Things I Hate on News Sites

I’m something of a news junkie, and I spend a lot of time reading stories on a reasonably wide range of news sites. I pay for a number of those sites, but appreciate that advertising revenues alone aren’t enough to support any sites – with the possible exception of the very largest.

But there are a number of “features” that we find on many news sites that I find incredibly annoying. This is by no means a complete list!

Video only stories

Depending on what day of the week it is, video is either in or out of vogue. When Facebook was paying everyone to do Facebook Live videos, many sites instantly set up video units to supply these. Then Facebook fell out of love with video and they stopped paying, so everyone stopped making all those videos. Then Snapchat came along, and video was back in the ascendancy. Then it wasn’t. Now we have Facebook Watch and something that nobody is watching called IGTV.

Anyway, I especially hate it when a “story” is published that consists only of a video. The thing is, I can read a lot faster than I can watch a video. I would say that 9 times out of 10, I bail out at this point. No matter how interested I am in the story – I don’t watch the video.

Of course those same videos have subtitles which some have dubbed the return of silent cinema, since producers know we don’t always have access to headphones at time of watching.

But just write the story below the video and give me the choice of either medium!

Music on Videos

Sometimes there are news videos that either don’t have sound at all (perhaps dash-cam footage), or are packaged up to include music. For rights reasons, commercial music (i.e. music you might recognise) can’t be used. So we get library music – that is, music that can be paid for once with no further rights issues arising. That’s useful in the digital realm.

There’s perfectly good library music of course – but it takes time to dig out. More often than not, we get generic “muzak” and it’s just awful. Worse are the videos where the person who made them isn’t aware of sound levels and mixes the music too loudly.

Music can be a very powerful part of a video, but used badly  it draws attention to itself and is just awful.

Unnecessary pictures

There’s a certain daily newspaper site that’s worst at this. Any article they publish includes large numbers of mostly irrelevant photos. Here’s an article about someone. Here are ten photos of that person when a maximum of one was required.

And because that site has been successful, others have mirrored it.

Creating Pages Where There’s No Story

This is common in the breaking news environment. You see a Tweet that might say something like “Politician John Smith has resigned – [URL]”

You click through to the URL to discover that there’s no more story than the Tweet contained. Now I realise that in due course, the newsroom will build out that story and add more detail and context. And I also realise that just because I’m clicking the link at time of initial publication, others may be clicking later. But if you have no further information, why not send a second Tweet when you can offer more details? I’ll be more inclined to click through that way.

The danger otherwise is that I’ll assume all your breaking news links are empty and won’t click. Yet sometimes, the story has been written ahead of time, and the release of it has been carefully timed. E.g. a big investigative piece. If my learned behaviour is not to click the link on breaking news, then you’re not getting me to read a story when you have actually published it in detail!

Creating Pages for Stories That Aren’t Stories At All

I’ve written about this before, but there are two key examples of these stories which can be summarised as:

“What time is the World Cup Final?” and

“Who is Oskar Schlemmer?”

What both of these are doing is relying on the fact that Google prioritises news sites in their search results. So if a “respectable” news publisher has written a piece on “What time the World Cup Final starts” then it’ll get in that news carousel at the top. News sites all know that people will be Googling basic information like this, and so they write a news story to get the clicks. The answer to a question like this should simply be a time. But that’s not good enough for Google’s algorithm, so a writer puts together 500 words on the World Cup final, which somewhere includes the kick off time.

Google has countered this to some extent with its own top level search results for basic information, but it doesn’t stop the news sites.

Needless to say that such “stories” do not end up in print products.

The second example above is from a recent Google Doodle – those cartoons that Google regularly place on their home page where their logo would sit. They invariably celebrate the anniversary of someone interesting, and clicking through on the doodle will take you to a page of search results.

More often than not, the best result is probably the Wikipedia page for that person. But again, if a news site writes a piece about the Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, then that ends up at the top of the search results page. When a viewer clicks through.

I can only assume that it’s someone’s job to monitor Google around midnight to see if they’ve put a Doodle up, and if they have, bash out a quick “news” story – probably based solely on their Wikipedia page for background info.

Taboola, Outbrain et al

I loathe these sites. Really I do. The problem is that they’re crack cocaine for news sites, offering both revenues and clicks.

In essence, they’re those “Around the Web” boxes you get at the bottom of news stories from often incredibly respectable sites. They offer supposed further reading opportunities and have a list of stories. But those stories are invariably the most salacious and often misleading stories around. Somehow the murky world of digital advertising means that the economics work. Dubious sites claiming to offer cheap iPhones or whatever, pay these companies to promote their sites of little merit. Outbrain or Taboola pay the host sites on actually quite good rates – that’s why so many sites use them.

