of The Washington Post and the publication of the Pentagon Papers. What remains amazing to me, and is largely still the case today in the US with the New York Times and The Washington Post, is that even when you’re breaking the biggest story in a generation, the story shares the front page with a lot of other stories. Even today, that remains the case.)

What’s really key about all of this is that the paper stays on track in reducing its losses and gets to a break-even point so that the money in the coffers there to support the paper doesn’t run down.

Right Hooked – A Near Miss

A Ford Fiesta turns right oblivious of me being in a cycle lane along the right hand side of the road. This is known as a left-, or in this instance, right-hook. A near miss.

The road is Maple Street which, unusually, has a separated cycle lane along the right-hand side of the road rather than the left. I was well illuminated with two separate rear lights as well as a front light. The street was also well lit.

This was a pretty close call. As the driver went by I shouted in vain. He was wearing white iPhone-style headphones, and didn’t give me so much as a second glance. I don’t think he saw me at all.

Sadly, my cameras aren’t good enough to get a clear image of his licence plate, even putting some stills through Photoshop to improve them.

RAJAR MIDAS – Winter 2017 Results

There seems to have been a bit more noise made about this week’s release of RAJAR’s MIDAS data. Recent releases have perhaps appeared a little too closely to the main quarterly RAJAR release. MIDAS stands for “Measurement of Internet Delivered Audio Services” although it doe sa little more than this, particularly when comparing what platforms people are listening to.

The fieldwork for this data release was conducted in November 2017 and that’s important, because we know that bucket loads of connected speakers were sold at Christmas, with heavy discounting from the main players, Amazon and Google. It seems entirely possible that this will have some effect on overall listening behaviours down the line.

The publicly available MIDAS stats are available on the RAJAR website, although subscribers do have access to more detail. Nonetheless, there’s a lot to be looking at, and I’ve tried to add some trend data to the results, going back through previous releases. MIDAS data actually dates back some years, with publication of some that data beginning in 2014. However what is reported has changed over time, with different morsels served up each quarter to keep people interested. Over the last few years however, there has been a little more consistency allowing some trending.

In overall terms, it doesn’t look like a great deal is going on.

Here is the key Share of Audio chart, which breaks out how people listen to different forms of audio. (Hover over these charts with your mouse to see underlying data.)

Live radio is solidly consistent at around 75%, and everything else is far behind radio.

But zoom into the bottom of that first chart and have a closer look.

There is one line significantly on the rise there, and it has close to doubled since the start of 2015. On Demand Music streaming – aka Spotify and its ilk.

(NB. The numbers are all rounded, so 0% listening to vinyl is probably not quite true. It’s just less than 0.5% of all listening)

But the real story comes when you look at some of the sub-demos. I’ll just note that sub-demo data was only made available regularly from the end of 2016.

Here’s the chart for 15-24s:

There’s no need to zoom into the bottom of the chart for this one. Radio is going down. Digital tracks are going down. On Demand Streaming is rising. It has risen from 16% of listening at the start of 2017 to 28% by the year’s end.

As ever, the story for data like this is to be found in trends. In that context, the data for Winter 2016 seems like an outlier, and I’d be more inclined to look at the trend over the calendar year 2017.

Live radio looks set to fall to less than 50% of listening in 2018, and it’s not impossible that On Demand Streaming could overtake it in the next 2-3 years. That’s not completely certain of course, since not everyone in this demographic can afford to pay for premium services like Spotify. But there’s a free version, and family plans exist. Plus households with Amazon Prime get access to their bundled music offering. Plus there certainly doesn’t seem to be any sign of the growth slowing just yet. Radio brands targeting youth age groups take note.

Interestingly, there’s more CD and digital track listening amongst this group than there is among 25-34s. I would guess that this is a cost thing. Younger people with little money and perhaps no access to a streaming service (or the data plans that tend to be needed to listen on the go), are still relying on CDs and digital downloads.

For 25-34s, the story isn’t quite as extreme, and radio is still holding its own, if falling slightly. But again, On Demand Streaming services are rising over time and have become the second largest group, as listening to owned music declines. Also of note for this group is the fact that podcast listening is highest here, with 6% of overall listening is to podcasts. That’s ahead of CD listening for example.

