Thursday, May 29, 2014

More small empires

Excellent series showing how tough it is in the startup world - but persistance pays off for those who understand their customers.

Particularly impressed by Squarespace.

African Digital Media Academy Shines

I am impressed by the productions that have started to come out of African Digital Media Academy in Kigali, Rwanda. Built as a cooperative venture with Pixelcorps, it is clearly the best way forward for creatives in East Africa. Build a digital economy!

They have also built up expertise in livecasting major events. From their blog....

On April 4-7, the Africa Digital Media Academy (ADMA) was pleased to broadcast, on behalf of the President’s Office, Rwanda’s first high definition, ‘live stream’ of the International Forum on Genocide at Parliament and Commemoration Day at Amahoro Stadium. The Academy deployed two teams of seven students and two supervisors were at each location.
ADMA Instructor Ryan Yewell prepares for live stream at the opening session at Parliament.
The broadcast at Parliament featured three cameras linked to a control center, where camera shots were selected and titles added. The subsequent broadcast was transmitted to both the audience at Parliament, enabling everyone to clearly view the proceedings, and to the rest of the world, allowing them to view the proceedings as they took place.
 ADMA student Lievain Rucyaha operates one of three cameras during the three days of hearings in Parliament.
This was the second such event covered by ADMA. Previously, ADMA provided the live stream for Transform Africa. In both cases, ADMA students ran all of the cameras.
On April 7, a second team of students, under the supervision of Ryan Yewell and visiting expert Calvin Roberts, filmed the entire day of events at Amahoro Stadium, from arrival of HE President Paul Kagame, after the Walk to Remember, to the final concluding song at the end of the evening. 
ADMA deployed five cameras for this broadcast, linking them to a control room underneath the VIP section at the stadium. One camera occupied the coveted center media platform, shared only with Rwanda TV.
ADMA student and lab monitor Patrick Ndaruhutse operates the center camera filming the featured speakers throughout the day.
Throughout the day, ADMA made it possible for anyone in the world to hear the words of speakers including HE President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon. In addition, recordings of the Commemoration Day events have had over 16,000 views as of April 24.
HE President Paul Kagame speaking during Kwibuka20 at Amahoro Stadium.
ADMA will continue it’s support of live stream broadcasts during events for YouthConnekt, the Africa Development Bank Annual Meeting in May, and Rwanda Independence Day in July.

Al Jazeera English also broadcast an excellent documentary referred to by one of the speakers.

Two shortwave transmitter sites visited

Time for a bit of nostalogia. An early Media Network programme I made included a visit to the Lopik transmitter site not far from Utrecht. The date is August 13th 1981. The site has been there since 1957 when it took over from the low power site in Huizen. But the 100 kW and 10 kW units are wearing out and plans are afoot for a new transmission centre somewhere on the Flevo polder.

Dave Porter has also posted a video visit to the Woofferton shortwave transmission centre, built mainly to relay the programmes of the Voice of America during the height of the Cold War.

MN.27.12.1984 - What time is it?

In the 1980's you could find time signal stations quietly ticking away on the shortwave dial. WWVH from Hawaii, CHU from Canada, VNG from Australia. They were a useful beacon to tell you whether signals were coming in from a particular part of the world. In 1984 I compiled a feature with examples, mainly made by writing to the stations concerned and sending them a cassette. There was no Internet and phone lines sounded pretty terrible. We also included an interview with VOA who were busy building a new mediumwave radio station to improve the audibilty of their Spanish service in Nicaragua. And Victor Goonetilleke supplied us with news from his listening post in Colombo, Sri Lanka. His cassette machine was coming to the end of its life! By todays standards, this programme sounds incredibly slow. And it took ages to write on a typewriter with carbon copy in between. But the time signal recordings bring back memories.

In 1999 we revisited time signal stations by including a visit to Time signal station WWV. This still sounds pretty good.

MN.22.10.1987. Time Signals and Listeners Letters

This vintage Media Network programme looked at changes to the Time Signal Station  VNG in Lyndhurst Australia and we compiled a feature looking at how international broadcasters like VOA, Radio Australia, Radio Netherlands and BBC World Service handle the hundreds of thousands of letters that each was receiving. Most, in fact, were having a hard time. In fact if you wrote to the BBC or VOA you were not very likely to get a reply, except perhaps a programme schedule. Remember this programme was made five years before anyone thought of using the Internet for correspondence to a radio station in another country.

Making Radio Station Jingles 20 years ago

So what's changed since we made this analysis of the Jingles industry during Media Network in 1994? 

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Great news - Buzzfeed's new strategy will fail

What happens when you grow too quickly? You make stupid strategic moves. I note the announcement today that Buzzfeed thinks it doesn't need partners. Sounds like Twitter getting rid of its partner program. Danger! Danger! Of course this opens the doors for other disruptive companies who understand the value of win-win partnerships. That's why it is great news for the competition.

BuzzFeed has decided to wind down its existing partner network over the coming months. The partner network was an extremely valuable product for us and for partners but its place has changed as the industry has evolved and BuzzFeed has grown into a fully staffed, global news and entertainment organization over the last few years.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Media Network Vintage Podcast; 03.03.1994 Visit to World Radio Network London

This edition of Media Network is just over 20 years old. I found myself in London and decided to visit the facilities of World Radio Network who had the idea of bundling international broadcasters by language rather than country. Co-founder Karl Miosga (pictured) showed me round the facility, which in those days, was in the Strand, very near to Bush House. I think the concept worked in the days before the Internet rather destroyed the business model of satellite delivered radio. It is so difficult to do on-demand via satellite. Which is obviously what you are doing now. WRN are still around, though they moved to a different part of London.

