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    This is the personal blog of Simon Kendrick and covers my interests in media, technology and popular culture. All opinions expressed are my own and may not be representative of past or present employers
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Degrees of guilt by association

Phone-hacking, cover-ups and possible police corruption have understandably dominated the media over the past week. I have nothing to add to the main thrust of the issues other than to add to the praise of Nick Davies and the Guardian, who have shown that the news media can still be a force for good.

One particular area that has interested me in this is the extent to which different advertisers and audiences are disassociating themselves from the criminal and immoral centre of the actions (NB: Of course, at this stage, the seniority of the culpable hasn’t been fully identified).

The epicentre is the News of the World in the mid 2000s. While there were many employees that had nothing to do with these actions (though some might still question the ethics of people working for tabloids of this nature), this is the centre of the guilt.

Then there is the News of the World in 2011. Today is its last edition. The Max Mosley and John Higgins cases show the newspaper’s record remains far from spotless, but the people most closely identified with the criminal actions have moved on. This hasn’t stopped people from criticising/abusing current staff members for working for the title. Furthermore, due to the unravelling of the issues from the mid 2000s, many advertisers that were accepting of the general tone of the paper pulled out. As such, the paper announced it would be donating all ad space to charities. Some charities wanted nothing to do with the paper; others took the pragmatic decision to accept reaching a potential 7.5m readers.

At the next level is News International, where Rebekah Brooks (editor of the News of the World 2000-2003) is Chief Executive. Columnists on other News International papers such as Caitlin Moran and Giles Coren have spoken of the hate they’ve received, where they’ve virtually been accused of murdering Milly Dowler themselves.

Further up, there is News Corp Europe & Asia, where James Murdoch is Chairman and Chief Executive. At this level, there is a campaign from Mumsnet for organisations to remove all connections with News Corp, while there have been renewed calls for the UK government to block the proposed takeover of BSkyB.

Finally, you have News Corporation worldwide, led by Rupert Murdoch. Some commentators have used this episode to renew their hostility to the company for the operations of other companies, such as Fox News. One of the few valid things that Peter McMullen said in his Newsnight confrontation with Steve Coogan and Greg Dyke was that Coogan had previously accepted money from Fox Studios in order to make his films.

The Murdochs attempted to “cut off the cancerous limb” at the level of the News of the World title itself (which many are saying was going to happen anyway). But the links between parent and subsidiary brands are complex, and the above links show that News Corp have been far from successful in managing the crisis.

Until the courts can (hopefully) decisively prove the level of knowledge within the organisation, there is no fixed moral or ethical line regarding the association of advertisers and audiences with the various levels of News Corp. The troubles at News Corp could go right to the top, or they could once again be resilient in the face of adversity. But perhaps for the first time, they cannot directly control their fate. Advertisers will act with their budgets and audiences will act with their eyeballs and wallets. Both traditional and social media can amplify early trends, and the final outcome remains to be seen.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/plashingvole/5911657213

Disclosure: My employer has in the past conducted work for Sky. I have never personally worked with or for any News Int or News Corp companies, though I do know several people employed by them


Escaping the echo chamber

Echoes of war image

Elizabeth Kolbert’s recent New Yorker article The Things People Say – a review of Cass R. Sunstein’s “On Rumors: How Falsehoods Spread, Why We Believe Them, What Can Be Done“- brought up some fascinating examples of group polarisation.

The brief summary is that in the internet age, we are increasingly associating ourselves with likeminded people and opinions. This not only reinforces our original views, but strengthens them – whether through hearing an argument repeated back, feeling vindicated by hearing others in agreement, listening to alternative reasons for a viewpoint or simply competing with others to lead the line.

My favourite quote from the article is:

At the same time that [the internet] makes more news available, it also makes more news avoidable

The most nebulous effects of group polarisation are extremism and misinformation. One such example being the – ridiculous if it weren’t real – “birther movement” in the United States, regarding Barack Obama’s birth certificate (and nationality, and eligibility to hold office).

However, the effect I’m more interested in is an unwillingness to engage with alternative viewpoints. Through our emails, RSS feeds, Twitter streams and selections of articles to click through, we are self-selecting the news and views we read. We lack balance and nuance in our understanding of issues. This can in turn lead to close mindedness.

In 2006, Sunstein performed his own study of fifty political sites. He found that more than four-fifths linked to like-minded sites but only a third linked to sites with an opposing viewpoint. Moreover, many of the links to the opposing side’s sites were offered only to illustrate how “dangerous, dumb, or contemptible the views of the adversary really are.”

Reading the article has led me to consider the effect of group polarisation on me both personally and professionally.

On a personal level:

I feel that my job as a market researcher gives me an understanding of the mood of the general public on certain issues and this grounding (plus my natural cynicism) prevents me getting too carried away with certain thoughts or concepts. I note, for instance, that television is far from dead and that businesses without a presence in Second Life continue to thrive.