There was a great Reply All episode a few months back that told one person’s sad story which was being used by these clickbait organisations for their gain. They couldn’t get the story taken down. But the resulting episode really explained how these “chumbox” services work.

What’s interesting is that these companies do offer more premium versions with less clickbait, but that few organisations seem to take this option.

And I do know that they pay handsomely for those boxes, so news sites invariably keep them up despite dragging down the overall quality of the page.

“Feedback” Stories

Something aired on television and people have opinions on it. Perhaps an actor took his top off on a period drama, or a celebrity did a disgusting challenge in the “jungle.” A story needs to be written, and some junior reporter trawls Twitter looking for comments that back up whatever angle they’re taking. This is particularly the case for any BBC-bashing story, because no matter what, there will always be someone who has a view on Twitter that meets the needs of the writer.

And so we get stories with random members of the public saying things that support whatever thesis the publication is trying to present.

Twitter in Celebrity Death Reports

This is what happens. Someone famous dies. A story is put together. If they’re really famous and really old, then an obituary might already be ready. But there’s the general news story about their death to write. News site writers instantly trawl Twitter and Instagram looking for other famous people’s nice words about the person who has died.

And there lies the problem.

All too often, the first people to comment are not necessarily the people you’d want to hear from. A famous old actor dies, and someone who was knocked out in week 2 of Strictly quickly Tweets their thoughts. I’m not saying that the thoughts of said failed dancer aren’t genuine, it’s just that they’re not someone who’s opinion I’m truly interested in.

All too often the stories are filled with the remembrances from whichever celebrities have Tweeted first rather than looking for the dead person’s peers or family members.

TV News Channels – Political Pawns

In the last few days, both Sky News and CNN have become tangentially embroiled in ongoing media takeovers. In both cases, there could be an impact on their longterm futures to a greater or lesser extent.

In the UK, 21st Century Fox is trying to takeover complete ownership of BSkyB. In a response to the Competition Market Authority it said:

The CMA should not in its assessment simply assume the “continued provision of Sky News” and its current contribution to plurality

Sky News is widely considered to be loss-making, but nonetheless works well in Sky’s favour in terms of influence. It also obviously provides an alternative news source, has to adhere to impartiality laws, and offers the only rival 24-hour UK news service to the BBC.

Meanwhile in the US, reports place CNN at the centre of a potential block to AT&T completing a takeover of Time Warner. CNN is a subsidiary of Turner Broadcasting, part of the Time Warner empire, and there are suggestions that Time Warner might need to sell this arm to appease the Justice Department. Trump is no fan of CNN of course, calling it “fake news.”

Exactly how profitable CNN itself is, isn’t completely clear. The US version of the channel might be, but it becomes more complex on an international level. But it’s likely that it works well in combination with other Turner properties when negotiating carriage deals.

It sounds as though the case could end up going to court, as it seems likely that both the TV assets of Turner Broadcasting as well as the DirectTV arm of Time Warner (another proposed remedy sale), are key to the basis of the overall acquisition from AT&T’s perspective.

In both instance though, this shows how precarious the news business can be, with proprietors or regulators determining their future in an ever consolidating world. Once news was a highly profitable business to be in, but changes in media consumption have seen business models decline as advertising has shifted online, and there has been less willingness of consumers to pay for news.

And fewer news outlets is definitely a bad thing. When the threat to Sky News emerged, there were a lot of triumphant anti-Murdoch voices happy at the prospect of its closure. That’s despite the channel regularly winning awards, and adhering to tight impartiality rules that all UK broadcasters have to follow. Losing a voice is definitely not a good thing, however much you might dislike a particular presenter.

Likewise, damage to CNN would be a loss in democracy both in the US and globally. Competition keeps everyone honest. And at a time when impartiality is constantly threatened, with well funded government backed outfits from some countries (e.g. CCTV and RT), and other semi-independent broadcasters threatened in other ways (Al Jazeera), independent voices are needed.

Strong, impartial journalism is critical to the foundation of our democracies.

Problems with News Video

Recently the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism published its annual Digital News Report, authored by Nic Newman.

If you’re interested in the media, and particularly journalism in the digital age, then it’s an essential read. The report, which is supported by groups such as Google and the BBC, surveys 50,000 people across 26 countries about their digital news habits.

