Archive for August, 2010

Sun, sea, sand and seals

Posted: August 17, 2010 in Travel
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Day Two: Fishing off the beach at Point Defiance was a rub out. Not a single bite in six hours, Not so much as a nibble. The only thing I caught was kelp.

Not that it mattered. The whiff of the sea, warm sunshine and spectacular scenery made fishing incidental to the enjoyment. It was enough to give purpose to the day without requiring so much effort it became an endeavor.

We’d walked along the beach to a place called the Banks with high walls of crumbling sandy soil giving way to a steep trough at the water’s edge. It was in these deep waters that, supposedly, the fish would be congregating.

The presence of seals should, perhaps, have told us, that the fish wouldn’t be hanging around. But who cares? Watching these marine masters languorously roll through the water, bobbing their heads through the waves, was entertainment aplenty.

Across the course of the day we saw only a handful of people on the beach – it seemed like all of Tacoma had taken to the water; floating gin palaces, wind-in-the-hair speedboats, utility fishing rigs, all kinds of craft and at all kinds of prices.

If I lived here mine would have to be a sailing boat. Nothing too big, or elaborate, but just enough to feel the wind through the sheets and hear the water burbling under the hull. Bliss.

shelter pleasure boatseal


A slightly fishy story

Posted: August 14, 2010 in Uncategorized

king salmonI’d only been in Seattle/Tacoma a few hours when I landed this magnificent wild Pacific king salmon.

OK,when I say landed that’s a bit of a fisherman’s yarn, not to say an outright fib.

This 26lb beauty was actually caught by my host, Chris, on Friday morning in the waters off Sitka, Alaska.

By Friday evening it had been expertly filleted by him and made ready for a barbecue he’s holding later today.

Chris spent many years working at Pure Foods Fish in Pike Place Market so watching him prep the salmon was an education.

fish headIn London, wild fish of this quality are snapped up by the high-end restaurants so you never see anything but farmed salmon at the local fishmonger But if you did want to buy one… well, let’s just say, you’d need very deep pockets.

Chris now works as a fish buyer for a major supermarket group where he’s known as The Fish Guy.

I think he’s also pretty handy at the coals and that, plus the fine weather forecast, should make for a perfect day.

beach viewIt’s Friday the 13th (yikes) and we’re just doing final checks before heading out to the airport.

Fingers crossed we’ll be touching down at Sea-Tac early this evening. The flight’s around 10 hours but when you factor in the time it takes to get to the airport and the required couple of hours to get processed it makes for a long day.

We’re travelling cattle class, but it doesn’t do to complain too much. Last year we visited Fort Nisqually in Point Defiance Park. Those first settlers really had it tough!

Imagine making a hazardous, months-long sea voyage and then having to build your accommodation when you arrive. Kind of puts things in perspective.

Then again…they didn’t have to put up with small children kicking the back of their seat. I guess the answer is to kick back and enjoy the flight.


Stacked shelvesNever mind What Google Would Do?  If Tesco decided to go into the news business What Would Tesco Do?

Right now, somewhere in southern Spain a farmer is growing to order rows of lettuce to be harvested on a specific day and delivered to the shelf of a Tesco store which, typically, is within a few miles of your front door.

The logistics behind a modern supermarket are nothing short of miraculous – thousands of lines of produce brought in from all corners of the world to provide greater choice and greater variety than any generation has experienced before.

The internet has opened the door to similar abundance for news audiences and given easy access to newsmakers and thought-leaders across the globe.

Tesco tracks the shopping habits of more than 16m families through its loyalty card scheme. Each product sold is classified by data – a luxury item or a loss-leader, ethnic, exotic, own brand etc.

The data is filtered by a Tesco-owned search engine and the results help them decide what to sell and when. Tesco also has a nice, not-so-little, earner selling the data to other companies.

So if Tesco decided to go into the news business what would it do and what could it teach established players in the sector?

For sure big data would be a key part. Tesco’s data-miners would be drilling into consumption habits to try to build up a picture of an individual’s news needs.

Over weeks and months patterns of behaviour emerge.  What stories are they reading and when? In which parts of the world do their interests lie? How do the items break down by genre, or business, or team, or personality? Is there a skew towards politics and social issues or a deeper interest in health care? Is sport a priority or a turn-off? What topics find no favour – and why?