I see that a video made by Eric Wiltsher is also on YouTube which was made around the same time with Karl. The audio is out of sync, but you get to see what Karl is talking about, something I can't do on the radio. It is a festival of analogue receiver technology.

Got to know Carl through is earlier work at the start of BBC Radio 5 (before it was BBC Radio 5 Live). Lost touch, and I don't see his name on the WRN masthead any more.

Never lose your focus

video platformvideo managementvideo solutionsvideo player

How a Google backed company still ran out of money a year after getting huge publicity in the US. Listen to users and your own instinct.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Ottringham Calling The Netherlands

Ottringham on a bright summers day in 2010.

There are three radio documentaries on this page, one made by the BBC Radio Humberside in Hull, two made my me at Radio Netherlands. They tell the same story from different perspectives. Enjoy.

Few people know that Ottringham, a village near Hull in the UK was the home of many of the BBC’s broadcasts during the Second World War, and that its transmissions were received well into the heart of occupied Europe. The site was intended to broadcast both medium and long wave services to counteract propaganda coming from Nazi occupied Europe. Today the site of the old transmitter site is an engineering works and the fields where the antennas stood reveal little of their radio past.

This article below was published on the BBC Local radio website of BBC Radio Hull on 28 October 2008. It was written by Dale Baxter. That part of the website now is dormant.
Before the construction of the Ottringham transmitter site the BBC used existing sites at Daventry, Droitwich and Brookman’s Park for broadcasts to the UK and occupied Europe. However these sites were only ever intended to be used as a temporary solution since the antennas were built with domestic coverage in mind. Ottringham was selected, and was soon the centre of the BBC’s wartime broadcasts.

    Ottringham is a village and civil parish in the East Riding of Yorkshire, England, in an area known as Holderness. It is situated approximately 12 miles to the east of Hull city centre and 5 miles south-west of Withernsea.
    With a combined output power of 800 kiloWatts on both long and medium wave, BBC Ottringham or O.S.E. Number 5 as it was called was the most powerful transmitting sites in the world during World War Two. Four transmitters operated on the site, with one relaying the Home Service, now known as Radio Four to the East Riding and Northern Lincolnshire throughout the war.
    Only a select group of people worked at the highly secure site, Grace Magee being one of them. Mrs Magee now lives in Northamptonshire, but can clearly remember her duties and what the site looked like. “There was a large office block. There was an office for the Engineer in Charge, another for the assistant Engineer in Charge and the general office where I worked. There was store cupboard in the office block; a very well equipped kitchen ran by a cook and an assistant, with a nice canteen supplying meals for the staff. A large power house and operating system, with three diesel generator sets in case of power failure was very, very noisy.”
    Control room
    Control room
    Aerial masts 500 feet high towered up in the sky. The station was frequency agile, changing wavelengths so so as to avoid German jamming. Engineers manned the control room desks which were a maze of dials and switches, monitoring all the programmes, the timing of which was most important.
    The station had a guardhouse, with guards on duty and ID passes had to be shown before entering. Anti-Aircraft camps surrounded the BBC compound for protection against German air-raids.
    A BBC Club was provided in Queen Street, Withernsea, with games rooms, snooker tables etc. A bus was used to take the engineers into Ottringham for the day, evening and night shifts, as most of the staff lodged or lived in Withernsea.
    Equipment room
    An engineer monitors the equipment
    BBC Ottringham was not abandoned for some time after the war. The station actually transmitted until the 15th of February 1953, closing down as wartime services from the BBC (such as the BBC Dutch Service) went off the air.
    Shortly after closure the transmitters, like much of the equipment, was re-used at another site. The transmitters were moved to a new site in Droitwich where they broadcast BBC Radio 1 and Radio 4 on medium wave and Radio 2 on long wave until well into the 1970’s, when the Droitwich site was updated and re-equipped with new more modern high efficiency transmitters.
    The 95-acres and 38,000 square feet of buildings were sold to a local farmer on the 25th of June 1959, for just £5,100. So what has become of the site now? Well, the control centre, now unrecognisable, due to the new cladding is now home to a company called Servaccomm who make modular building units.
    BBC Ottringham site in 2014

    Thanks to John Clappison for kindly supplying photographs.

    The site Subterranea Britannica, from Nick Catford, contains some further information.
    BBC Ottringham antenna field today.

    The site from Google Earth made in 2010. 

    Aerial shot of BBC Ottringham with the long/mediumwave masts

    Plan of the station (from BBC Archives)
    Tests at the site started on 22nd January 1943 and the station finally came on line on 12th February 1943 six months late after two of the 500 foot masts collapsed during construction work in August 1942. This later opening disappointed BBC engineers as they were competing for completion with "Aspidistra" at Crowborough in Sussex, which was under construction at the same time. Although used by the BBC, Aspidistra wasn't owned by the Corporation being owned and used by the government to broadcast black propaganda coming from Milton Bryant near Bletchley. More details about Crowborough in the Wartime Deception programmes I made

    The station had a maximum power of 800 kilowatts either on long wave or medium wave and at the time this was the most powerful transmitter in the world. 4 200 kilowatt Marconi transmitters were installed in four heavily protected surface buildings, possibly with earth revetments. These were driven and fed with programmes from a 5th building (the Control Centre) while the 6th building was the Central Combining House which contained the circuits to combine 200kW at a time for the LF service to a maximum of 800 kW output.

