Thursday, 26 November 2009

News International - the biggest media audience database?

The Guardian reports that Rupert Murdoch's News International holds information on its database about a third of the UK population.

This information has been provided willingly, when consumers sign up for Sky TV, or subscriptions to the Times, Sun, Sunday Times, and News of the World.

In a period of recession it was quite amazing to read that around 200,000 users are rated as 'high value', meaning that they were potentially worth as much as £600 a year each to News International.

When we talk in Media Studies about the relationships between institutions and audiences, it's useful to remember that often these relationships are predicated on financial transactions - the consumer pays, the institution delivers content, and increasingly, enhanced services.

However, the newspaper industry itself seems to be in terminal decline, with readership figures falling and ad revenues getting hammered by the move of advertisers to online sources. It should come as no surprise, then, that News International and the Guardian Media Group have been making noises recently about Google's dominant position. Not only does Google reap advertising revenue from visitors, but, say its detractors, it's 'stealing' revenue via its Google News aggregation service. This provides access to a range of news headlines, but also enables Google to make cash from associated on-screen advertising. This, claim NI et al, is not fair, because Google is in effect recycling someone else's news and making cash from it.

It's an interesting debate, since Google is driving more users to respective news providers, and evidence shows that online browsers are more likely to click on ads if they're using a search engine, and indeed, are more likely to make a purchase. There's a great article here that explains this in more detail.

And, as an end-note, it's worth observing that the Office of Fair Trading has ruled recently that it won't be referring Google to the Monopolies Commission, as it is a major driver for innovation, change and consumer satisfaction.

For the newspapers, they're going to need new business models. For those of us passionate about the media and the future of newspapers, it's going to be fascinating to see if the news print industry can respond to changing market dynamics faster and more effectively than the music industry managed, when faced with threats from online, MP3, and Apple.

Educational Values in a Digital Age

I came across this fascinating blog post from e-learning specialist Steve Wheeler, who works at the University of Plymouth.

His presentation to a group of final year trainee teachers makes for timely reflection. What are we teaching our students? How can they be prepared for a future dominated by digital technology and knowledge economies?

I've embedded Steve's presentation below, but it needs to be read in conjunction with his blog post, in order to make the fullest sense. You can find it here.

As an adjunct to Steve's observations my colleague Britta Bohlinger has written a timely post, looking at the ways in which employers might glean more meaningful data about prospective employees, using the Web as a research tool. You can find her blog here.

The Top 100 Tools for Learning 2009

Jane Hart, an e-learning specialist, who runs the Centre for Learning & Performance Technologies, has produced a fantastic list of e-learning tools that have come to the fore in 2009. Many of them I know, but there are some undiscovered treasures.

What's interesting is the number of tools that are web based. It's a trend that seems set to continue. For schools, this means that high-speed, high capacity broadband connections will become increasingly important.

View more documents from Jane Hart.

The mobile web is ruling us!

Trendy mobile phone company HTC have released some fantastic TV commercials in the States.

They've hit upon the fact that most of us live with our mobile phones no more than an arm's length away from us a great deal of the time.

Apart from the slick messages being delivered (and thinking about it from the perspective of theorist Stuart Hall, it might be reasonable to assume audiences will read the media text using its Dominant, or Preferred meaning) there's some interesting truths under-pinning the ads.

Increasingly, we're moving to using smartphones, capable of web browsing, image capture, and document production. Many of them link automatically to social networking services, and so indeed, the phone is becoming the accessory of choice that many of us keep nearby almost constantly.

This raises questions of identity, ownership, media consumption and interaction, and indeed poses the possibility that Western cultures, a little like New York, are becoming the ones that never sleep nor stop.

Either way, the adverts are a great example of style, narrative, audience appeal, and great music (Nina Simone's Sinner Man, remixed by Felix Da Housecat). Enjoy!

P.S. If the song seems familiar from another media source, you might be reminiscing subliminally about the Bourne Identity, which used the original Simone song.

Mind mapping for free online

I came across this free mind mapping, web based tool, called

Mind mapping is a great way to visualize your thoughts, and work out the relationships between elements of a project or plan. This could be the delivery of a syllabus, if you're a teacher, or ideas for an essay, if you're a student.

