news

Trends in Podcasting: News Podcasts

In January last year, The New York Times launched a new podcast called The Daily. Spinning off to an extent from what the paper had been doing during the 2016 Presidential election, The Daily quickly developed a following. With a strong voice – both authorial and audible – in Michael Barbaro, it grew quickly. For a certain demographic, it became a must listen.

The Daily is excellent at digging into stories that The New York Times has covered in that day’s paper. A usual episode will deal with one or perhaps two stories, speaking with the Times’ journalists involved, and using clips and other archive material to give the story colour. The production quality is excellent. It’ll end with a summary of other things you need to know. The podcast is released early in the morning US time, so it’s available to listen on listeners’ commutes.

The Daily is by no means the first attempt at a daily news podcast. Lots of broadcasters have been doing lots of news things for an awfully long time. Many of them were spin-offs of radio programmes, but there were also standalone podcasts including ones from major newspapers like The Guardian. And there are certainly popular news podcasts. The Global News Podcast from the BBC World Service is the BBC’s single biggest podcast in terms of downloads, by a significant margin.

But somehow The Daily took off when others haven’t (or at least hadn’t).

Since its launch, The Daily has also become a syndicated public radio series, with episodes airing on a number of public radio stations after 4pm the same day, allowing it to remain a podcast-first property. Meanwhile the FX channel has ordered 30 episodes of TV version called The Weekly, with episodes going onto Hulu the day after broadcast. The series is due to start later this year. All in all, The Daily has become a very multimedia property for The New York Times.

To nobody’s great surprise, lots of other people want to get into the mix.

Recently The Guardian announced that it was launching a new daily news podcast presented by Anushka Asthana. Today in Focus has just launched. As with The Daily, Today in Focus concentrates on a single big story, although it is also carrying a second supplemental story too. In the first week Today in Focus has concentrated on Brazil’s new far right president, and the upcoming mid-term elections. The podcast is available early each morning, in time to be listened to for the morning commute.

The Guardian’s podcast managed to launch the same week that the BBC launched it’s new daily news podcast – Beyond Today. This launched at the same time as BBC Sounds, the big new audio app was formally launched by the BBC (it has been available in a public beta for a few months now). 

Beyond Today also follows the well-trodden path of concentrating on a single story. And as with Today in Focus, the podcasts tend to be around 20 minutes in length (The Daily tends to run twenty-something minutes a day). 

In the first week Beyond Today had episodes about Britain’s finances, ahead (or in fact just after) the budget, a very sad story about an Iraqi Instagrammer, middle class drug use (Although I think that episode missed a trick concentrating largely on a dealer and a real addict. It should have looked more closely at general users.), WhatsApp and a piece about who makes the news with Amol Rajan. Incidentally, although Rajan sometimes feels a little over-exposed appearing everywhere from The One Show on BBC1 to The Media Show on Radio 4, this episode is worth a listen, since it examines a real class issue in the media which often gets overlooked in issues of representation and diversity.

The one thing I’m slightly curious about is the name. When I first heard the name, I thought that it was a Today programme spin-off. But it’s not really, in that it has its own presenters – Tina Daheley and Matthew Price – and that it doesn’t sound at all like it’d appear on the Today programme. That said, I believe excerpts have indeed aired on Today this week. But I’d actually say that in tone, it’s closer to Five Live rather than Radio 4.

On the other side of the Atlantic, Slate has been running What Next, a

Interestingly, both What Next and Slate’s other daily podcast, The Gist, get published later in the day rather than earlier.

Earlier this year, Vox launched its own competitor,Today, Explained which it very much pitches as a more fun version of The Daily. You won’t be surprised to learn that it runs around 20 minutes. So you can maybe listen to three of these daily news podcasts if your commute lasts an hour!

Today, Explained is definitely more casual than some of the others, although the stories are always interesting. In the last week it has run episodes on white hat hackers (i.e. hacking for good, often identifying vulnerabilities and reporting them before bad guys can use this), universal basic income and fracking in Colorado amongst others.

Elsewhere, HotPod alerts us to The Washington Post hiring producers for its own upcoming daily podcast. It already has a daily political podcast – The Daily 202’s Big Idea which has been running for a while now. 

These are by no means the only news podcasts of course. There are plenty of news podcasts out there. But many of these are more like traditional news programmes. 

The BBC, for example, makes available in podcast form several of its flagship news programmes including the World At One and The Six O’Clock News from Radio 4, and Newshour from the World Service. All of these are the same as the broadcast versions.

The BBC’s flagship news programme domestically, is the Today programme. But that has a rather odd podcast presence. The radio programme runs for three hours Monday to Friday, so is too big to simply put out as a podcast – at least, not if you want people to listen.