The report is available to download, with lots of additional resources like data tables and chart packs for deep-diving into.

I’m going to concentrate on one area of the report: video.

If you’ve been paying attention to news sites, and indeed digital media in general, there has been a lot more video in recent years. Social media and news sites more often than not playing videos by default, and spending money to push the platform. Video, the belief is, will grab users’ attention and drive increased readership.

And for the most part, this seemed like a sensible move. More people were watching more video as both home broadband and mobile 4G coverage improved. But with regard to digital news, there’s been a bit of a speed-bump on the road.

“One surprise in this year’s data is that online news video appears to be growing more slowly than might be expected. Across all 26 countries only a quarter (24%) of respondents say they access online news video in a given week. This represents surprisingly weak growth given the explosive growth and prominence on the supply side.”
(Page 19)

The real reason for the growth in video, beyond the perceived demand from users, is the higher advertising yields that can be achieved from video. Those pre-roll adverts, whether skippable or not, are worth much more than other display inventory which has not been the saviour that news organisations or others had hoped it would be. Something to do with infinite inventory I suspect.

News providers were positively driven to increase their volumes of video to meet revenue targets.

“Across our entire sample, the vast majority (78%) say they only read news in text or occasionally watch news video that looks interesting. Just one in twenty (5%) say they mostly watch rather than read news online. “
(Page 20)

And the reasons for this relatively low growth are pretty obvious. This chart is from the report:


I think those reasons – the first four in particular – chime with me, with the fact that I can read text quicker than watch a video being the chief one.

Yet frustratingly, more news seems to be appearing in video-only form. I read much of my news via the feedreader Feedly, and most news site’s RSS feeds limit what Feedly can see. That’s fine – whether coming from a feedreader, or much more likely, social media, news providers want to ensure they have strong branding and potentially monetise me with advertising.

But when I click through to a site and see a story that is only, or mostly, video, then I simply close the tab and click away.

Video really needs to add something to what I can read for it to be of true value. I’m not saying I don’t like video news – I watch TV news bulletins on a daily basis – but in a digital world, video is much more an interruptor.

– If I’m on the train to work looking on my mobile, I may be listening to music. Video puts that on pause so I can hear the soundtrack. Newspapers never forced that on me. I can read text and listen to music simultaneously.

– If I’m at work, then I can quickly scan a story to see if it’s important. With video I have to fumble around for headphones, or risk interrupting colleagues.

And video takes time. From hitting the play button to getting to what I want to see is not usually the best experience. Frankly, there’s nothing worse than a news provider who has built their own video platform (or bought one), and you just know it’s not going to be as fast-starting as, say, YouTube. You’re going to see a swirly “loading” graphic before an advert loads painfully slowly. At the end of the advert, there’ll be another delay as the actual video loads. 30 seconds of that before a video that’s only 45 seconds long itself doesn’t seem like a fair transaction.

Fundamentally, humans can read in their heads faster than someone can read out loud. So all things being equal, I’ll choose the most the most efficient way to get to the story. For the most part, I want to read stories not watch videos. I can quickly gauge how interested I am in a story from the text. Video is a hit or miss affair.

It’s perfectly true that some may prefer video, so by all means offer both video and text. But consider even making the transcript of the video available. As a friend pointed out on a social media, that instantly makes the video more accessible, and increases the search engine optimisation of what you’re producing.

Video is actually much more expensive than text – or text illustrated by photos – yet everyone seems to want to do it.

My suggestion is that unless video is a primary output of your organisation, I would use it sparingly. Produce only videos that really add something to the story. There are various groups who are adding text to videos and making them viewable without sound. Fine as far as it goes, but they tend to be relatively simplistic. You can’t delve deeper into a story that way, yet if I’m spending 2-3 minutes with a story which is what a video is demanding of me, then I expect to come out with a much richer understanding of the issues than I went in with.

Video is not the be-all and end-all, and news providers would do well to remember that.

The New Day


Well full marks for bravery.

The New Day really is a different offering to the rest of the national news offering. It’s Trinity Mirror’s new national daily – and yet still feels a bit like a spoiler targeting the now Johnston Press owned “i” as the previous owner – the Lebadevs – take The Independent online only whilst selling off the “i”.

It had been widely rumoured that Trinity Mirror was itself interested in taking over the “i” but that Johnston Press beat them to it.

Media Guardian reports that Trinity Mirror’s chief executive, “…denied that the sale of i to Johnston Press, one of Trinity Mirror’s major regional press rivals, played any part in the decision to launch The New Day.”