I haven't had a chance to try it out in class yet, but I like the fact it's web based, can be embedded into blogs, and worked on collaboratively. is yet another example of how Web 2.0 technology is providing Software As A Service (or SAAS for short). I'm not sure how many of these companies will earn money, although the received wisdom currently seems to be that you offer the service for free, get in the user base, and then work out a way to charge for premium services. This model's called Freemium, but I'm not sure that we won't end up with another crash at some point.

For now, let's not worry about such matters - we're educators and students after all, and the breadth of the Web means that if one service shuts then another will doubtless spring up in its place.

Blogs as language learning tools

One thing in a French day

I came across this rather good blog, 'One Thing in a French Day.'

Its author, Laetitia, writes daily updates on her life is Paris. Alongside the French one can listen to a podcast of her reading out the text.

It's a great way to listen to contemporary French, while having the text in front of you.

It won't be useful if you're a beginner, as there's no translation, but I've found it a good way to keep my ear in tune for the nuances of spoken French.

I can see it being useful for advanced level students, both in class and at home.

A bientôt!

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

Radley Media Conference 2009

I was lucky enough to receive an invitation from Ian Yorston, the Head of Digital Strategy at Radley, to attend their annual sixth form conference, which was held today. The theme changes each year, and the 2009 topic was The Media - A force for good?

The school had assembled a stellar line-up of speakers who debated the ins and outs of the media in a changing world.

Ian added live updates to the blog he'd set up in the run-up to the event, and you can see his postings and the live comments here.

The first session focused on the theme: Opinion forming - to what extent can, or should, journalists influence opinion? Four speakers each gave their insight, followed by questions from the floor.

John Murray Brown, Ireland correspondent for the Financial Times, offered his views on changing revenue models and audience participation. His was a thoughtful, academic approach to the fundamental changes technology has brought to the newspaper industry. More importantly, he defined the function of journalists as expert witnesses, capable of analyzing complex issues and distilling them into meaningful context. John's historical journey through the maze of proprietorial ownership was a good reminder that power in the hands of the few can be detrimental to democracy. For me, it was the perfect start to the day, and the warm applause he received was a fair reflection of his considered and balanced approach to the craft of the journalist.

If Murray Brown was the thoughtful academic then the next speaker, Jim Gillespie, came straight at us with the blunt talking of someone who's spent a lifetime in the popular press. Jim's most recently been a news feature editor at the Daily Mail, and his approach was earthy, humorous, self-deprecating and full of the joyous cynicism I recognised from my own time in broadcast newsrooms. Jim reflected that research done when he worked at the Independent newspaper showed that leader columns, op eds, and the views of columnists tended to have the least effect at persuading readers. In other words, papers can have influence but the timing and extent of that influence can't be predicted. We do need someone to create and report the news, but, he seemed to be saying, a free press is essential to democracy more by the act of its existence, not necessarily for the power it believes it wields.

Having listened to two newspaper men, the next up to the podium came from broadcasting. John Ryley is Head of News at Sky, and his view was that convergence and multimedia accessibility means any of us can be citizen journalists; but it takes experience and training to do it properly. John touched upon the influence of social sites like Twitter, and deplored the fact that many local news outlets are reproducing PR stories they receive verbatim. For him, creating a strong press, capable of asking awkward questions, was essential. He used the Telegraph's breaking of the MPs' expenses scandal as an example where reporting the facts can have profound outcomes. John reminded us of Lord Northcliffe's observation that, 'News is what somebody, somewhere, wants to suppress; everything else is advertising.'

To end the first session we were treated to the thoughts of Lyse Doucet, a BBC award-winning journalist and correspondent. She reflected on her time in Afghanistan when it was the Russians taking on the locals, and the global challenges facing a public service broadcaster such as the BBC. Whether she was in Africa, Iraq or Israel, someone, somewhere, would accuse her of bias. Lyse gave us a sensitive and intellectual view of what life as a reporter for one of the world's best known news reporting brands is like. Lyse opened up a discussion on what should constitute a news agenda. Should there be good news? How far do audiences come to new agendas with their own partisan and biased views? I was reminded of the theories of Stuart Hall, although sadly there was no time to throw the notion of audience reception into the mix. Lyse finished with a warning that the need for journalists to multi-task as reporters, radio operators and photographers risked eroding their core activities of reflection and analysis; while turning them into process driven operatives.