Instead, Today publishes 3-4 separate podcasts a day. The first is inevitably the business news of the day, while the remaining 2-3 are based on segments of the programme, or gather together different segments on the same news story. The issue here is that the offering feels very piecemeal, and there’s little urgency in publishing the podcasts. Given the importance of the 8.10am interview – usually with a leading politician – the podcast may not appear until late morning, if at all. (Also, I’d love the podcast to lose the phrase, “You can listen to more free content from Today…” for obvious reasons.)

Of course the success of The Daily is in part due to it being available in time for listeners’ commute, so simply re-purposing morning news radio programmes leaves podcast rebroadcasts of radio news programmes at a slight disadvantage. But then, you probably shouldn’t be using podcasts to get “breaking news.”

As long as producers realise that they’re not trying to compete with 24 hour news channels that are rushing to break news, then podcasting publishing timescales can work well.

Publications like The Financial Times and The Economist do publish regular news programmes, but they have more weekly than daily output. Perhaps the closest equivalent I know of in UK radio is the BBC World Service’s Business Daily which is a Monday to Friday radio show that is nicely re-edited into a daily podcast. It’s business in its very broadest, and like The Daily has a deep dive into a different subject each day.

Could LBC do something interesting with Eddie Mair? A sharply edited 15-20 minute version of his 2 hour radio show? For some reason, there doesn’t yet appear to be an Eddie Mair podcast at all. LBC has had good success with viral videos, but I’m not sure that’s true in the podcast world. Interestingly, LBC is now winding down its paid-for download operation in advance of a new app that will let people listen-again, no doubt with targeted audio ads.

There is certainly room for a UK-focused daily podcast, and I’m sure other outlets aside from The Guardian and the BBC are working on them. I shall be listening.

[Update: Brett blogs about news podcasts and highlights a CBC called Front Burner.]

Note that these are my personal views, and do not reflect those of my employer.

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.

Gaming Google

It’s widely understood that news organisations can find the going quite precarious in this digital age, with a reluctance on the part of consumers to pay for news, and advertising alone not bringing in enough revenues. So it’s perhaps not surprising that they should look at whatever advantages they can take, and some of these seem to be at the expense of “gaming” Google.

I’ll highlight a couple of things that do irk me a little. But it’s worth noting that while these work for news organisations, they probably won’t work for anyone else. That’s because Google tends to prioritise news outlets in search results that return news sources.

Generally speaking, if your search result is purely factual and not newsworthy then unless a Google “snippet” appears, the top results will be relevant sites, quite often including results from places like Wikipedia or Quora.

However if the search is about current events, then Google throws recently updated news sites in the mix, andthese will find themselves in a prestigious position near the top of the page. Most of the time, that’s because it’s relevant. Someone searching on a current event probably does want a news site at the top of the list of results, rather than some dated article that contains the same keywords.

But that means that news organisations can game the system a little, and here are two examples.

1. The Google Doodle

As anyone who ever uses Google knows, Google loves to replace its regular logo with doodles on its home page. These celebrate all sorts of things from anniversaries of famous people to major events that are happening. Sometimes the doodles are localised to specific countries or regions, and other times they run globally.

Occassionally there’ll be a really ornate interactive one that offers something like a game or even a musical instrument!

But what happens when you see a doodle that you perhaps don’t understand or that intrigues you?

You click it.

And therein lies an opportunity. Because what that actually does is perform a Google search on whatever the subject matter is.

If you’re a news outlet, you swiftly write a piece on the subject on the doodle, noting that Google is celebrating said subject, and you get it published post haste.

The result is that when user click on the doodle, they get a page of results on, say, clockmaker John Harrison. But near the top of the screen are some links to news sites’ “Top Stories” about the very same.

Sure, the Wikipedia piece is there, but the other stories are hacked together pieces written full in the knowledge that they will generate page views as a result of Google’s doodle.

There’s nothing particularly wrong here, but it does push other relevant search results further down the page.

2. When’s It On?

Another type of gaming that goes on is also based on anticipating what people are Googling. Often these will be based around sports events or TV series.

There’s a big fight this weekend, or a big game in the Champions’ League. Perhaps a really popular TV drama is returning to our screens.

In any of these cases, some people will Google something along the lines of, “When is the Joshua fight?”

Now there is some semblance of information being asked for. They do want a date or a time. Perhaps they want to know what channel it’ll be on, or how they go about getting access to that channel.

Into that void rush news outlets. They quickly author pieces providing that information, but usually padding it out beyond briefly stating the date, time and channel. If I were suspicious I’d suspect that Google’s algorithms downgrade stories that are too short. So they get bulked out. You try writing 500 words on when a football match starts!