Just as Tesco knows from your shopping list whether you have a baby, or young children, or a dog or a cat, even if you’re a novice in the kitchen or an experienced cook, news consumption habits can reveal a lot about an individual.

They’d also be looking long and hard at the products being placed in front of the customer by both themselves and their rivals.

The not-for-profit Media Standards Trust is already in the data extraction business, producing Twitter factoids along the lines of:

Tristan McConnell (Times) has written more articles this month about the Rwandan election than anyone else

Andrew Anthony in the Observer wrote the longest article this week

– Lindsay Lohan has been written about 39% more than the European Parliament in the last week. Reasonable?

These snippets are mildly interesting, but the real value lies in the Trust’s wider aggregation and linkage of material.

Its site, Journalisted, aims to make it easier for people to find out more about journalists and the topics they tackle.

“Read all about them!” it declaims.

It makes it easy for the public to search for a journalist they want to contact, and to sign up for article alerts from their favourites. Journalists can also edit their own profiles within the site.

This kind of aggregation further cements the position of journalists as individual brands within a brand. Top columnists have always been that, of course, it’s now just a lot easier to see each person’s profile and the billboards for their bodies of work.

Whose stuff is flying off the shelves? What’s not moving?  Is expensive investigative journalism a required loss-leader to attract a different kind of clientele? Who’s providing the staples of everyday coverage on a particular reporting beat? And whose work ends up in the equivalent of the end-of-the-aisle bin?

It’s easy to see how this might lead to performance-related rewards, though the complexity of how to gauge influence and value against high-click popularity makes for odious comparisons.

We’re already seeing the emergence of low-pay article farms that generate content based on search term popularity; these are the snack-food purveyors of the business – consumed by millions but ultimately not very satisfying.

Influence metrics are where we will find the news equivalents of Jamie Oliver and  Gordon Ramsay – the star communicators who appeal to different demographics and sub-groups.

Might sites like Klout – which measure an individual’s online influence – have a bearing at future job interviews?

Tesco shelf space is a valuable commodity and brands which want to occupy part of a shelf, or get prime positioning, have to show they can earn their keep.

At the BBC, correspondents and specialists already have elevated status – though their branding and packaging may be ripe for a makeover.

You like Matt Frei’s work? Well here’s a shrine to the man. His complete works – his past and present columns, his broadcasts, his packages, his speaking engagements, his upcoming interviews, a photogallery, his biography, his book-reading list. His professional life, fully exposed to your gaze.

As consumers we have unprecedented levels of choice and, increasingly, future news grazing is going to be a pick-and-mix selection of the best, most trusted sources – and they’ll be different for everyone.

We value brands but we are also promiscuous with our favours. We want to flit between the best offers without having to do too much running around.

So what’s the future for news? Well, if media’s big brands are the equivalent of supermarkets then the BBC and New York Times become convenience stores where you can get most of what you need, in one place, in the least amount of time.

But the social media Ocado man, who delivers direct to your door and takes the chore out of shopping is a big new challenger.

Aggregators, specialist publications and bloggers are the farmers’ markets, delicatessens and quirky shops.

Even the slow food movement has its journalism equivalent in people like Nicholas Carr who want to ratchet down the flow of information in favour of a less frenetic, more considered view.

The competition in this mixed news economy will be fierce, and data will be a key factor.

The more scraps of understanding that can be gleaned about an individual the more tailored and appropriate their news service will be.

A case of Every Little Helps, perhaps.

The best camera…

Posted: August 8, 2010 in iPhone, Mobile, News
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They always say the best camera is the one you have with you – in this case an iPhone4 which enabled me to capture the moment when a summer storm swept in.

Given the huge contrast in the scene – a sunlit field in the foreground and lowering skies in the background – I think it coped pretty well.

The barely visible white specks in the images are seagulls which were attracted to the base of the storm, though I’ve no idea why.

I think this sequence of shots shows that cameras in mobiles have come a long way in a very short time.

While they’re never going to replace high-end digital SLRs, there’s a lot to be said for portability and convenience especially for fleeting moments of beauty like those provided by our capricious weather.

Portability and convenience allied to real-time data will, I believe, also make mobiles primary devices for news consumption in years to come – though there are still many obstacles.

Best of all from this weekend stroll in the countryside – I managed to stay dry!