As we get older, so radio becomes more dominant. On Demand Streaming isn’t so prevalent, although this feels like a ripe market for the providers to target, with much more ability to pay £10 a month for the service. CD and digital track ownership are very slightly decreasing, but at a much slower rate.

For the oldest listeners, radio is vastly the most significant form of audio, with only CDs and digital tracks being an alternative. They don’t listen to Spotify and they don’t listen to podcasts. Not yet anyway…

The other thing I’d take from all this data is that vinyl or even cassette listening is not significant. Yes, you can buy vinyl in Sainsburys, and yes the broadsheets are always talking about its revival. These figures would suggest that regardless of sales, its impact in terms of actually being listened to is minimal.

There are a couple more trend lines we can get from MIDAS data.

Podcasting listening is growing, which is as you might expect. 6.1m people listen to podcasts each week, with the smartphone being the most popular device.

Radio apps are also very popular, with 27m (50% of the population) having downloaded an app.

Where radio does have a significant role is in the use of voice activated speakers, and amongst those who use them, the primary uses are for Live Radio and On Demand music services. Radio has a slight advantage here.

Again, I’d note that this is before the slew of speakers sold over Christmas. Amazon said the Echo was its best-selling device, while Google says it has sold 6m since August.

Other bullets from the data:

  • Listen Again isn’t terribly popular, but it skews older, with 77% coming from 35+s
  • Podcasting skews male, with 62% male and 38% female. That’s more skewed than other key forms of listening. An opportunity for some podcasters perhaps?
  • Radio listening is likely to be a solitary affair, with 52% of people listening to the radio on their own. That changes significantly if you’re 15-24, when it’s much likelier to be a social experience. Just 38% of their listening is solo.

There’s more in the release, so have a look if you’re interested.

Methodological note: MIDAS samples tend to be around 2,200 people who are re-contacted by RAJAR’s fieldworkers, having previously completed a regular RAJAR diary. For the most recent release, the fieldwork was conducted in November 2017.

Digitising My Life in 2018

Life is digital. We’ve known that for a long time. Digital offers lots of convenience, but it brings with it complications. In particular, safe storage.

In 2018 I need to try to fix three or four problems/issues I have coming up.

1. Cloud Storage

As longtime readers might know, I have a couple of Synology NAS drives at home, each with a RAID 0 arrangement with pairs of matched hard drives storing my data. In total they store just over 4TB of data, with a further 1TB of headroom between the two NAS drives.

While I have local copies of music and other documents, space is really taken up by photos (in RAW format) and videos. As more devices move from HD to 4K, those video file sizes aren’t going to be coming down much any time soon.

All of this NAS drive storage is backed up to Amazon Cloud – more of which later.

Beyond this storage, I have a further 4TB drive of older files sitting on a new standalone 4TB external HD. This data is not backed up in the cloud, but is duplicated on a series of older “passport” sized portable HDs.

Amazon introduced its unlimited cloud storage system last year, and I jumped at spending £59.99 for a year’s worth of unlimited storage. I could use an app on my NAS drive to upload files in the background and keep the two in sync. My older NAS drive didn’t really work with this method, but I managed to create a virtual link between the two NAS drives from the drive that did work, and I safely backed up all my files.

But the writing was on the wall for the Amazon deal almost from the start. In the US, where they’d had the initiative for a longer time, Amazon had cancelled it because some users were storing vast quantities of data. It would only be a matter of time before Amazon UK followed suit, and sure enough, I got an email announcing the end of the scheme towards the end of last year.

Because Amazon will continue to store photos free of charge, I would only require 3TB of data for video and other files. Amazon prices that at £237 a year.

But that excludes my other 4TB of data. Even if some of that is also photos, I’m probably looking at 5TB at £400 a year to be fully backed up with Amazon.

So my first job is to find a robust backup provider that can help, ideally coming in at well below £400.

One alternative is to buy an 8TB external hard drive, sync my drives to it (I would estimate that will take at least a week), and then store that drive at work, returning it home fortnightly or monthly to do intermediate syncs.

