News, media & communications

PR versus journalism

You don’t need to be a journalist to know there are fewer and fewer jobs for journalists these days. For every working journalist in America, there are now 4.6 PR people, and journalists get only 65% of a PR salary. Employment in US newsrooms fell by a third since 2006 while global PR revenues rose 11% last year to $US12.5 billion. What’s going on?

The onslaught of social media and digital publishing means that companies can talk to audiences directly and provide ready media for publications now desperate for content. About two fifths of UK articles in the press are PR, or ‘churnalism’, because of the way they are churned out. Along with the traditional press release, editors may also find an ‘asset pack’, a package of multimedia opportunities to further promote the company and its products.

The big change is that nobody seems to mind – it used to be frowned upon to confuse editorial with advertising, but now ‘brand journalism’ or ‘advertorial’ is an accepted form of content. In fact, companies now have three kinds of media: paid media (advertising they buy), earned media (press coverage or tweets), and ‘owned media’ (websites, blogs, social media feeds). Owned media is growing quickly and includes ‘native advertising’, where ads are placed so close to editorial they look the same.

Virgin, or Richard Branson, has more than 1.5 million Facebook likes, 4.4 million Twitter followers and 6.3 million fans on LinkedIn. Even if other companies did not have such a loyal following, it is still cheap publicity compared to hiring an advertising agency and creating 30-sec TV slots or placing full page colour ads in the daily paper.

According to Edelman’s annual Trust Barometer, 60% of people in 27 countries trust traditional media, compared to 43% who trust ‘owned media’. The barometer has been going 14 years and it would be interesting to see whether trust in owned media has grown. Certainly, people seem to care less about where a story comes from – and how it’s written - than whether it tells them something fun or useful. Accuracy has given way to influence. These are hard times for quality journalists.

Ref: FT Magazine (US), 20 September 2014, ‘The invasion of corporate news’ by A Edgecliffe-Johnson.
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Search words: Richmond Standard, Chevron, ‘brand journalism’, PR, newsroom, journalists, ‘asset pack’, multimedia, Virgin, GE Reports, self-publishing, Nissan, Coca-Cola Journey, ‘paid media’, ‘earned media’, ‘owned media’, ‘native advertising’.
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Reading, technology and culture

Today you choose what to read and how: the digital version or old-fashioned bound paper. This is a big change but one of many in the history of publishing, after all, we used to read on scrolls. Researchers are fascinated by how screens affect the way we read, and if they adversely affect the brain considering its neuroplasticity. Lovers of their bookshelves fear the loss of physical books. For example, half the population in the US has an e-reader or tablet (Pew Research): will they want to keep reading paper books?

As always, the picture is a bit more complex than that. People don’t make their choices entirely because of the technology available; it also depends on childhood experience, how they were taught at school, ingrained habits, fashion and culture. For example, they may read an erotic book onscreen on the bus, so nobody can see the cover or title. A child who grew up reading under the bedcovers might be more likely to choose an e-reader because it works so well in the dark.

It’s unwise to assume e-readers will take over paper books. It’s more useful to ask what are the advantages of e-readers and how can we harness them properly; or to ask what we are looking for in the experience of reading. There are many styles of reading, for example, settled, skimming, skipping, determined, casual, obsessive, and one format may be better suited to one style than another.

Children are the first group to grow up with e-readers so it’s not surprising that 52% of 8-16 year olds in Britain preferred reading on screen and 32% preferred print (National Literary Trust survey). An Open University study found children could be more immersed in screen reading than in books – so-called ‘deep reading’ – but were less inclined to active learning, such as making notes. They read more slowly onscreen and were forced to focus. (Dyslexics may do better onscreen too, especially with short text.)

Reading on a computer is different from using an e-reader. Computers can be endlessly distracting because of all their functions, but e-readers are more focused. The use of hyperlinks can be confusing for people who are easily distracted but they aid active learning. Older readers who are not used to hyperlinks, may prefer to study straight text and look for other sources at the end.

Some people prefer the heft of a book, knowing how far they are through the story, or the weight and texture of it in their hands. Apparently, scrolling impairs spatial memory; e-readers don’t have the same spatial cues and rely on keywords or toolbar data.

Rather than make assumptions about which technologies will win or lose, it is more valuable to examine the ways you or others read, and then choose the one that suits the purpose. (See our story, The digital transformation of publishing.)

Ref: Financial Times (UK), 21-22 June 2014, ‘Ways of reading’ by J Baggini.
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Search words: reading, brain, e-reader, book, Pew Research, dyslexia, ‘deep reading’, focus, screen, hyperlink, cognition, paper, keywords, experience, culture.
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The digital transformation of publishing

The history of publishing has been long and colourful, but the transformation wrought by things digital may be the biggest yet. We’ve come a long way since monks painstakingly copied out books by hand. It’s hard to imagine how the humble book could ever lose its importance, whether papyrus or pixels, as it has always been fundamental to human civilization.

Digital technology has not hurt books, but it has hurt a lot of bookshops, especially the ones selling books carried by the likes of Amazon. Amazon turned books into commodities. There are now millions more books than ever, with 1.4 million new ISBNs issued in 2013, compared to only 8,100 in 1960. People love to immerse themselves in somebody else’s story; others are turning to self-publishing to sell their own stories. The biggest source of competition today may well be for people’s time.

Last year, e-books made up around 30% of consumer book sales (not including educational or professional titles) in America but in Germany, where they took off the fastest, e-books are only 5% of consumer book sales. In many markets there is now a slowing of interest in them. Part of the reason, according to Amazon Kindle, is books are “really competitive technology”, with a “long battery life”! It’s interesting to view a book in this way but it’s true – they are simple and very effective. Physical books also make better gifts, and look more attractive on people’s bookshelves: we love looking at the covers.