Which is the more important news story – a train derailment at London Paddington causing massive disruption or a mini-tornado ripping through a row of terraced houses in Oxford?

You could make a pretty good case for either depending on the detail and the circumstances. A big part of the answer would have to include consideration of the audience it was aimed at.

For news producers, these kinds of judgment are made every day as part of the process of building running orders and populating web pages.

We sift the significant from the insignificant and in doing so we weigh all kinds of factors: How unusual is the event? What are the consequences? Are there lessons to be learned? Was it avoidable? Does it have wider significance?

We also consider the content we can muster: How good is the audio? Do we have arresting pictures, or great quotes, or an insightful interview?

Serving material from one-to-many – broadcasting – has stood the BBC in good stead since 1922 but the news industry is in an unprecedented period of flux and broadcast is a blunt instrument for news delivery.

Even the BBC’s narrower-focused regional splits owe more to the accident of transmitter locations than real, on-the-ground, geographic boundaries.

Smartphone technology is now providing us with more refined tools to reach people in real-time as they go about their daily lives.

The trouble is we’re still using the tech in broadcasting mode. And seen from the perspective of news consumers, the judgment calls we make on stories can seem perverse.

The fact that thousands of commuters had delays to their journey is as nothing if your house has been battered by freak weather.

Equally, commuters might empathize with someone whose home has been damaged but mainly just want to know when the service will be restored or how they’re going to get home.

This isn’t just a case of one story leading a bulletin and the other one being pushed down, or something getting front-page billing with the other relegated to a few paragraphs.

It goes to the heart of future news delivery and to a world where successful news providers will be able to cater for the differing requirements of a diverse audience by offering tools for them to adjust the mix of their news flow.

Those requirements now include place, timeliness and context as part of the relevance equation.

We all filter for relevance, whether consciously or subconsciously. Why is this important? What does it add? How does this affect me? Why should I care?

There’s now such a deluge of information that it can be overwhelming and time-consuming to sample, sift and sort.

Wikipedia says information overload is characterised by:

– rapidly increasing amounts of new information
– the ease of duplication and transmission of data
– an increase in the available channels
– large amounts of historical information
– contradictions and inaccuracies in the material.

That sounds very much like the rapidly-changing news eco-system.

Consultant Clay Shirky says the problem isn’t so much about information overload as filter failure.

The problem we have to solve is how to serve relevant content to individuals without pushing out so much that they become swamped, or disinterested.

How is it possible to know what millions of individuals want and what’s relevant to them?

In short, we can’t. Only the individuals know – and that’s the point. We have to develop more sophisticated filters to allow people to make those decisions for themselves.

News organisations need to know their consumers in the way that Tesco knows its customers. Such an organisation would know that I favour technology news over entertainment, that I want more business-focused material than health, and that I might want to reverse these choices at any given time depending on where I am and what I am doing.

The compact implicit here is that individuals will have to surrender some information in order to get better information and that means thoroughly exploring and explaining privacy issues.

Location and context have to play a big part in our future thinking. For someone wanting more information on the Paddington story the onus is on them to do the legwork and go and look.

Typically, that might mean visiting a trusted source to find information before going elsewhere to see if anyone else has additional detail or more recent material.

It might also involve a visit to Twitter. Twitter’s rise as a news platform shows the hunger for rapid-fire, quick-to-consume snippets. If you’re caught up in an unfolding event or something that piques your interest you want to know more, right away.

But the repetition, contradictions and inaccuracies that typify overload are there in abundance and the precious commodity of time isn’t always well spent.

The ideal solution would allow an individual to register an interest in the story and to track significant developments which would be pushed to them, snap by snap, line by line.

Recognising that interest, the news organisation would offer a UGC backchannel through which witness information, or pictures or video could be passed – and rewarded in some way, if used.

It might also open up the possibility of involvement in live, or time-delayed, broadcasts by individuals at the scene – but that’s a whole different discussion and something for another post.

BBC pensions protest

Posted: August 6, 2010 in BBC
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This flier was being handed out at entrances to Television Centre in West London this morning.

The National Union of Journalists says BBC management’s intention to change the terms  so that no more than 1% of any pay rise counts towards a pension is tantamount to axing the scheme.

The leaflet urges a “yes” vote in a ballot without being explicit about what members will be vote on.