    Although the station was tested to 800 kW output, it never run on programme to that level, 600kW being the maximum used. The station was designed to broadcast with 200, 400, 600 or 800 kilowatts with up to four separate programmes simultaneously. The fourth transmitter was used to relay the Home Service (Radio 4) to the East Riding and North Lincolnshire. The final building on the site was a standby set house with 3 X 740 bhp diesel alternator sets. (There was also a garage and a sub-station)
    Photo: BBC Control Centre Basement
    Photo by Nick Catford
    The site of the aerial masts in Ottringham has now been returned to farmland while the transmitter site has been cleared of all buildings. A new industrial unit has been built at one end of the fenced site while the rest is a storage yard and lorry park. 

    More on Radio Orange

    I learned about the broadcasts from Ottringham from a different angle. It was during my first attempt at making a mini radio documentary, being 23 at the time. I had joined Radio Netherlands, the Dutch external services (Radio Nederland as it was then called) the year before.

    In July 1981 I got an interview with the late Professor Lou de Jong (he died in 2005), who worked at Radio Oranje in London during the war. Alongside the BBC Dutch Service broadcasts, there was time allotted to governments in exile. Before doing the interview, I did quite a bit of research into what happened at the offices in Stratton Street, London. 

    Lou de Jong was a bit stiff to start with. He was testing me to see if I had really done my homework or just wanted a sound clip for something else. I told him I was fascinated in broadcasting history and really wanted to find out what it was like to be a broadcaster in those difficult times, especially working for the Dutch government in exile. So he began to really enjoy telling the story even though it must have been the hundredth time.

    The Dutch government had a 15 minute slot in which they could beam their message back to occupied Holland, but also, as it turned out by looking at the schedule, to the Dutch East and West Indies. The entire scripts of the transmissions were in the archives of Radio Netherlands building (since the station grew into Radio Netherlands in 1947) before being donated to the National Archives. The original programme was broadcast in two parts, which explains the strange length. More details on the Dutch Institute for War Documentation is here.

    We also made a programme about Radio Hilversum during the war years under Nazi Occupation.

    After the war, those behind Radio Oranje later went on to found what became Radio Netherlands. The BBC Dutch radio service closed down when it was clear its mission was over in 1957. Below is the final broadcast in Dutch which contains a look back on what was achieved.

    Friday, May 23, 2014

    Why engaging stories win the competition for attention

    I have just been challenged to give examples of different approaches to storytelling between Europe and North America. Here's a classic comparison between two organisations with the same idea, launching at roughly the same time. Which one would you invest in?

    The idea: If you build solar panels into the road, you could generate electricity.

    The Dutch organisation for Applied Sciences, TNO, claims a world premier in this video released by the producer Mattheus Bleijenberg in October 2013 on YouTube and later with English subtitles on Vimeo. It starts with where this is happening, and what they are doing. But the film never gets round to why I should care. With a registered 124 plays on vimeo within a month, and 714 plays within six months on YouTube, my conclusion is that no-one knows what these guys are doing, or why they should be bothered. And it seems like they have only thought it through to the solar energy generation stage. Yet the idea could do so much more.

    Meanwhile in the USA, a company called Solar Roadways has launched their version of the same idea. This is a husband and wife team of entrepreneurs. I thought their Indigogo video suffered from the same problem facing the Dutch story. A bit too much of a documentary style for a crowd funding site. But still, 740,000 views.

    Then came a version with Focus Forward magazine. Better for an older age group. But youngsters are not really encouraged to share this. Again, more of a mini documentary style. 270,000 views over a period of two years.

    Then along comes another version this month, which clocks up 880,000 views in a week. It not only draws you in, it quickly gives you a whole list of reasons why this single development could be a kickstarter to local economies. Update: As of Sunday June 1st 2014, the video below had clocked over 11 million views.

    And the US site, keeps an active eye on what the public are saying and answers their questions. Even if you understand Dutch, the TNO site doesn't draw you into a conversation. You remain an outsider looking in. So you end up losing interest and walking on by. Advantage USA.

    Morgan Freeman is on something for a reason

    The actor Morgan Freeman is acting very strangely. For a reason. It is a way to promote Season Five of the science documentary series called Through the Wormhole. The clip is designed to appeal to all the emerging aggregators out there, looking for something short and funny to share through Facebook, Twitter etc. And does it work? Why yes it does. Surprised they didn't make a clearer pay-off at the end. Cause this stuff is designed to be stolen.

    Wednesday, May 21, 2014

    Crowborough's Secret Wireless Station

    I am reissuing this post with some updates. Ken Gibson, President of the mid-Sussex amateur radio club in the UK shared more information as a result of celebrations of the UK's Diplomatic Wireless Service. They operated a special amateur radio station with the callsign GB0DWS from the site at Duddleswell, near Crowborough, Sussex where a huge mediumwave transmitter operated in secret during the Second World War.