The ensuing discussion from the floor showed that while many of the students present read more than one newspaper, a majority used online sources for news. It would have been good to find out what range of sources they do use - I suspect that if a poll had been taken, the resulting list might have been narrower than one would hope. I was reminded of the fact that an excess of information doesn't necessarily correlate with a corresponding ability to sift and analyse.

The second session of the day looked at Spinning and De-Spinning. John Momo runs a number of TV channels in Nigeria. Despite just coming off a plane, having been working at Harvard, he gave an insightful and meaningful analysis of the importance of a free press in all parts of the world. It was great to get a non-European perspective and it's vital that in a shrinking global village our students don't forget that this means we can reach out to the rest of the world. We shouldn't expect the rest of the world to come joyously skipping to our virtual front doors.

It's easy to forget that much of the world either isn't online, or blessed with a free press. John reminded us that, in the words of C.P. Snow, legendary editor of the Guardian, 'Comment is Free but Facts are Sacred.' John questioned the laziness of much of the journalism conducted today, and was a powerful advocate for strong journalistic endeavour to ensure the truth gets heard.

Jonathan Hill was a fascinating speaker. He ran John Major's election campaign in 1992, and having served in a variety of roles in Number 10 Downing Street, now advises corporate clients when their reputations are on the line. His view was a soothing one of mis-represented individuals being hounded by the press. He had helped Eton College defend its reputation when it was alleged Prince Harry had received help with Art coursework, and he had helped Oxford University when it rejected the Medicine applicant Laura Spence, who had come from a State school. Having spent my career on the other side of the fence, I was impressed with Jonathan's ease at making the unpalatable seem tasty. Then I was reminded why I decided to quit the media and become a teacher - dealing in people's fate via the strange arena of the TV circus can be injurious to one's conscience.

I needn't have worried, as the next speaker, the writer and journalist Tom Bower, soon put things to right. Tom's written unauthorised biographies of Maxwell, Murdoch and Branson, inter alia. He's also written the award winning Broken Dreams, about corruption in football. John spoke softly, but his words were barbed. He warned us against complacency and reminded us that standing up to the Establishmemt requires luck, tenacity and an iron will. His examples of how the great and good have tried to gag him and failed made for entertaining listening; but they were a timely reminder that 'truth can be manufactured' and that in a world awash with spin across numerous channels. finding the real truth can be an arduous task.

After lunch came the main keynote speech. It was an absolute privilege to listen to documentary film maker Paul Watson talk about the craft of the empathetic storyteller, who will record and assemble snapshots of reality in order to create a narrative about contemporary life. He showed us a showreel of some of his most famous work, including the Family, Sylvania Waters, and Rain in My Heart.

Paul spoke with conviction about the need for TV to produce intelligent stories, rather than inconsequential sound bites. He wasn't against shows like the X Factor per se, but argued that TV's power to hold a mirror up to society was an important role. He was delighted that he and a clutch of other traditional documentary makers have just been asked into Channel 4, to discuss some heavyweight projects. He didn't elaborate on what they were, but I'm sure the end result will make gripping content.

Paul re-iterated the notion that while anyone can be a film maker now, it takes time to reflect on the story, and practise the art of becoming invisible during filming. His clarion call was for film makers to be subversives, and not to shy away from the stories of real people. It was a timely reminder that much of what consumes the media's interest nowadays is celebrity driven. I was greatly influenced by Paul's documentaries, and in part it was his work that helped me decide that was what I wanted to do when I left university. Interestingly, when a student asked Paul who his influences had been in documentary, he replied 'No-one.' However, he had been influenced by the film makers of the French Nouvelle Vague. It was a revealing insight at the end of a fascinating talk.