Yeah – right.

This sounds like classic spoiler territory to me.

When Robert Maxwell launched The London Daily News in 1987, the Evening Standard quickly (re)launched the Evening News at a cut price. So suddenly there were three London papers instead of one. Everyone lost money until eventually the London Daily News folded, the Standard quickly shut down the Evening News, and there was just one paper again.

Then there was The Times’ price war against The Independent – dealing it a massive blow in terms of potential profitability from which it never could recover. The Times lost money for a while, but the long term damage was done.

And more recently there was 2006’s attempt by News International to break into the London marketplace with thelondonpaper. The Standard responded with London Lite – an alternative free paper. The Standard battled through as a paid-for title until it had seen off thelondonpaper. Then London Lite shut down, and once again the Standard was on its own. In due course it was sold to the Lebedevs, became free itself, and is now profitable.

From the outset, The New Day sounded like a classic spoiler tactic.

There were plenty of free copies of issue #1 in my local newsagent this morning, but they’re free only for today. The title’s full price will be 50p which you must set against 65p for the Daily Mail. 15p buys you a lot more paper, although admittedly its politics might not be aligned to yours.

The paper comes with a big wraparound that tries to explain what The New Day is and isn’t. Their biggest play seems to be the quality of the physical paper – which is a step up from most newspapers. It’s printed on paper stock similar to some of those advertising sections that occasionally drop out of your weekend papers. But it’s as well that it is on thicker paper since at 40 pages, it’d be pretty thin otherwise.

They claim no political bias, and that they will carry opinion but not columnists. They claim that they’re rethinking the newspaper – not having men’s and women’s sections.

From The Guardian:

[Editor, Alison] Phillips told Radio 4’s Today programme: “The New Day will tell you everything you need to know on any given day. It will be pitched at people aged 35 to 55, people who want a more modern approach to news.

“It will be a ruthless edit of the day, with balanced analysis, opinion and comment, but no political line.” It will not have a leader column.

It will not be a red-top, she said, but would not be aimed at the audience currently served by the i newspaper.

So this sounds like “i” with a splash of Metro. Except Metro is free. Sure, it’s only available in major towns and cities, and relies heavily on commuters. Lots of people pick up Metro because it’s free – few probably would claim that it’s the best paper. But it does the job.

So the question must be how many people will pick this up and pay for it ahead of a free paper or a more editorially driven paper. And it’s not as 35-55 year old people don’t have smartphones and tablets.

So how does this all translate in issue #1?

The cover is a story about the plight of infant carers. It’s on page 4, but nowhere on the front page does it tell you to turn to page 4 to read it.

Pages 2 and 3 are full of one to three sentence stories dealing with the news of the day in a light style. A bit more than you’d get from Twitter or Facebook if you don’t click through – but not much more.

The letter from the editor mentions that they’re aiming at a glass half-full kind of person. Have we seen their TV ad? I saw it once and I couldn’t work out if they’d made it specially or just edited something together from stock footage – so stunningly underwhelming as it was.

After their child carers story on pages 4 and 5 we come to a page which will be their letters/reader opinion page. And then it’s Today’s Big Question which seems to feature two, er, columnists writing about the snooper’s charter (Yasmin Alibhai-Brown and Julia Hartley-Brewer). I’m sure they’re not regulars. They’re carrying opinion and not columnists remember.

A couple more tabloidy/Metro-ish pages, and there’s a two page spread including a piece on the EU referendum from David Cameron and an adjoining one from a woman described as art teacher, and mum of two, from London.

More opinion on the big talking point of who Cheryl Fernandez-Versini is seeing (!) and we suddenly reach the Sport Essentials page – still in the front half of the paper. It’s all short stories with no actual match reports, or indeed just a box giving the scores. But we do get an Instagram picture from Cristiano Ronaldo with his son.

The centre spread is called The Bigger Picture and is basically a big double page photo – today of the UK as shot by Tim Peake from the International Space Station. The photo is actually a month old now, with most papers carrying it at the time it was taken.

Two pages on bullying, a “3 Minute Update” on Politics, the World and Money (on one page), and then a Russell Kane column (Surely a one-off, because this paper doesn’t have columnists?!).

Then it’s back to sport with Robbie Fowler writing about the Liverpool (not the League Cup final per se) and Ugo Monye writing about England v Ireland from Saturday. Yes – it seems odd that these are divorced from the other sports pages, and no, they’re not match reports.