To put this into perspective, a search for “What time does the super bowl start” – in quotes – returns 15,400 pages.

Yes, these are questions that people want answers to. But do we really need dozens of “news” stories on them?

Of course, Google can sort of kill this my providing the information itself. In some cases it does that, but it doesn’t stop the news sites offering their own pages.

I probably find the first of these two things more irritating that latter, but you still have to recognise these articles for what they are – cheap traffic drivers that don’t really offer a great deal.

In Advance of The Nightly Show

This evening, ITV launches its big new entertainment gamble – The Nightly Show. They’ve taken over The Cochrane Theatre near Holborn, and for the next eight weeks they’ve also taken over The News At Ten’s slot. (Recall, this is the slot that only a year ago, the then Media, Culture and Sport Minister was wondering if the BBC should vacate to let ITV have an unimpeded run. Hmmm.)

There have been four weeks’ worth of pilots, and the USP of the show is that it will have different guest host presenters each week, beginning with David Walliams tonight. John Bishop and Gordon Ramsey are also lined up.

I confess that I’ve heard a couple of slightly off-putting things in advance of the show. There’s the suggestion that it won’t be especially political, which is odd in these political times. In an interview in The Guardian today, Kevin Lygo, ITV’s Director of Television is reported as saying:

‘”It’s not satire with a capital S,” he says. “They’ll poke fun at the news in a broad way, just as most chatshow hosts do.”‘

With a hope that they create lots of viral videos, it feels like it wants to be more James Corden than Samantha Bee or John Oliver.

But you have to set that against a time when we’ve got Brexit, May, Corbyn, Farage, Trump, and right-wing nationalism across Europe. While I wouldn’t necessarily suggest bringing it back (they already tried to an extent with Newzoids), Spitting Image was nothing if not political.

So I wonder if hidden camera japes and audience surprises are quite right? In any case, don’t Ant & Dec already do that with aplomb on Saturday nights?

Interestingly, in the US, Stephen Colbert has recently been overtaking Jimmy Fallon for the first time, with the suggestion that it’s because he’s taken a more political line following the election of Trump. Colbert comes from a background of devastating political satire on Comedy Central; Fallon ruffled Trump’s hair.

I also think we need to be bit careful making comparisons with some of these US shows.

Jimmy Fallon, Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Kimmel all air at 11.35pm on the coasts, not 10.00pm as The Nightly Show will. James Corden and Seth Myers air at 12.35am; long after any sensible person with a job has gone to bed.* This is also why producing viral videos like Carpool Karaoke segments is so important for Corden and his peers.

Calling a show that airs at 10pm a late-night show, is not just misleading, it’s wrong. Upwards of 10 million people are still watching UK TV at that time.

It’s also worth noting that the biggest chat show failure of recent times in the US, was when NBC gave Jay Leno a nightly 10pm slot for a while when he stepped down from The Tonight Show (before booting out Conan O’Brien and dropping Leno back in at 11.35pm, in a particularly unedifying moment in US late night TV show history). Arguably that was a different type of show, and the TV landscape at 10pm in the US is very different to ours.

However, one thing is clear. This show will undoubtedly take a bit of time to find its legs. So tomorrow’s overnights, which will be eagerly pounced upon, along with those of its leadout show, series three of Broadchurch, should be taken with a large pinch of salt.

As for the pushing back of The News at Ten – which becomes simply The ITV News, no doubt without the bongs – I would suggest ITV simply settles in that slot on a long term basis. It then won’t compete directly with the BBC, and at 10.30pm there’s no reason why both a more analytical Newsnight on BBC2, and a more mainstream ITV News can’t exist simultaneously. The downside for ITV is that on really big news days, the ratings for the BBC Ten O’Clock news will soar, while late local news bulletins and football highlights will take ratings hits.

* In the central timezone, these shows are on an hour earlier. But the over 60% of the US population gets these shows at the later time.

Doing Something Different on DAB

It does now feel that with extra DAB radio capacity from the second national mux launching earlier this year, to the various minimux that Ofcom is continuing to allow to trial, there is now a bit more experimentation going on in DAB.

We’ve seen Magic launch Abba and Soul pop-up services, building on the various Christmas services we’ve seen in the past.

And today sees the launch of Union Jack, a new national offering from the team that brought the Jack FM brand to the UK.

[Full disclose: The team includes Donnach O’Driscoll and Clive Dickens, who of course I worked with at Absolute Radio. Ian Walker is also on the team, but I didn’t work with him previously!]