    That reminds me of three radio programmes I made at Radio Netherlands with the late Harold Robin, the Foreign and Commonwealth broadcast engineer who put a number of "fake" resistance stations on the air from a transmitter site not far from Bletchley Park. I was glad to see that they haven't forgotten the role of these broadcasts - it's mentioned in the exhibition at Bletchley Park. You can listen to the first part of that documentary by clicking the player below. 

    Part of the old transmitter site in 2010.

    The second part of this 30 minute documentary has a closer connection with today's event and can be found here.  

    Harold Robin explains why Canadian soldiers dug a hole in one of hills near Crowborough, Sussex and how the high power mediumwave transmitter sent from the US was buried underground. George Jacobs explains the mysterious Glenn Miller Jazz programmes made for German soldiers. Aspidistra, as the transmitter was called, could change frequency quite quickly and did more than broadcast fake German forces radio programmes. 

    After the war, the transmitter was handed over to the BBC and later sent to Orfordness, Suffolk. Bits of the original transmitter survive in the transmission hall of that site. The original transmitter site in Sussex is now a police training ground. The photo shows the transmitter shortly after installation. The bunker was designed by an architect who built cinemas before the war. A little known fact is that this site was also used a location in 1981 for an episode of BBC's Dr Who. The best pictures taken inside the bunker are on the site of Underground Kent

    Orfordness transmitter site from the air. The disused 648 kHz array are in the centre of the picture.
    The only remaining parts of the Aspi 1 transmitter are hanging in the entrance hall of the Babcock transmitter site at Ordfordness. I wonder how long they will remain there. That site was used until March 27th 2011 for transmission of BBC programmes on 648 kHz towards Western Europe and is now silent. We mentioned Crowborough in this short documentary about Orfordness. It's at 5 minutes 51 seconds into the video.

    One More Thing - Rhodesia

    Although the work of Harold Robin during the war is well documented in books like "The Black Game" by Ellic Howe, I think we managed to capture the other stories from later in his life. For instance, how he invented the "Picolo" modulation system as used by the diplomatic service to communicate text over shortwave between embassies. He also built the BBC Overseas relay station in Oman, and the external service of UAE Radio from Dubai. 

    In the third programme that I will recommend today, recorded after Christmas in 1995, we also looked at the story of the British response to the declaration of independence by Ian Smith in, what was then, Rhodesia. Harold talks about setting up a mediumwave transmitter in a matter of weeks in the town of Francistown, in the Bechuanaland Protectorate, now called Botswana. 

    Thanks also to Colin Miller for some of the recordings of the RBC. It seems that one of the two transmitters was sent to Cyprus after the World and Rhodesia operation ended, the other ended up in Ordfordness for some experiments on 648 kHz. You might also want to check out the video of Margaret Howard, who refers to a special programme transmitted over this MW sender. It was called the World and Rhodesia and was more of a UK government editorial than any programme the BBC would make. The programme concept didn't work although it seemed to have taken the British government a couple of years to find out. 

    Harold refers to staying in the Tati Hotel River Lodge, about 8 kms outside of Francistown. Sure enough, it's still there.

    Tuesday, May 20, 2014

    EU nonsense video plays right into the court of the no-voters

    What on earth were they thinking in Brussels when they approved this pro-Europe video campaign for the Dutch market? Especially when several underage sex scandals are playing daily in the European media. They are bonkers in Brussels.

    I recall the mini documentaries by Tom Staal that the website Geenstijl published in June 2013, uncovering the massive waste of money that goes into expenses and allowances. Whereas this was challenged in the UK, that never happens in Brussels or Strasbourg. Weak point of this style of journalism is that you never find out the extent of the wastage. I see they subtitled it in English.

    Real-life storm drama

    Real-life storm drama this past Sunday in Wyoming, filmed by storm chasers (remember Twister?) Seen by 3 million already, if we can trust the YouTube stats. I'm amazed at how it simply vanishes in the end. 

    Monday, May 19, 2014

    Sunday, May 18, 2014

    Peter Staal on the mysterious number stations

    Interesting lecture from Peter Staal who gave a talk a few years ago to students at TU Delft about the mysterious number stations on shortwave. It's a pity they can't get the sound to work at the start of the talk, but he makes up for it later. Best lecture I have seen on who was behind the stations. It seems the machines which generate the numbers were offered on EBAY to collectors at one point. Peter has filmed several in action. Of course the west used them too. I guess a similar sort of generator.

    This video is part of the following playlist on this channel:

    The machine pronounces, in a monotone voice, a string of numbers used by intelligence agencies for one-way shortwave radio communication with their agents in enemy countries.
    This machine belongs to a German collector who has a vast collection of various spy-gadgets.

    There were many machines of this particular model produced in East-Germany for usage within the DDR itself or other communist bloc nations, like the Soviet Union or Cuba

    At 31'25 he refers to the magazine programme Kurzwellen Panorama, which was produced by Wolf Harranth of ORF Auslandsdienst, later renamed Radio Austria International.

    Here is a video I made a few years ago of Wolf at the old site of the Radio documentation centre.

    A visit with Wolf Harranth, OE1WHC, Dokufunk Curator from Jonathan Marks on Vimeo.

    The numbers station got the biggest publicity in the film from 2013.

    More programmes in an earlier entry on this blog. Enjoy.