We get the inevitable astrology, alongside a piece about women proposing to men (it’s Feb 29 today) and a piece from someone from Gogglebox – again, not a column I’m sure. Then we get a curious 11 Days in the Life Of… This is the first in seemingly a series of 11 pieces leading up to an event – in this instance a wedding. 11 seems a random number and means that new series of these will start on different days of the week.

Then we get lost in a mish-mash of pieces that aren’t really specific to a day. The TV guide seems to be solely a list of four recommendations for tonight, before we reach the inside back cover which has “The Big Read” on the conditions of albino children in Tanzania. The back page has the weather, a few puzzles, a couple of lines from Thomas Hardy and a photo.

So what do we take from all this. Well it might not have been spelt out in the run-up to launch, but this is clearly a female-targeted publication.

There’s little to no actual news – more features. One of the big things surrounding this launch was that there wouldn’t be a website for the paper. You can see why – they’re not really chasing news. Their Facebook and Twitter feeds are hard to discern at the moment since they’re mostly talking about their own launch right now.

While I appreciate that this paper is not for me and never will be, I’m not at all sure who it’s actually for. Why would you spend 50p on this? It’s certainly no better than Metro, and substantially worse than London’s Evening Standard (not itself a good paper). The “i” has more actual news and costs 10p less. And if you can leave aside the politics, you certainly get value for money from the Mail at 15p more.

I don’t understand some of their editorial decisions.

They break up sport into two different sections – neither of which deals with it properly. And all the sport was male. Why not report, for example, Lizzie Armistead winning her first race as World Champion in Belgium at the weekend? She’ll be a strong gold medal contender in Rio. Or Adelle Tracey’s performance in Sheffield?

And while I know that every TV set has an EPG these days, running a grid of TV listings with pithy one-liners is still a useful service for readers. If it’s worth printing the weather (which is on every smartphone) then it’s worth printing TV listings.

While I’d never wish ill on a new project I just don’t see what the point of this is. The target market is digitally enabled, and there is simply no shortage of what they’re offering online, and in better quality (e.g. The Pool).

The title is terrible too. It makes it sound like a weird new right wing political party.

The paper has nothing going for it, and aside from Trinity Mirror trying to cause some damage to Johnston Press, I just can’t see this project lasting.

[Update a week later: It’s now reported that initial pricing plans have been changed. It was at first due to have a one day free trial, followed by two weeks at 25p before finally reaching 50p on a permanent basis. But it looks now as if it’ll be staying at 25p for “a few weeks.” With sales reported to have fallen to 110,000 by Tuesday this week from about 150,000 at launch. Whether it can steady the ship at around that level and become profitable is another question altogether. I have very strong doubts about it.]

[Update 17 March: The Guardian reports the paper’s price finally reaching the planned-for 50p a day, yet the sales are now around 90,000. I’ve not picked up a copy since the launch edition, but that’s quite a bold move. I reiterate that either the “i” or Daily Mail surely offer a better read for anyone to whom this paper is targeted.]

A Comment-Free 2016

There’s no two ways about it. Comments are broken.

By that I mean, commenting systems on nearly any site that drives a large amount of traffic. There are too many trolls and people with little or nothing to add.

There is way too much noise, and little to no signal.

I used to enjoy comments. You’d read a piece and there might be some well thought out discussion beneath it on a website. But over time that has been simply washed away – smothered by inanity and ignorance.

There are seemingly vast hordes of people with nothing better to do than navigate around the internet shouting their particular point of view very loudly regardless of relevance.

And I’m not just talking about the wasteland that is YouTube commenting. It’s everywhere.

Various sites have tried things like up-voting good comments and down-voting bad ones. But even that isn’t good enough. There’s too much volume. When you see that there are upwards of 1000 comments already on an article, you might as well pack up and go home. Nobody but the most obsessive is going to read that much. No – commenting becomes circular and a race to the bottom.

Once you might at least have thought that comments would reflect the print readership of newspapers in the past. But no – because sites’ web traffic dwarfs their printed readership, the comments are often not reflective of the editorial values of the publication.

If nothing else, then comments have made me see the work of newspaper letters’ editors in a new light. They must have to get through a lot of chaff before they find the wheat.

Yes, some sites employ people to shut down libellous, racist, or other abuse. But it’s a thankless job, and there’s enough that steps just the right side of being considered “fair comment” yet that is less intelligent than you might find in the average pub close to closing time.

It actually becomes a question of why sites actually bother with comments. They have to employ moderators after all. But comments drive traffic and page views. That means more ad opportunities. They’re addicted to those comments whether they’re the Daily Mail or The Guardian.