However, I do tend to source my news/opinion pieces from the same places. Therefore, I’m going to try a little experiment.

For around half an hour a day, I’m going to spend some time browsing the online edition of a newspaper. A different newspaper, each day of the week. The Sun, The Guardian, The Daily Mail, The Times, The Daily Telegraph, The Daily Mirror and The Independent. I’ll keep this up for a couple of months.

It will hard to gauge the effects this experiment has on me, since there is no “control” to measure how my views have been influenced or changed. Nevertheless, I do expect to experience different levels of agreement, anger, sympathy and incredulity depending on the source and the tone. Of course, the challenge will not be to skip the stories that appear to hold little interest to me. I’ll update on progress in a couple of months

On a professional level:

Tthe idea of group polarisation calls into question the suitability of focus groups as an accurate gauge of opinion. They are fine to pull out exaggerated opinions or caricatures to make a point, but for issues where nuance and balance are required?

This is where the strengths of the internet come back to the fore. Group discussions can be held online. But there is no reason for group participants to be mutually exclusive. Rather than a number of separate groups each recruited to a specific demographic or attitude but covering the same topics, different combinations can be recruited from a “parent group” for specific breakout discussions. For instance, if a discussion guide had five sections, different combinations of groups could be created for each sector.

This is only a thought at the moment, and there are multiple practical obstacles that would need to be overcome. But I like the idea of moving away from reciprocal relationships within research to asymmetrical connections. Moving from a Facebook relationship to a Twitter relationship, if you will.

Compartmentalising facets of our personality and emphasising elements for different audiences is much more akin to real-world interactions, and can also marginalise the threat of group polarisation.

I shall be spending more time mulling this over, but any thoughts on the subject are welcome.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/paopix/3882291940/

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The inefficiencies of cutbacks

The Observer have announced that they are streamlining their offering into 4 sections. In the process, they are ending 3 of their 4 monthly magazines (several of which, I believe, are award-winning).

It is highly unlikely I will continue to buy it.

As a non-subscriber, my switching costs are minimal. I may prefer the tone of its coverage to other titles, but value – at least perceived value – plays an important role in the purchase decision. The quality of the magazines (along with the relative ease I can do the crossword) were major draws to the title. Both versus its competitors, the Saturday Guardian and its website.

And I don’t really feel like paying the same for less. So I may experiment once again with the Times, transfer my pennies over to its sister paper, or stick to the website.

Of course, I am assuming that the cuts mean that these articles will be discontinued. They may well be moved into the other sections. But given the need to cut costs, I am expecting that if this does happen, it will be on a much reduced scale.

This move may cut the Guardian group’s costs, but it is also going to negatively affect their revenues. They must be sure that the net impact of their finances is beneficial. But the net impact on their brand and identity is surely negative.

There is also the possibility that the move to streamline the Observer could have a secondary motive to make the Guardian look better by comparison.

Other titles such as the Express, Independent and People are already shells of their former selves. I’m hoping the Observer doesn’t go this way. It would be far better to convert it to web-only or end it completely than to see it published merely for appearances.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/uherrmann/

The cost of giving it away

I am one of a declining number that likes to read a Sunday newspaper.

Recession notwithstanding, I am also one of those people that tends to struggle more in terms of time than money.

Therefore, I generally only have time to read one newspaper a week. The choice of newspaper is effectively zero-sum. I choose one newspaper; the others miss out.

I’ve deviated from that choice in recent weeks. Whereas I used to pick the Observer without fail, a lazy Sunday prompted me to give the Sunday Times a go.

And I enjoyed it. So much that I bought both newspapers again the following week. With time constraints restored, substantial amounts were left unread.

I therefore need to make a choice between the two titles.

And my choice is likely to be dictated by the quality of their websites. Both the Observer and Times offer the majority of their content online in an ad-supported free access model.

But rather than an excellent website causing me to buy the print edition, an excellent website may cause me to forego the print edition.

While print and online may complement, they also duplicate and cannibalise content.

If I am paying for a premium model, I want the greatest improvement in utility to justify that.

This example points to a problem with the Freenium model that I have.

It doesn’t work in perfect competition.

It works for companies like Flickr because Flickr stores my photos and logs my activity. Utility and the cost of switching increase the more I participate.

Newspapers don’t reward relationships (aside from getting the answer to the previous days crossword). So in each transaction, the additional utility in the premium model needs to be justified both against the free version and the competition.

Where (premium, competitive) newspapers are of equal quality, hikes in utility are dictated by the quality of the (free) website.

An inferior website equals a greater hike.

And so the loser in the pitch for my pocket may be that which has invested the most in their website.

Does this mean newspapers need to sabotage their websites in order to increase the value of their premium products? Such as bringing back walled gardens or keeping the best content offline? Henry Blodget thinks so.