    Nieman analyses the raw New York Times Strategy report

    For whatever reason, an in-house report on the digital strategy of the New York Times leaked out this week. The raw, unedited version makes fascinating reading, whether you are in publishing or in broadcasting. Just replace the name of the station you work for wherever you see The New York Times.  The Nieman Journalism Lab has asked Justin Ellis, Caroline O’Donovan, and Joseph Lichterman — to read through the Innovation report on the New York Times and pick out the most important highlights. This is the relevant section from the blog. What struck me is the inability of the Times to tag stuff so the lifetime of the content is extended. They are still making a newspaper designed to last until the next edition. And the focus on releasing stories at the wrong time of day and often on the wrong day of the week.
    The value of the homepage is decreasing. “Only a third of our readers ever visit it. And those who do visit are spending less time: page views and minutes spent per reader dropped by double-digit percentages last year.” The Times must do a better job encouraging sharing of content: “But at The Times, discovery, promotion and engagement have been pushed to the margins, typically left to our business-side colleagues or handed to small teams in the newsroom. The business side still has a major role to play, but the newsroom needs to claim its seat at the table because packaging, promoting and sharing our journalism requires editorial oversight.” (p. 23-25)
    Homepage traffic
    Michael Wertheim, former head of promotion at Upworthy, turned down a business-side job leading audience development. “He explained that for anyone in that role to succeed, the newsroom needed to be fully committed to working with the business side to grow our audience” (p. 25)
    There are about 14.7 million articles in the Times’ archives dating back to 1851. The Times needs to do a better job of resurfacing archival content. The report cites Gawker repackaging a 161-year-old Times story on Solomon Northup timed with the release of 12 Years A Slave“We can be both a daily newsletter and a library — offering news every day, as well as providing context, relevance and timeless works of journalism.” (p. 28)
    The report proposes restructuring arts and culture stories that remain relevant long after they are initially published into guides for readers. They give an example of a reader wanting to find the Times’ initial review of the play Wicked. “The best opportunities are in areas where The Times has comprehensive coverage, where information doesn’t need to be updated regularly, and where competitors haven’t saturated the market.” They view museums, books, and theater as the best options for that. Travel and music would be more difficult, the report says. These guides should supplement, not replace current pages. (p. 29)
    The Times must be willing to experiment more in terms of how it presents its content: “We must push back against our perfectionist impulses. Though our journalism always needs to be polished, our other efforts can have some rough edges as we look for new ways to reach our readers.” (p. 31)
    Andrew Phelps (full disclosure: a former Nieman Lab staffer) made a Flipboard magazine of the Times’ best obits from 2013 on a whim. It became the best-read collection ever on Flipboard. Why wasn’t the Times doing stuff like that on its own platforms, the report wondered. (p. 33)
    The product and design teams are developing a collections format, and they should further consider tools to make it easier for journalists, and maybe even readers, to create collections and repackage the content. The R&D department and the new products team have built a “widget-like tool that any reporter or editor could use to drag and drop stories and photos” into a collection. Ultimately this could be something the reader even uses. (p. 34)
    They experimented by repackaging old content in new formats with a collection of videos related to love on Valentine’s Day and a collection of stories by Nick Kristof on sex trafficking. “The result? Both were huge hits, exclusively because our readers shared them on social.” The Kristof collection page and the articles in it totaled 468,106 pageviews over six days. “Very few articles from a typical day’s paper will garner this much traffic in a month.” Readers spent an average of 2 minutes and 35 seconds on a Kristof story from 1996, for example. (p. 34-35)
    The Times’ dialect quiz was the most popular piece of content in the paper’s history with more than 21 million pageviews — but projects like that and Snow Fall are not easily replicable. “We have a tendency to pour resources into big one-time projects and work through the one-time fixes needed to create them and overlook the less glamorous work of creating tools, templates and permanent fixes that cumulatively can have a bigger impact by saving our digital journalists time and elevating the whole report. We greatly undervalue replicability.” They point out that competitors like Vox and BuzzFeed view innovating with their platforms as a key function and allow them to create products like BuzzFeed’s quizzes — incredibly popular, but also easy to create over and over again. “We are focused on building tools to create Snow Falls everyday, and getting them as close to reporters as possible,” said Quartz editor Kevin Delaney“I’d rather have a Snow Fall builder than a Snow Fall.” (p. 36)
    The Times is planning on creating a section of the homepage that uses reader patterns to customize a list of content that readers missed but would most likely want to see. It’s being planned for the newly redesigned website and iPhone app. “Though all readers would see the same top news stories, the other articles we show them would be customized to reflect what they haven’t seen.” But in order to accomplish this, the newsroom must clarify how much personalization it wants on the website and on the apps; it’ll be difficult to move forward without knowing that. (p. 37-38)
    The report suggests creating a “follow” button that would allow readers to easily follow certain topics or columnists. What they choose to follow could be sent to a “Following Inbox.” They could also have alerts sent to their phone or email. Before the website redesign, the only way readers could get notified of favorites was by email. The feature had 338,000 users and “unusually high engagement rates” even though it was hard to find and laborious to sign up for. (p. 39)
    The Times is woefully behind in its tagging and structured data practices. It considered improving its tagging efforts in 2010, but the paper decided not to pursue it. “Without better tagging, we are hamstrung in our ability to allow readers to follow developing stories, discover nearby restaurants that we have reviewed or even have our photos show up on search engines.” (p. 41)