Yet it must be said that even with this, more and more sites are dropping comments. They’re just not worth the effort.

There are sites with decent comments, but they tend to be smaller and more specialist. There’s more of a community. I’m not talking about them. I’m talking about the big boys.

And yes, I do realise that buried away in comment sections, there are actually thoughtful and well-founded points. But it’s just such hard work uncovering them, that I can’t be bothered. It’s not that I want to only read things I agree with either. Debate is healthy. But just because someone has access to a computer does not make their thoughts intrinsically interesting or worthwhile. Enough is enough.

So here’s what I plan to do:

  • I’m going to stop reading comments on all major news sites
  • If I want to comment on something myself then it’ll be in social media (Twitter largely) where others can choose to follow me or not
  • I don’t include this blog – but I get so few comments here as to make no difference (those comments I do get tend to be in the social media space)
  • I’m not talking about forums either as they tend to be better self-policed
  • To make sure I’m not tempted, I’ll try a browser extension like Shut-Up

That should save me lots of wasted hours online. The temptation is always there, but even wondering “how the population is reacting” to something will have to take a back seat. In any case, like pointless Twitter polls, comment sections have absolutely no relevance to actual opinion and just represent a keyboard-bashing minority.

So there we go. A comment-free 2016!

Come on News TV – Use a Satellite!

A couple of years ago, I moaned on this blog about the growth of streaming video in place of satellite links in news programmes.

In short, as services like Skype have grown, news desks are getting their correspondents to utilise broadband or 4G and smartphones instead of sending camera crews and satellite trucks.

Now this is completely excusable in situations where a story is breaking unexpectedly, or somewhere so remote and hard to reach that satellite communications wouldn’t be useable.

I’d previously put this down to cheapness. Satellite communications cost money, whereas mobile IP is often effectively free. But I think there are two other things at work here:

1) We must have visuals! News channels are more and more using IP to conduct interviews with experts in their homes. Where once they might have sent a taxi to drive a guest to their nearest BBC local TV studio, or just use a phone, today we see an unending stream of interviewees sat in various home offices, mostly poorly lit, using the cameras in their phones or laptops pointing at them at unnatural and unattractive angles. The sound quality can be poor too, and of course nobody can be certain that their domestic router will hold onto enough bandwidth for the duration of the interview.

2) The programme is after a certain “edgier” look! They somehow believe that the poor quality of a mobile phone conveys a certain urgency. It would be like telling news camera crews to ditch the tripod and go for the Jason Bourne shaky-cam look! I’ve read the story that the Victoria Derbyshire Programme asked one guest to speak to them via Skype even though camera crews with satellite link-ups were on hand, because they preferred the fuzzy picture for somehow giving them immediacy. The same programme only today linked to its reporter at the Nobel Peace Prize (skip to 1:02), where he was holding up a smartphone seemingly on a selfie stick, and using a white ear-bud to hear studio questions to contribute to a two-way. This was a nonsense. The Nobel Peace Prize will have been in editorial diaries for months, and reporters allocated. There were agency feeds of the announcement in HD, and facilities for lots of broadcasters to “go live” from the event. If you’re sending a reporter anyway, then why not also send a camera person – or at least hire one locally? You could see the other “pro” crews in the background, while the B-roll was all HD agency footage. In the UK we heard digitally gurgling audio.

I understand that technology is marching on, and with increased bandwidth and better cameras in smartphones, at some point we perhaps won’t be able to tell the difference. But there’s a reason most of the cameras news crews use cost thousands, and they’re not just replaced with smartphones costing hundreds; it’s because there’s a very clear quality gap.

Radio is less of a problem, because audio is easier to send than HD video and audio. But you still need a decent microphone at the other end, and have to hope that your internet connection holds up.

Ofcom on Audience Attitudes to Broadcast Media

Ofcom, the UK broadcast regulator, carries out an awful lot of research, most of which it publishes on its website. But people are lazy, and they mostly just look at executive summaries and press releases.

But there’s a lot more to it than that. There are often copious appendices with much more detail, and beyond that there are tables – tables and tables of data (1429 pages in this instance). Because Ofcom carries out a number of regular “tracker” surveys. And although the data tends to get used in a variety of reports, there’s some that just sits there, online, awaiting someone to take a look.

Ofcom has just published a report on Audience Attitudes to UK Broadcast Media. This is largely distilled from its most recent “Media Tracker”, and you can find the report, an appendix and the data tables here.