Finally, a lively debate ensued, in which students had been split into different groups, where their task had been to focus on different areas of the media: fashion, gender, science, entertainment, celebrity and so on. What struck me most about this final element was firstly the ability of many students to articulate a reasonably media literate view of the world around them; and secondly, how terrifyingly willing they were to allow newspapers and TV channels to be owned by one individual or company. The most common refrain was that since 'you can read another paper, or watch another channel, it doesn't matter if Murdoch et al suck up more media outlets.' There was a strong rebuttal of these views, both from Ian Yorston, who did a splendid job chairing the debate and guiding the discussion, but also from a minority of students who could see the inherent dangers in a monopolised press. Ian's closing comments referred back to an observation from a female student, that only one of the day's speakers had been a woman. Perhaps, Ian reflected, the real challenge in the media today was gender imbalance, in terms not just of practitioners, but also the stereotypical divisions that existed in the representation and coverage of stories.

It would have been great to have more time, to speak, to discuss, and to reflect. Nonetheless, this was a wonderful example of both the influence of the media and the importance of bringing young people into contact with today's opinion formers; so that they might learn what tasks lie ahead for them in years to come.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

Access for all, but at what price?

There's no doubt that the internet has transformed the lives of millions, and changed the parameters within which media is produced and consumed, information shared and refined, and networks shaped and re-formed.

However, if you're one of the millions of people worldwide who has difficulty with text, whether that's due to poor eyesight or a learning difficulty such as dyslexia, then all may not seem so rosy.

Accessibility is one of the great challenges of the digital world, and it's one that tends to get relegated to the hinterland of public debate.

I was delighted, therefore, to see Intel announcing its commitment to produce technologies to help those with visual impairments or dyslexia access the same content as the rest of us.

Their Reader will enable users to scan pages of text, and turn them into spoken MP3 files, or larger sized text. It's a compact device and has the potential to transform the lives of millions.

So, what's the drawback? The £1000 price tag, that's what. I can understand that the development costs for such an assistive technology are huge, but surely there must be some sort of government funding, or incentive from a charitable source, to make access to this fantastic tool affordable?

At a time of economic woe the good news of the Reader's arrival is sorely tempered by the prohibitive cost of purchase. I'd like to buy one to see if it could help the dyslexic students at my school. I'm sure it would. But at that price point I'm unlikely to find out.

Saturday, 14 November 2009

An Age of Personalised Content and Media Collaboration

The news that the outstandingly successful BBC iPlayer will be launched on Nintendo's Wii console is proof, if proof were needed, that the relationship between media institutions is changing dramatically in a web-driven world.

Fundamentally, commercial alliances and content sharing with acknowledgement are the way forward. As we move to an age where personalised information will find you, consumers are becoming less brand loyal and more content focused. Nicholas Negroponte made this observation back in 1996, but it's taken more than a decade for the mass market and appropriate technology to play catch up with the theory.

For producers of media content this means that cross-platform co-operation and content fertilization will be key drivers to economic success. The power of Twitter to enable disparate networks to rapidly share links to relevant information, is the most striking example this year of how consumers want to find what they want, and find what they didn't know they'd like.

The age of content protected walled gardens, with media institutions battling to keep audiences within their reach for as long as possible, is over. And that's why claims that Rupert Murdoch may try to limit Google searches for paid-for content coming out of his News International stable ultimately will be floored.

It's not just content that's King. It's the consumer. And the sooner media institutions embrace that idea and think about reach and spread, rather than control and restraint, the sooner they'll find new and profitable business models appearing.

Wednesday, 11 November 2009

Twitter tweets land TV deal

I like this story, about a 29 year old whose tweets of his 73 year old father's pearls of wisdom have landed him a TV deal.

Justin Halpern moved back in with his parents in San Diego. His father was prone to making profound yet hilarious observations, which Justin duly posted onto Twitter. Now he's been offered the chance to co-write a TV pilot for CBS.

You can read some of his homespun truths here, however, let me repeat a couple of my favourites.

"Oh please, you practically invented lazy. People should have to call you and ask for the rights to lazy before they use it."

"Just pay the parking ticket. Don't be so outraged. You're not a freedom fighter in the civil rights movement. You double parked."

The story shows how ordinary people can have talents (in this case for being able to extract humour from the everyday) and find an audience. Justin's Twitter feed has more than 700,000 followers. Like the adage used to run in the good old early days of the Web, 'Content is King.'