    Recipes were never tagged by ingredients and cooking time. Because of that, “we floundered about for 15 years trying to figure out how to create a useful recipe database.” They spent “a huge sum to retroactively structure the data.” Structured data problems prohibit the Times from automating the sale of photos and keep Times stories from doing as well in search rankings as they should. (p. 41)
    It took seven years for the Times to begin to tag stories “September 11.” They need to do a better job tagging articles together and follow a single topic or news event.“We never made a tag for Benghazi, and I wish we had because the story just won’t die,” Kristi Reilly of the archive, metadata, and search team said. The report cites The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, and Circa as outlets who the Times could emulate. (p. 41-42)
    Bigger data types
    In a section addressing promotion of New York Times content — essentially, social media distribution — the report’s authors survey the techniques of “competitors” and compare them to the Times’ strategy. For example, at ProPublica, “that bastion of old-school journalism values,” reporters have to submit 5 possible tweets when they file stories, and editors have a meeting regarding social strategy for every story package. Reuters employs two people solely to search for underperforming stories to repackage and republish. (p. 43)
    Contrastingly, when the Times published Invisible Child, the story of Dasani, not only was marketing not alerted in time to come up with a promotional strategy,“the reporter didn’t tweet about it for two days.” Overall, less than 10 percent of Times traffic comes from social, compared to 60 percent at BuzzFeed. (p. 43)
    Meanwhile, outlets like The Huffington Post “regularly outperform” the Times in terms of traffic, simply by aggregating and repackaging Times journalism. Regarding the deployment of this strategy around Times coverage of Nelson Mandela’s death, a Huffington Post executive said: “You guys got crushed. I was queasy watching the numbers. I’m not proud of this. But this is your competition.”(p. 44)
    The report advises that simple steps can be taken to lessen the loss of traffic to competitors: “Just adding structured data, for example, immediately increased traffic to our recipes from search engines by 52 percent.” (p. 44)
    The report points to organizational problems inside the company that contribute to lagging social media promotion and traffic. “Our Twitter account is run by the newsroom. Our Facebook is run by the business side,” they write. (p. 45)
    In addition, while many in the newsroom are under the impression that the social media team exists to promote their work, that team was in fact originally conceived of as a primarily information gathering body. (p. 45)
    An attempt to have Times employees experiment with content promotion centered around the Times Magazine’s “Voyages” issue was disappointing. Traffic actually decreased from the previous year, the report states, and overall leadership was lacking — team experts were confused about the tools available to them and tended to err on the side of the conservative. (p. 46)
    Their response? “Our approach would be to create an ‘impact toolbox’ and train an editor on each desk to use it. The toolbox would provide strategy, tactics and templates for increasing the reach of an article before and after it’s published. Over time, the editor could teach others.” (p. 47)
    The report invests some time in highlighting the independent social media self-promotion efforts by Times reporters and staffers that have been effective. The authors specifically mention KJ Dell’Antonia, Gina Kolata, C.J. Chivers, Nick Kristof, Nick Bilton, David Carr, Charles Duhigg, and more. (p. 47)
    Specifically, they point to the fact that many of their best social staffers learned those skills through the book publishing process, not in the newsroom. Their research included an experiment in identifying social influencers, both in the newsroom and outside it, prior to a story being published. The result of their experiment — getting Ashton Kutcher, who has 15.9 million followers, to retweet a Times story — was considered a success. (p. 48)
    The report also singles out comments as a place where the Times nominally attempts to interact with readers. While the Times takes pride in its ability to encourage discourse while maintaining the brand by moderating its comments, the report suggests this level of engagement may not be sufficient. “Only a fraction of stories are opened for comments,” they write. “Only one percent of readers write comments and only three percent of readers read comments. Our trusted-commenter system, which we hoped would increase engagement, includes just a few hundred readers.” (p. 49)
    The report suggests the Times consider expanding further into live events. They highlight the success media brands such as The Atlanticand The New Yorker have had with their festivals and conferences. They stress that there is enormous opportunity for both revenue and engagement in the events space for the Times. “There is no reason that the space filled by TED Talks, with tickets costing $7,500, could not have been created by the Times. ‘One of our biggest concerns is that someone like The Times will start a real conference program,’ said a TED executive.” (p. 53)
    The merging of platforms and publishers has garnered some attention in the media space lately, and the report’s authors do not neglect that conversation. They look at what organizations that allow users to create content on their sites are doing, and question how the Times could develop a strategy without diluting its brand. They suggest that the Times’ audience is full of educated and interesting people who could easily pen valuable content that might find enthusiasm from readers in the digital space. A new push to expand products around opinion reflects this consideration. (p. 52)
    Interestingly, the report mentions that what readers see as innovation at the Times— graphics and interactives — is not reflected internally, in terms of workflow, organization, strategy, and recruitment. (p. 57)
    For example, the Times fails to fully take advantage of opportunities to learn about its audience, not doing “things that our competitors do, like ask readers whether they would be willing to be contacted by reporters or if they are willing to share some basic information about their hometown, alma mater and industry so we can send them articles about those topics.” (p. 54)
    The leadership of the recently fired Jill Abramson is briefly mentioned, including“the significant improvement in relations between news and business under the leadership of Jill, Mark and Arthur.” The authors write: “Embracing Reader Experience as an extension of the newsroom is also the next logical step in Jill’s longstanding goal of creating a newsroom with fully integrated print and digital operations, since these departments have skills to build on our digital successes.”(p. 61)