Ofcom’s news release concentrates on what kind of hardware people now use for their media, and what people are taking offence at on television. But I’ll sidestep those a little and consider a few different findings.

I think the findings on Product Placement are particularly interesting. Only 36% of adults are aware of Product Placement according the research, with the perhaps more media-savvy 35-44s being most aware. Now I should say that the question is a little confusing asking about trailers and promotions as well – which is possibly a different sort of thing in a viewer’s mind. But nonetheless, that’s a low number.

Product Placement Awareness

Perhaps more concerning is the awareness of the “P” logo that it used to tell audiences that a programme contains product placement. Only 14% of respondents could correctly identify it. A further 19% said they recognised it, but couldn’t correctly identify what it means, while the remaining 67% couldn’t recall seeing it at all.

Awareness of PP Logo

That’s pretty damning.

Now it might be arguable that Product Placement hasn’t taken off in the UK to the extent it was expected to when the rules were relaxed to allow it. We don’t tend to see characters in dramas extolling the virtues of a particular vehicle (“Heroes” anyone?), and a lot of the more regular Product Placement has taken place has taken place in daytime TV. But ITV has used it regularly in series like The X-Factor and Coronation Street, and Channel 4 has used it in Hollyoaks and Sunday Brunch amongst others. So we’re talking about some of the biggest shows on those respective channels.

Ofcom takes the view these days that commercial activity is fine as long as the audience knows it’s being advertised to. And I think in some programmes it’s pretty clear, or even unsubtle. But at other times it’s built into the fabric of a programme to a greater extent – literally part of the scenery. And if audiences are not understanding the cues, then work needs to be done.

Back in 2011, there was a consumer advertising campaign to explain the concept, but that was a long time ago, and it’s message has not stuck. Perhaps a refresh is in order?

Elsewhere, Ofcom’s research suggests that 20% of households have a smart TV, with 70% having hooked their sets up to broadband. That does feel very low in overall terms. However viewers aren’t limited to using their TV for catch-up programming, and 51% of households have some kind of access to it on their TV screen, rising to 64% among 35-44s (but only 22% of 65+ households).

Connected Devices

(Note that people can obviously connect more than one device to a TV, so the sum of the parts add up to more than 51% here).

I think the biggest takeout from this question is the amount of use people get from games consoles to receive smart TV. As someone who hasn’t switched on his dusty Xbox 360 in perhaps two years, you can sometimes forget the importance of these.

It also seems that’s a lot of work to be done for homes that aren’t yet connecting up their TVs with on demand television. It’s no wonder that a lot of Sky’s growth is coming from Now TV, and that Chromecast should still be important for Google. And with Apple now reported to have ditched plans for a TV, they’re now said to be concentrating again on an updated Apple TV device.

What about radio? While Ofcom leads points out the varying degrees of offence taken at bad language, violence and sex on television, radio is practically completely inoffensive.


I must admit – I’m not completely certain that this is a good thing. I’m not asking for lots of shock jocks, or the replacement of song’s “radio edits” with their unexpurgated versions at breakfast, I do sometimes think that boundaries need to be pushed a little. Radio can sometimes be too safe. Audiences should be challenged.

The other interesting slide is on the amount of advertising carried by radio.


Now to be fair, I find it staggering that 15% of respondents wouldn’t mind a bit more advertising. Although this question is asked of commercial radio listeners, I wonder if they don’t skew a bit more BBC. Anyway, a rather chunkier 29% of listeners think there’s already too much advertising. And I think that becomes a bigger problem as subscription audio services begin to build. We’ve seen Apple poaching not just Zane Lowe, but other radio producers, suggesting they at least are going to build a product that’s closer to traditional radio. If your station’s clock is so crammed full of advertising, promotions, promotional trails and jingles, that you barely have time left for your presenter to say something, then you might want to have another look at what you’re doing.

Finally a couple of slides highlighting newspapers. And not in a good way. The most intrusive medium? Not very surprising.


And then there’s accuracy in the news. Before the election, I argued that newspapers’ influence was greatly over-exaggerated. And even post an election with a result that nobody was expecting, and with commentators broadly agreeing that the newspapers (who were largely pro-Conservative) must have had an effect, I still disagree. I think there were larger issues at play.

Take a look at this slide on who people think present news the most accurately.

most accurate news

Only 6% of people say that newspapers are the most accurate source of news. So that’s the media that determines a voter’s mind?

And broadcasters are seen as much more impartial than newspapers.