Another suggestion via Twitter was:

I do kind of like the idea of this. In reality, I’m probably not going to find a friend with unlimited data willing to put my Raspberry Pi/USB HD combo under their stairs or wherever, but it’s definitely an idea. Nextcloud in particular seems interesting application to enable this.

I will continue to explore paid for options and see what I come up with.

2. Scanning Photos

Yes – just about every photo I take these days is digital, and even those shot on film get scans at the time, so I have digital copies of them. But I still have a few thousand (I think) printed photos.

Included amongst this is a historical archive of old Virgin Radio pictures – mostly press photos – saved from the bin around the time that Virgin Radio was rebranded as Absolute Radio.

I’ve been meaning to scan this trove for years. But I’ve always been stuck since although I have a reasonable scanner, it’s only USB 2.0 and doing a decent scan of a photo takes quite some time. Even if you place half a dozen or more photos on the flatbed at the time, it’s a painful process. Invariably I choose to scan at high quality – probably higher than I’ll ever need.

The other option would be to scan negatives – as I usually still have them. But that involves dust removal and other slow to process issues.

One popular alternative is to pay a third party company to do the scanning for me. That involves boxing the photos off, sending them off, and getting a digital download or USB stick back with the results. It’d safely cost me several hundred pounds.

My 2018 solution is to not be quite as fussy about the quality of my scans. Anything really worthwhile I may spend more time with. But in the main, we’re talking about photos that have barely seen the light of day since I took them (I’ve never really had physical photo albums).

I own a Fujitsu Scan Snap iX500 which I bought to scan a large number of documents. It’s really good at this, and I also save things like cycling or walking routes from magazines, or other things that might be useful to hang on to.

Importantly, it has a sheet feeder that means you can scan things pretty quickly. For documents I make searchable PDFs using optical character recognition at the time of the scan.

But I’d not used it for photos because – well – I was concerned about quality issues. But it will scan to 600 dpi, and while that might not be enough to print billboard sized photos from, it should be fine for regular use.

I will report back and let you know the findings.

[Update: Well I did a bit of a test run through with 800 Virgin Radio photos that I, er, acquired when the station rebranded as Absolute Radio, and it was fairly painless. The quality is decent and it didn’t take an inordinate amount of time to do. This should be very achievable.]

3. Digitising Video

I also have something approaching 100 MiniDV video tapes with various footage on them. While I’ve already captured and digitsed all my oldest Hi8 video footage, this MiniDV footage needs capturing. I have a working camera to play the tapes back from, but the only way to capture is in real time. In reality that means a dedicated PC (fortunately I have such a beast), and regularly running tapes through the camera to capture the material.

There are no short cuts for this one that I can see.

4. Supplemental

I found a load of 3.5″ floppy discs the other day. I suspect that there’s little to nothing I really need to keep from them, but I’ll probably pick up a cheap USB drive and run through them anyway. I’ll keep a handful for posterity, but probably ditch the others – especially the numerous covermount discs!

The other job I have is to properly digitise the family’s Super 8 films. Many years ago, I pointed a digital video camera at a projection screen and captured them that way. I have that now converted to mp4. But it’s dreadful quality. Again, third parties can do this, but the costs are high. I’ve been quoted £600-£1000. So at some point, getting a machine like this Reflecta Super 8 scanner might be a good idea. It looks like it’ll create HD video from footage, although a bit of post-production will be required to correct the frame rate.

5. Summary

One thing I’m aware of is that all the scanning and capturing from 2 and 3 will create a bigger haul to store in 1. Such is the way of these things.

I should also note that I still have unripped CDs to capture, old cassettes I might digitise, and never mind my ongoing DVD/BluRay collection just about none of which is in a pure digital format.

I can see format conversion and digitisation being a theme for the rest of my life somehow…

Note: Just because I’ve digitised something, it doesn’t mean I’ll be throwing the originals out. They don’t take an enormous amount of space, and it would be foolish to do so.

2018 Media Predictions

It’s that time of year when, because not a lot else is going on, and pages need to be filled, everyone is busily predicting what might happen in 2018.