    “The very first step,” the authors write about the need for more collaboration, “should be a deliberate push to abandon our current metaphors of choice — ‘The Wall’ and ‘Church and State’ — which project an enduring need for division.Increased collaboration, done right, does not present any threat to our values of journalistic independence.” (p. 61)
    The report calls for increased communication and cooperation between the sections of the company they call “Reader Experience” and the newsroom. In the report, Reader Experience refers to R&D, product, technology, analytics and design. (p. 63)
    Those departments are not tiny: roughly 30 people in analytics, 30 in digital design, 120 in product, and a whopping 445 in technology, with around two dozen teams of engineers. (p. 63)
    Specifically, they praise the recently released Cooking vertical and the NYT Nowapp, which were spearheaded by Sam Sifton and Alex MacCallum and Cliff Levy and Ben French, respectively. (Other individuals mentioned include James Robinson, Aron Pilhofer, Danielle Rhoades Ha, Kelly Alfieri, and Brian Hamman.) (p. 66)
    There have been significant obstacles to this kind of cooperation, however. “People say to me, ‘You can’t let anyone know I’m talking to you about this; it has to be under the radar,’ said a leader in one Reader Experience department.‘Everyone is a little paranoid about being seen as too close to the business side.’”(p.64)
    The report also describes a developer who quit after being denied a request to have developers attend brown bag lunches along with editorial staffers. This sort of rejection can make recruitment of top developers and designers a challenge. (p. 68)
    According to the report, there is a sense at the Times that Reader Experience staffers and newsroom staffers are not supposed to communicate. Says David Leonhardt of the process of developing The Upshot, in which he had unanswered questions about competition, audience, platform strategies, promotion and user-testing, “I had no idea who to reach out to and it never would have occurred to me to do it. It would have felt vaguely inappropriate.” (p. 66)
    The report proposed creating a newsroom strategy team to take some of the strategy work off the masthead: “The core function would be ensuring the masthead is apprised of competitors’ strategies, changing technology and shifting reader behavior. The team would track projects around the company that affect our digital report, ensuring the newsroom is at the table when we need to be.” (p. 71)
    Times leaders frequently ask former editor Rich Meislin for advice because other editors and managers, even those tasked with looking at the bigger picture, were too busy. Meislin “remains such a critical resource, providing information, insight and counsel about digital issues to a range of people in the newsroom and on the business side. In addition to having a deep well of institutional knowledge, he also has time. ‘They go to Rich because he’s available and because he’s not dealing with the daily report,’ said a masthead editor.” (p. 72)
    Even the Times, with all its staffing and other resources — its R&D lab, its mobile team, its editors focused on issues around design, digital, or new initiatives — feels like it doesn’t have the time or power to get outside of the day-to-day grind of making a newspaper to think about its future. Even the mobile group doesn’t have time to look at how the Times can use new technologies, the report says. “That helps explain why it took a group removed from the daily flow of the newsroom — NYT Now — to fundamentally rethink our mobile presentation.” (p. 72)
    “Another [desk head] suggested that the relentless work of assembling the world’s best news report can also be a ‘form of laziness, because it is work that is comfortable and familiar to us, that we know how to do. And it allows us to avoid the truly hard work and bigger questions about our present and our future: What shall we become. How must we change?’” (p. 72)
    “‘We’ve abdicated completely the role of strategy,’ said one masthead editor. ‘We just don’t do strategy. The newsroom is really being dragged behind the galloping horse of the business side.’” (p. 72)
    Rival publications talk to one another and share intel. New York magazine’s Adam Moss said “I talk to [Nick] Denton all the time. We both talk to Jacob [Weisberg]. We’re constantly telling each other what’s working, what we’ve experimented with…About half the choices I make come about because someone from another site tells me something worked, and so we adopt it.” (p. 73)
    While the business side strategy team is already doing some of that work — they provided an 80-page transcript of interviews about social strategy from talking with other media companies and competitors — the masthead is disconnected from strategy talks: “In recent months, the masthead has been left out of several important studies that will affect the newsroom, including marketing-led exploration of our audience development efforts and a detailed assessment of our…capabilities and needs. In both cases our senior leaders were unaware that these conversations were happening, despite the newsroom’s growing interest in both subjects.” (p. 74)
    The Times, like many newspapers, does not like failure. It usually doesn’t like to talk about it, in public or in private. “For example, our mobile app, ‘The Scoop,’and our international home page have failed to gain traction with readers, yet we still devote resources to them. We ended the Booming blog but kept its newsletter going. These ghost operations distract time, energy and resources that could be used for new projects. At the same time, we haven’t tried to wring insights from these efforts. ‘There were no metrics, no target, no goals to hit and no period of re-evaluation after the launch,’ said a digital platforms editor, about our international home page.” (p. 75)
    The point of the strategy team would be to help prioritize issues that need to be fixed, as well as being able to lend a voice to problems that staff are reluctant to talk openly about. One of the biggest problems is the Times’ CMS, according to the report. “But desks and producers spend countless hours on one-time fixes to the platform, rather than permanent solutions, even when it is clear the problems will emerge again and again. One senior member of the news desk said that leaders would be ‘horrified’ if they understood the situation.” (p. 76)
    One problem within the Times is consolidating innovation and experiments to a few desks, namely graphics, interactive news, social, and design. The result of this has been that individual staffers and desks, like the news desk, have not had the permission or tools to experiment on their own. The proposed strategy group would help desks work on individual experiments and find ways to replicate that elsewhere in the company. (p. 77)