So newspapers are neither accurate nor impartial. Even allowing for the fact that they’re much more opinionated, that really doesn’t suggest to me that voters switched because of what a newspaper told them to do.

News by Email

On the one hand we keep hearing that email is dying. The young don’t use it, and anyway, we have an app for that.

On the other hand it still feels pretty much impossible to do a lot of things without email. Where do your online purchase confirmations go? A myriad of apps? What if my friend isn’t on Facebook or Twitter?

There seems to have been a bit of a flurry of emails recently in the quality end up the news market. A couple of weeks ago, the FT launched FirstFT – described as “your essential daily briefing.”

It launched two weeks’ ago, and is sent out via email at 6am each weekday morning with a quick summary of top stories both on the website, and elsewhere. It replaced some previous email offerings.

No sooner does that arrive then today we learn that The Economist has launched The Economist Espresso. This is both an early morning email, and an Android/iOS app that gives you a five minute summary of things that you need to know. Judging from their first day, no story is more than a couple of hundred words.

THe difference between the two is that the FT’s service is free to all, although FT stories do come out of the small number of stories non-FT subscribers can read a month. Other links may be free. The Economist’s service is either £2.49 a month on its own, or more usefully perhaps, free to current subscribers (of which I am).

So yes, with The Economist Espresso, there’s an app as well as an email, but I think it’s interesting that email is still so important. That’s perhaps not surprising because however much people suggest that we can get our stories from social media, that becomes a lot harder if you have a broad social media footprint following or friending many people. An email still offers the ability to coral an array of stories or links into one place.

For me, that one place has always most usefully been an RSS reader. That’s why I still use Feedly heavily – and indeed pay for a Pro account. But I’m aware that the wider community find something like a feed reader harder, even with apps like Flipboard taking some of that hard work out of the equation.

Of course the FT and Economist are two of the latest of many news organisations that offer emails – The Guardian has a wide range of automatically generated emails. And then there are more authorial ones like the excellent Fiver.

Protesters in the West End

It’s all been a bit lively in the West End of London today, with protesters occupying a nearby building in Beak Street, before being forcibly evicted by police. More protesters have been moving about the West End, all followed by large numbers of police (and a not insubstantial number of media).
We had something of a strong vantage point for many of the events as they unfolded. Most notably, there was a protester on the roof of the occupied building on Beak Street (a former police training centre that has been empty for a few years now) who appeared to try to jump off the roof of the building before being wrestled to the floor by police in climbing gear who were tethered to the building. It’s still not clear what he was trying to do, but police probably saved his life by dragging him to the floor.
One of the things we got asked to do was to not send around photos or videos to the outside world while police operations were in progress. That said, there were TV cameras crews sited all around us, including on the roof over my head.
Anyway, although at time of writing, there is still lots of activity in London, I think it’s probably now “safe” to publish some of the pictures and a short video that I took.

National Newspapers on Friday

I’ve had a couple of days to think about this, but here’s the response I wrote to a piece Andrew Collins published on his blog in reaction to media coverage of the death of Gadaffi. I refused to buy a newspaper on Friday, because I found the editorial judgement of many of our newspapers – tabloids and broadsheets alike – to be seriously lacking.
This isn’t about human rights. I’m not going to make a moral judgement here about whether or not Gadaffi deserved it. In the context of this imagery, that’s irrelevant.
This is about the our society’s lack of moral judgement in deciding that it’s perfectly acceptable for publications that appear in shops, supermarkets, on the mat by the front door across the country, to portray imagery this shocking.
Was Gadaffi being killed the biggest story of the day? Of course.
Should the story have appeared on the front page? Certainly.
Did we need to see massive full-colour photos of a man either dying or dead? Certainly not.
Let’s be clear – if this imagery and video had been in a feature film, the BBFC would have rated it 18. Many of the papers that were happy to publish this picture on the front page would have been fulminating at the mouth if children had been able to a fictionalised version.
The next iteration of the Grand Theft Auto video game (or some similar title) will inevitably re-open a debate about the end of innocence of our children. But video games have age ratings. Newspapers don’t.
And this isn’t just about the protection of children. This is about what we, as the supposedly civilised West, think is appropriate. Once upon a time entire famillies would have gathered to watch criminals hung at Tyburn – it was a day out. We probably consider ourselves a bit “above” that nowadays. But I wonder…
I note that most of the coverage I’ve seen has been about the right and wrongs of the TV broadcasters on Thursday. I didn’t actually see any TV that night. But I did walk into a newsagent’s on Friday morning.