So here are my bold and not so bold predictions in the coming year across the media industry.

  • A streamer will win some Premier League rights. Having written at length about this process, and not really come to a strong conclusion that it makes sense for any of the big players to get involved in the Premier League rights auction, I can still foresee 1-2 packages going to them just because the Premier League probably thinks it has rinsed as much as it really can out of BT and Sky.
  • Digital advertising will continue to grow, but continue to have major questions asked of it. How much of digital advertising is fraud? How much of it actually works? Does anyone at all actually click on an advert unless it’s a mistake? Google Chrome is introducing it’s “ad-blocker” in February, and advertising that doesn’t adhere to the Coalition for Better Ads guidelines will get blocked. That will clean up part of the problem, in that the worst offenders will be disincentivised some of the worst practices. But that’s not really enough. Lots of agencies are getting asked lots of questions, and yet the money keeps flowing their way. Incidentally, an ever greater part of the digital advertising world is becoming owned by IT services companies like Accenture. Could Publicis or WPP actually get bought by one of these?
  • Radio listening among younger audiences will decline. I don’t think I’m letting the cat out of the bag with this one. While overall reach has held, and probably will continue to hold up, time spent listening to those services will decline amongst younger audiences. They’re spending too much time on YouTube, Spotify and Amazon. See every RAJAR summary I’ve published in the last couple of years for more.
  • Smart speakers will be everywhere. With the basic models going for £35 this Christmas, and near enough every portable BlueTooth speaker likely to include either Google Assistant or Alexa in the coming months, these speakers will be everywhere regardless of whether you think you need one or not. I’m not certain that everyone will be controlling their lighting and heating with them, as that involves spending considerably more money on technology, but it does make audio listening easier, and for things like news, sport and weather, they’re terrific. Some naysayers think the impact is overblown, but while they won’t reach everywhere, they definitely will be of use to a decent proportion of the population. And you can definitely expect an uptick in internet listening overall. I’m less certain that devices like the Amazon Show or worse, the Amazon Spot (alarm clock with an internet connected camera that you’re supposed to put on your bedside table) will quite hit the mark however.
  • No real changes in UK radio’s structure. DCMS recently published a fairly groundbreaking document that sets out to remove most regulation surrounding UK local radio. Stations will broadly speaking be able to do what they want. So expect Capital and Heart to go fully networked for example, while programmers will be able to play whatever music (or speech) they deem their audience wants to hear. Except that none of this will happen in 2018. Primary legislation is required to do it, and for the most part, Brexit is tying up nearly every part of Government. If anything, the pressure is only going to ramp up in 2018 to get that work done. “Unimportant” things like radio deregulation will have to sit and wait.
  • We will reach “Peak TV.” Many might think that we’re already at “Peak TV” with every network under the sun commissioning “original content” as a way to stand out against IP delivered interlopers like YouTube, Netflix, Amazon and Hulu. But now Apple and Facebook are entering the game, and the volumes will be ridiculous. I do think that some of these players will be challenged. Facebook isn’t going to be able to do edgy fare, so it will find it as hard to cut through as a US network might. In other words, it will take many attempts to get a hit. I don’t see Apple really having the ability to do that either. It’s worth remembering that you don’t just make good TV by throwing money at the problem. And making these shows work globally is near impossible. Different parts of the world have very different expectations. Nonetheless, TV reviewers are going to have their work cut out. In the meantime, as Disney swallows Fox (including Sky TV and Star TV), they will be transitioning their business from broadcast to IP at a faster rate. Others will follow.
  • Local news will reach a crisis point. More major stories will be missed in UK regions because, aside from the BBC, and a handful of modestly sized regional news operations, there will be no journalists to cover them.

From my own perspective, I’m vowing to do at least some of the following:

  • Watch back everything that’s still saved up on my Sky+ unwatched (including a couple of things recorded off the BBC HD channel!)
  • Get through a few more DVD boxsets that I have kicking around.
  • Books. Always books to be read.
  • Listen to more radio – in particular music radio. I spend too much time listening to speech, and while I listen to both my own music and streaming music, it doesn’t introduce me to nearly as much new music as the radio can, by placing it in context.