    In the triangle of business side, Reader Experience, and newsroom, the newsroom is often seen as defensive or risk averse. “One reason for our caution is that the newsroom tends to view questions through the lens of worst-case scenarios,” the report puts it. “And the newsroom has historically reacted defensively by watering down or blocking changes, prompting a phrase that echoes almost daily around the business side: ‘The newsroom would never allow that.’” (p. 78)
    The big question: How can the Times become more digital while still maintaining a print presence, and what has to change? “That means aggressively questioning many of our print-based traditions and their demands on our time, and determining which can be abandoned to free up resources for digital work.” (p. 82)
    A big tension at the Times is what it means to be digital-first, and how the newspaper can get there. Senior editor for digital operations Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman apparently set off a bomb in the form of an email that questioned if the paper was doing enough to prepare for the future. This may not sound revolutionary, but the paper, he argued, needs to focus on digital-first reporting that later flows into a print product. “Years of private complaints around the building suddenly had a very public forum.” (p. 83)
    On the Michael Sam story, which was brought to the Times and ESPN, the report says the Times “package was well-executed and memorable, but some of our more digitally focused competitors got more traffic from the story than we did. If we had more of a digital-first approach, we would have developed in advance an hour-by-hour plan to expand our package of related content in order to keep readers on our site longer, and attract new ones. We should have been thinking as hard about ‘second hour’ stories as we do about ‘second day’ stories.” (p. 84)
    The Times’ publishing schedule is out of sync with digital: “For example, the vast majority of our content is still published late in the evening, but our digital traffic is busiest early in the morning. We aim ambitious stories for Sunday because it is our largest print readership, but weekends are slowest online. Each desk labors over section fronts, but pays little attention to promoting its work on social media.”(p. 86)
    According to the report, The Times doesn’t pay attention to how it presents its content on mobile or within apps. Business Day columnists often show up at the bottom of the business section in mobile because the site loads from the web section fronts. Also, stories and columns often ask people to provide reader comments, but that functionality isn’t available on the iPhone or iPad apps.“Instead of running mobile on autopilot, we need to view the platform as an experience that demands its own quality control and creativity.” (p. 87)
    Why they leave: They asked 5 people who worked on digital for the Times what led them to leave — Soraya Darabi, Alice DuBois, Jonathan Ellis, Liz Heron, and Zach Wise. None said they regretted leaving. Some quotes: “I looked around the organization and saw the plum jobs — even ones with explicitly digital mandates — going to people with little experience in digital. Meanwhile, journalists with excellent digital credentials were stuck moving stories around on section fronts.”(p. 88)
    “When it takes 20 months to build one thing, your skill set becomes less about innovation and more about navigating bureaucracy. That means the longer you stay, the more you’re doubling down on staying even longer. But if there’s no leadership role to aspire to, staying too long becomes risky.” (p. 88)
    The Times doesn’t offer much of a career path for people working on the digital side in the newsroom. And many staffers feel like their skills are either undervalued, or misunderstood. One larger problem for the Times is that there is a shortage of people in senior positions who understand digital news, which also leaves the paper not knowing who should be promoted on the digital side, the report says. “The reason producers, platform editors and developers feel dissatisfied is that they want to play creative roles, not serves roles that involve administering and fixing. It would be like reporters coming here hoping to write features but instead we ask them to spend their days editing wire stories into briefs.” (p. 89)
    There seems to be agreement from editors, reporters, desk editors and more that the Times spends too much time thinking about Page One. This quote from a Washington reporter helps paint a picture: “Our internal fixation on it can be unhealthy, disproportionate and ultimately counterproductive. Just think about how many points in our day are still oriented around A1 — from the 10 a.m. meeting to the summaries that reporters file in the early afternoon to the editing time that goes into those summaries to the moment the verdict is rendered at 4:30.In Washington, there’s even an email that goes out to the entire bureau alerting everyone which six stories made it. That doesn’t sound to me like a newsroom that’s thinking enough about the web.” (p. 90)
    On the hiring front, the report says the Times can’t simply assume people want to work for the paper. While ambitious journalists are drawn to the Times, digital talent wants the chance to create something new and experiment. “We can’t pitch ourselves as a great Internet success story, selling potential hires on the satisfaction of helping transform a world-class, mission-driven organization.” (p. 91)
    But the report also stresses that the paper needs a broader array of digital talent, not just reporters and editors, but “technologists, user experience designers, product managers, data analysts,” among them. The Times also needs to do better hiring the digitally-inclined into leadership positions rather than waiting to promote from within, the report says. When the Times promoted Aron Pilhofer and Steve Duenes to associate managing editor positions, both improved the hiring efforts on the digital side, the report says. (p. 91)
    On finding and developing digital talent, the report has a variety of recommendations for things inside and outside the building, including finding ways to empower the current staff to do more, identifying the top digital talent in the newsroom and giving them opportunities. But the Times also needs to “accept that digital talent is in high demand. To hire digital talent will take more money, more persuasion and more freedom once they are within The Times — even when candidates might strike us as young or less accomplished.” Another idea? Make a big splash: “Make a star hire,” because top digital talent can help bring in similar-minded people. (p. 96)