Union Jack is not simply a national version of their successful local franchises, but a slightly older skewing version musically with a playlist of around 1500 tracks solely featuring British artists, including new music. Uniquely, the audience can vote tracks “up” using their app (I say uniquely, but anyone with long memories may remember Dabbl which did a similar kind of thing before it was shuttered in 2010).

The station features Paul (Avon from Blakes’ 7) Darrow as the voice of the station, and there will mostly not be any presenters. It’s broadcasting in DAB+ on the D2 mux, so not everyone will be able to hear it, but of course it’ll be streaming too.

Interestingly, their test stream this morning seemed to include quite a bit of US music. Perhaps they were getting it out of their system? Appropriately enough they launched with Good Morning Britain by Aztec Camera.

I wish them well.

A couple of other interesting things have been happening, both of which look to be experiments that at least bear exploring.

Weather 24/7 Radio is available on the Portsmouth minimux, and comes from Angel Radio’s Ash Elford. Utilising a bit of spare spectrum, the station is simply updated and looped radio weather, localised for the Portsmouth area and based on Met Office data.

In a similar vein, there is also the upcoming News Radio UK which will be ten minute loops of radio news and is a creation of Radio NewsHub, RadioToday and Radio Response. It too will be launching on the ever-inventive Portsmouth minimux at 10am on 10/10…/16. All the tens… geddit!

These are all interesting and slightly different ventures. Although none quite matches the simplicity of the Radio Reloj, a service that has been running in Cuba since 1947, and simply broadcasts news and information against the ticking of a clock. A digital beep alerts you to every minute followed by a note of the time. The station has been broadcasting since 1947! If your Spanish is up to it (and you’ll soon work out the times), the station live-streams!

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:

newsvideos

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.

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.

Channel Scheduling

In a couple of weeks’ time BBC Three is going to be showing the new third season of Orphan Black. The programme comes from BBC America, and although not a massive ratings hit, garners a lot of critical acclaim, particularly for its star Tatiana Maslany.

The show actually aired in the US between April and June this year, which means BBC Three has taken its time in showing the new series. But what’s really odd is its upcoming scheduling. Despite BBC Three commissioning having been wound down to a certain extent in the expectation that the channel would be “online only” a little earlier than it’s now likely to be and leaving schedules fairly full of repeats, BBC Three is seemingly only initially airing the programme in a graveyard slot.

And by that I mean nightly, sometime between 1am and 3am, in double episodes, stripped across a week. In this way, they’ll burn through the entire series in five days.

What this says to me is one of two things:

– BBC Three really doesn’t care about the programme. Although it must cost a relatively minimal amount (Although the machinations of a BBC Worldwide channel, now co-owned by AMC, licencing a show to a BBC national channel are beyond me), even the US version of The Apprentice, which nobody in this country cares about, and is full of hard-to-edit-out blatant product placement, gets better slots on BBC Three than that. And it’s not as though Orphan Black doesn’t have its fans.

or, much likelier,

– BBC Three is trying a bit of an experiment in binge viewing. The BBC introduced “series stacking” or “series catchup” in 2008. For BBC-made programmes, it meant that viewers could watch every of episode of, say, Doctor Who, while it was still on-air. It wasn’t available for every series due to rights restrictions, but it meant that at the end of a series’ run, for a single week, every episode was available to watch in one go. The reason it was only there for a single week was because 7 day iPlayer catch-up prevailed at the time. Last year, the BBC changed this around, and made everything available for 30 days. You had longer to catch-up, but the quid pro quo was that full series stacking was no longer available. Early episodes of a series dropped off the iPlayer as later ones became available. At no point would a full series of more than four weekly episodes be available to binge. Until the BBC amends its rights agreements, this is likely to remain the case. But by stripping double episodes across weekday nights, BBC Three effectively makes the whole new series of Orphan Black available to binge from the Saturday onwards for around 25 days. I suspect that this is what they’re going to try. Promoting watching it via iPlayer and perhaps running the show on a more usual weekly basis at that point.

Binge viewing definitely seems to be the “thing” of the moment, and I’ve found myself doing it more and more. If it’s not House of Cards, Daredevil or Narcos, it’s a box-set on Sky, storing up series on a PVR (Hands up if, like me, you now have two series of Peaky Blinders awaiting a viewing?) or an actual box-set of shiny discs.

As BBC Director General Tony Hall said only last week in a major speech about Charter Renewal:

“And I now want to experiment with the BBC issuing bigger and bolder series all at once on iPlayer, so viewers have the option of ‘binge watching’.”