The idea that the book industry will suffer the same fate as the music business is wrong. People wanted to buy the right to one song and could easily scan a CD and share a track online. Readers don’t want the right to buy one chapter, or one page and they can’t share a chapter from a book without high quality scanners or fast, accurate typing. Newspapers are suffering because they lost advertising, but book publishers never were in the advertising business.

Publishing has now become polarised between self-publishers at one end, and bestsellers promoted by mainstream publishers. Midlist books, which browsers might stumble on in an independent bookshop, tend to suffer in this environment. The self-publishers usually make very little money but some believe they can make more by self-publishing than by using a publisher. For example, Barry Eisler refused a publisher’s advance of $US500,000 to publish his own thriller, and never regretted it. Publishers might have to start breaking down their services so people can buy the skills they need, rather than the whole package (a little like buying single tracks rather than the whole CD). Publishers can’t assume that what they offer is indispensable to a good author.

An old but popular format is audiobooks, which appeal to people who drive a lot or want a rest from reading. The cost of recording them has fallen from $US25,000 in the late 1990s to $US2000-3000 today and they often provide work for actors. A radically new format is Spritz, an application that sends words to the reader using a single line of moving text (the thought being that the words move rather than your eyes). This is ideal for small screens or people who need to read fast. Other types of book may use embedded media and software that allows people to read in exactly the way they prefer to read. For example, e-reading devices could show which passages other people enjoyed or allow them to discuss books in the margin at the same time. Or there could be commentary from the author.

It seems unlikely that books will ever die and, in fact, physical books may become increasingly special and more treasured than ever. We have an endless appetite for storytelling and stories, no matter how they come to us.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 11 October 2014, ‘From papyrus to pixels’. Anon.
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Search words: digital, publishing, Gutenberg, Reformation, bookshop, short stories, novellas, e-books, tablets, gifts, print-on-demand, Amazon, Hachette, self-publishing, audiobook, backlists, dynamic pricing, Harper Collins.
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Do libraries have a future?

If libraries are a collection of current knowledge, curated by trained knowledge-keepers, or banks of empty computer terminals they probably won’t last. The idea of going to the library to find something out is already quaint – most of us go online, wherever we are. But while the number of books loaned may be reducing, people are still going to the library. This is because many smart libraries now offer a place to gather, study, attend a workshop, go on a local tour, or meet an author.

The idea of the library as a public community centre makes sense because it is less of a shift than, say, a market-led information machine (McLibrary), or an offshore call centre (ring up with a question).

But libraries can still go further to stay relevant and attractive to the public. Rather than just be static warehouses of knowledge (less relevant than Google), they could become laboratories for co-creating knowledge. For example, a library could become a publisher for budding local authors, or a supporter of young designers of ‘wearable’ books or other items, using 3D printers.

Libraries don’t have to look the way they do now, in standard civic locations. They could be co-located in shopping centres or stations, to give travellers somewhere to go while they wait. In the most distant future, libraries could work with tech companies to create virtual education spaces, with holodecks (Star Trek virtual reality system) and braincaps (direct brain-computer interfaces).

There is no reason why libraries could not be at the cutting edge of knowledge creation and knowledge transfer – if you want to call it that.The opposite is also possible and could co-exist with the high-tech variety – retro-libraries where people can find physical books, long-playing records, analog radios, Spam sandwiches – and even librarians who turn into beauty queens when they take their glasses off.

Ref: The Futurist (US), Nov-Dec 2014, ‘Library futures: from knowledge keepers to creators’ by S Inayatullah.
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Search words: cybrary, McLibrary, call centre, public space, co-location, knowledge, holodecks, workshops, co-creation, airports, publisher, retro-library, archive.
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What next for Twitterdom?

When Twitter entered the world in 2006, nobody would have thought that 140 characters or less could be so compelling. It seemed a bit of a joke. Now 285 million people log on to Twitter each month, and a whopping fifth of American smartphone users.

Twitter is not like Facebook and Google because it started out on mobile phones (it’s a ‘mobile native’) and 75% of its ad revenues already come from mobiles. Since 2012, Twitter has more than quadrupled its revenue to an expected $US1.4 billion in 2014. But investors, wary of the future, are not sure whether to celebrate or not. Twitter is still unprofitable and can it compete with the Big Two for audiences and, by extension, advertising dollars?

Some 1.4 billion monthly active users use Facebook (four times more than Twitter) and it hogs 10% of all digital adspend in America. Facebook also collects detailed demographic data, such as university affiliation, birth year and status and has the ability to target ads more precisely (while upsetting privacy advocates).

Twitter does not have these kinds of data, although advertisers can see what people tweet about. But for each signed up member of Twitter, there are one or two people who read tweets but don’t sign up. Twitter, if it wants to compete, needs to increase the number of active users and improve its ability to pass ads to them on other mobile applications.

For example, its new suite of products, ‘Fabric’, makes it easier for developers of other apps to integrate Twitter content – and give Twitter a share of their ad revenue. The company also has other ideas: to enable private direct messaging, make room for video advertising, and provide simple one-click e-commerce. This only goes to show that 140 characters or less were never going to be quite enough.

Ref: The Economist (UK), 8 November 2014, ‘How high can it fly?’ Anon.
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Search words: Twitter, smartphone, ‘mobile native’, advertising revenue, Google, Facebook,, tweets, ‘Fabric’, video.
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