Me? Newspapers aren’t my forte so I will resist the urge to speculate. But it raises an interesting question about their ongoing viability in a converged world.


Image credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/flavio_ferrari/

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Linkbaiting is a tactic, not a strategy

Will blogging eat itself?

While taking into the account the existential question of what a blog actually is, and the gamut of prose that it encapsulates, the trend for ever-increasing noise does seem apparent (this blog being but one example). From microblogging to reblogging via splogs and linkrolls, are we reducing ourselves to inanity repeated endlessly? And does this degrade the wider media environment? Two excellent posts have brought these questions to my attention

Warren Ellis argues that we have come through to the end of the age of blogging he calls “The patchwork years”. Does this mean original content will make a comeback?

Possibly, but Jason Calacanis points to a wider, potentially damaging, effect of this era. Jason may have quit blogging for private mail-outs, but his presence is still felt (well, perhaps reblogging isn’t always so bad). I recommend that you read the entire entry, but this quote grabbed my attention (spotted via A VC).

The life of a startup CEO dealing with the rabid but sometime naive blogosphere is one of extremes. You’re killing or you’re killed, you’re the shinny new object or yesterday’s news. You can couple the link-bait based blogosphere with main-stream media journalists who, instead of acting like the voice of reason and “sticking to what got them there,” have taken the link-baiting bait. The MSM has had to incorporate the flame warring, rumor mongering and link-baiting ethos in order to keep up in the page-view cold war.

This is either the shot in the arm MSM needs to compete, or they’re chasing the blogosphere Thelma and Louise-style off a cliff. Time will tell I suppose

This harks back to my earlier post on the problems with auditing online metrics. Page views and unique users are not the complete answer and we risk cheap stunts overpowering quality content. Trivia may be hugely popular on the Internet, but MSM risks damaging their brands if they try to compete.

Perhaps I am being Utopian but if a work of genius like The Wire can survive on 38,000 viewers then surely websites can survive on a commercially orientated but BBC-inspired mindset. By providing us with a useful service. Content should remain King.


Photo credit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/leecullivan/

Thoughts on the Daily Sport relaunch

As has been reported, the Daily Sport is to undergo a phased relaunch. It certainly needs one, but the proprieters aren’t going far enough.

The quandary is something Seth Godin mentioned in a recent post – should one target those that currently buy the product or those that don’t? ABC figures give the Daily Sport an average circulation of 100,000 people across the last 12 months – not quite the 3,000,000 or so that The Sun gets, but a reasonable number to forecast revenues from. As was mentioned by Robin Wright in my previous post differentiated continuity is required to avoid alienating the present consumers. But given that 100,000 readers gives around a 1% market share, I think it should look towards the 99% (or 47% if you only count men) that don’t buy it.

For me, the Daily Sport’s image problems are too deep – it needs surgery. Quick, deep and precise surgery. The young men it will most likely be targeting won’t remember the 80’s heyday of the Sunday Sport, with the outlandish stories (sample headline: “Aliens turned my son into a fish finger”). They will associate upskirt photographs of soap “stars” and glamour models with the paper – editorial, and even sport, are secondary at best. A soft relaunch will make it more difficult to overcome these perceptions.

Sunday Sport

However I think the general conceit is a good one. Choice quotes of the Nuts/Zoo/Bravo/Sky Sports repositioning include:

“It is unashamedly for ‘the boys’, all boys, majoring on sport, girls and a bloke’s-eye view of the world … essentially what other tabloids used to be before they went mainstream and started trying to please everyone with a more feminine and gossipy stance.” – Barry McIlheney, Editor-In-Chief

“They are risqué not offensive, original, opinionated, quirky and unashamed of their adult content. And while at times they will also be politically incorrect, our research shows this is a breath of fresh air to our target readership.” – James Brown, Consultant Editor-In-Chief

Despite some sniffy commentary, I can see it working.  A significant minority of the population are still not online, and not everyone works in an office or somewhere where they have Internet access.  These people will be the core audience. Saying that, the Daily Sport must be one of the few media companies in the current age that doesn’t have a (working) website. That is something that needs to be rectified, no matter how basic it is.

There is also room for a more laddish editorial tone. Tabloids are more celebrity focused than ever, and despite The Sun’s rather weak changes to Bizarre this does tend to attract the female audience. Jokey editorial and plenty of sport and women can act as a communal social object that men can discuss in canteens or in the pub. By the looks of today’s cover (Lucy Pinder NUDE inside), the pictures aren’t going to be any less provocative, but that only makes it analagous to Nuts and Zoo.

But it will be a hard sell – both to the public and the city. That the NRS do not report on readership is no surprise – despite softer content, the Daily Sport is akin to pornography. Which is why I think a relaunch is a good idea, but a total rebranding would have been a better one.