Could this be another attempt at experimenting with this? The BBC notably introduced Car Share with Peter Kay earlier this year on a similar basis, although that didn’t require a nocturnal airing before it emerged initially as an iPlayer. We’ve seen Sky too play with the idea, carving the final series of Strike Back (A John Whittingdale favourite according to the speech linked below!) into two binge-able parts, as well as making series like Veep and documentary series The Jinx available to binge watch. Everyone is experimenting with the idea.

And while I’m writing about scheduling, it’s worth mentioning the element of new Culture Secretary John Whittingdale’s speech at the RTS Conference that has been widely picked up upon. Yes, the Terms of Trade section of his speech was more important, but it was this that got everyone’s attention:

“It is also important to look at the impact that the BBC has on its commercial rivals and – again to give just one example – whether it is sensible for its main evening news bulletin to go out at the same time as ITV’s.”

What a strange thing to highlight. It’s clearly completely out of remit for a minister to be worrying about how programmes are scheduled, beyond ensuring that PSBs broadcast news within primetime.

He’s talking about the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News going out at the same time as ITV’s News at Ten. Except that five seconds’ worth of searching might remind him that the reason the BBC switched to 10pm was because ITV had essentially vacated the slot in 1999 as it moved to first 11pm before then becoming the “News at When.” It ran entertainment programmes at 10pm first every night of the week, and later just some nights. It was again ITV who moved the programme back to 10pm where it by now competed with the BBC.

As with other scheduling decisions, is the BBC expected to wait to see where ITV deigns to put a programme and then schedule around it? For the most part schedulers do avoid obvious clashes because if you run two programmes aimed at the same audience simultaneously then you’re not going to get as good viewing figures as you might. But it’s a rare person who feels the need to watch both the BBC’s Ten O’Clock News and ITV’s News at Ten. And let’s not forget that Newsnight clashes too!

But all of this becomes ever more irrelevant in an age where we choose ourselves what we’re going to watch at the time of our choosing rather than a scheduler’s. And for news, there are of course multiple 24 hour services available around the clock, as well as numerous online options.

With enormous irony, on the very evening when Whittingdale was speaking, ITV had shifted its main news bulletin to 11pm for no other reason than because they wanted maximise the audience for their Champions’ League highlights at 10pm, a scheduling decision that one imagines will continue for subsequent rounds of the competition.

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 FT.com 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.

Logo Lolly

“Logo Lolly” is, or was, the practice of paying radio news reporters a bonus if they managed to get their radio microphone muffs (ie. covers) or collars into shot on the TV news. I’ve heard of at least two places where this certainly used to be the case. You’d get more money if you made a national news bulletin than a local one.

While I don’t know if anyone still actually pays a bonus for doing this these days, it’s pretty clear that it’s still common practice to try to get microphones into camera shot.

But I really do have a problem with the whole thing.

A case in point was the tragic helicopter crash on the North Norfolk coast earlier this week. The news broke on Tuesday evening, and sometime around 11pm there was a statement from a senior policeman on the scene saying that there had indeed been four fatalities and that the area had been cordoned off. The deaths had been expected. I was watching this live on one of the TV news channels. But there – poking into view – was the vivid coloured logo of a certain radio station.

No other microphones were in view. They didn’t need to be. Microphones are perfectly sensitive enough that they don’t need to be thrust into someone’s face aside from in the noisiest conditions.

By conducting this practice, you’re essentially saying that a sad or tragic news event is a marketing opportunity for your brand. That’s certainly the message you’re sending to the viewer.

It’s probably worse today than it used to be because the muffs or collars have become more vivid or garish than ever before.

The following morning, and another press statement at the scene of the accident as things became clearer. There again was the station microphone – front and centre in the screen.

Just to be clear, nearly every station is or has been guilty of this practice. But it’s not for nothing that more organised press conferences these days don’t have a forest microphones on the desk, but simply a single shared one, and a mixing desk elsewhere in the room where a reporter can take a feed for their service.

I may have highlighted one incidence, but it happens a lot, and it looks cheap and tawdry. Does it make me think that your station is the home for important breaking news? I don’t believe it does. If a station wants to renowned for its news output then surely its own broadcasts are the place to do it.

I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for getting your branding out there. Indeed some lighter stories might be fine for it. But it feels very wrong when there are serious or tragic circumstances.

And are news TV organisations guilty of this? Well not nearly as much. Yes, they probably have branded microphone muffs or collars, and they have their news vehicles on the scene, but they simply don’t need to be as in your face. I’m afraid that this is largely a radio problem.

Ofcom doesn’t allow the sponsorship of the news. But I suspect that few brands would want to be associated with major tragic events. Do you really want to use those same events as a marketing exercise for your brand?