When Politics, Media and Business collide

I heard a fascinating interview with Lord Mandelson, the British Government's Business Secretary this morning, on Radio 4's Today programme.

In the interview Lord Mandelson claimed the Sun newspaper, owned by Rupert Murdoch's News International, is collaborating with the Conservative party to undermine the incumbent Labour Party administration. In return, he suggested, News International had promised some sort of kickback should the Conservatives win the election.
Lord Mandelson also claimed that coverage of anti-government stories in the Sun would be covered on TV by Sky News, also part of the Murdoch stable. Then, perhaps bizarrely, he claimed this would force the BBC to cover biased stories, which in turn would threaten its impartiality.

It was a remarkable allegation for a senior politician to make, and there's more coverage of this and subsequent comments Lord Mandelson made in an article from The Guardian Online. You can read more here.

As we get closer to a general election in the UK, the rate at which mud is slung is bound to increase. Today's salvo is interesting because it's a timely reminder that despite falling circulation figures and savage cuts, the power of the printed word still has clout and can't be discounted.

The times they are contracting

With all the buzz over the launch of controversial videogame Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2, and its surrounding hype regarding the controversial civilian airport shooting scene, one could be forgiven for thinking that the videogames industry itself has been recession proof. The UK launch saw the game receive the red carpet treatment that's normally the reserve of Hollywood film premieres.
Indeed, one of the interesting cultural shifts has been of consumers away from traditional media forms, such as TV and newspapers, towards videogaming instead. The figures are quite staggering. Annual revenue globally for videogames are expected to reach $68 billion by 2012

However, news is coming through today that both EA, one of the best known videogame producers, and Adobe, the global brand that changed the face of image editing and document production/distribution, are shedding jobs aplenty. You can read more about EA here and about Adobe's job losses here.

Given that much of the Western world is either clambering out of a global slump, or showing signs of receovery, this should give us pause for thought. What's going on?

For my ha'penny's worth, I think it could be linked to the rise of cloud based free applications, such as the rather good Google Apps, plus the increase in cheap gaming platforms like the Apple iPod Touch. Apple's move to digital distribution has shown how costs can be reduced, while driving up the numbers of units purchased, because cost of ownership is cheap, making consumers more willing to take a punt.

What might this suggest? That traditional production and distribution models are changing and that maybe, in terms of digital content, we're only just at the beginning of the Long Tail.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Silent reminders from a golden age

Classic Poster - Silent Film

One of the new developments in the OCR A2 Media Studies syllabus is that students have to make two ancillary tasks to accompany their main coursework production.

For those making film and video based work it's interesting that one option is to produce a print design. This ranges from posters to CD/DVD covers, and I was reminded today of how powerful posters can be. Even in an age of online and TV saturation, there's something scintillating about a well-designed poster, that grabs your attention when you're out and about.

I read about the following blog on Twitter and it's full of great posters from the silent movie era. If nothing else, they're great works of 20th century commercial art and I do recommend you check them out.

Enjoy looking!

Using Google Apps in Education

Well, it's been a long time since I last posted. There are two reasons for that.

The main one is that for the first half of the new year, as well as taking on Head of ICT at school in addition to being Head of Media Studies, I've been covering for a colleague who was sick for 6 weeks. So, I found myself running a House. In the British independent school system the House system is a way of splitting students up into smaller units, of around 40 students. The Houses compete against each other, share in daily life, and provide a pastoral backbone to academic life.

However, I haven't been idle and currently we're trialling Google Apps for Education. You can find out more about it here. Basically, this offers a suite of email and cloud-based applications, that provide powerful learning and collaborative platforms. At present we have a selection of teachers and students experimenting with it. Our main VLE is Moodle, but I think that based on early results Google Apps could make it onto our list of recommended tools.

Incidentally, my mobile phone contract expires next February, and I'm increasingly drawn to replacing my Samsung Omnia with one of the new phones running Android, Google's mobile operating system.

In the bigger scheme of things I wonder how long it'll be before the European Union takes Google to court for being a monopoly? Certainly, Google have been canny at making it very easy to upload and export data in a range of popular formats, and most services are free, so it could be an interesting showdown, should it ever happen.