Arduino-powered subscription bell

It chimes every time someone buys an online subscription to The Times.

It was built by Peter MacRobert from News International‘s R&D Lab. Peter explains a bit more about how it works in the video below:

“The subscription ringer is an Arduino circuit developed in the News International R&D lab. The battery-powered circuit polls an API regularly via a Wifly wireless shield. When the daily subscription count has increased it pulses a solenoid against a bicycle bell.”

The Times 2085? (from 1985)

Thanks to my wonderful ex-colleague at The Birmingham Post, John Cranage, I have some fantastic Christmas reading to do in the form of The Times’ 200th Anniversary publication:

I’ve already had a flick through the 166-page annual from 1985 and the whole thing looks marvellous. However, there was one advertisement that stopped me in my tracks. It was from Ben Johnson Ltd. Back in 1985 it appears they were the colour printers for The Times. They used their advert to imagine just what the newspaper might look like by 2085:

This is the (non-advertising part of the) text:

What will your great great grandchildren be looking at in a hundred years from now to mark three centuries of The Times?

Will there even be a Times then? The need will still be there for the same objective reporting of contemporary events coupled with interpretation and comment. But will it appear daily in the form of black text and pictures printed on paper? Probably not. It may, for instance, appear on a hand-held screen with direct access to a news databank transmitting constantly up-dated text and pictures of selected subjects of interest to the individual reader.

The equivalentof this commemorative book may be a disk, a series of holograms harking back to the quaint old days of paper and ink or even, as an exercise in nostalgia, a genuine book.

iPhone Apps? Kindle? News aggregators? The semantic web? We’re only a quarter of the way to 2085 and – apart from perhaps the holograms – these are all perfectly practical suggestions for today. Giving away a book as a disc is actually a pretty outdated idea.

How fast we move.

And what are Ben Johnson doing today? Nearly 25-years on they are still in business as Ben Johnson Office Solutions providing “fully-supported office IT, print and document management solutions”.


It was a shame that I couldn’t stay longer at the 140 Character conference at O2 Indigo yesterday.

But, in the short time I was there, I did get to listen to a very interesting talk by Stephen Fry. How Stephen is discovering, using, experiencing and reacting to Twitter is fascinating.

One point he made particularly made me think. He explained his annoyance at how some in the mainstream press had suggested he had orchestrated the online reaction to Jan Moir and also the breaking of the Trafigura super-injunction.

Stephen was annoyed that he was being singled out when many, many others had particpiated in both these events. As he correctly pointed out, it was unfair to others who had been more involved and had not been recognised. It was, he argued, lazy journalism.

Actually, Stephen went on to argue, he doesn’t have any influence at all. His followers are intelligent beings who can make up their own minds about things. If he had asked them to stick their heads in the oven, would they have done it, he asked? It is a point he explains more fully in a post he wrote last month.

This gets right to the heart of my concerns with the perceptions of influence and responsibility that people have online. I have two points which I would very much appreciate your thoughts on:

Point 1: If a newspaper with a circulation twice the size of The Times (or 3.5 times the size of The Guardian) joined a campaign (even it it was late in the day), how much influence would you credit them with having over readers that joined in? How much responsibility does the newspaper have for the outcome of that campaign? How would you feel if this was a campaign with aims that you agreed with? How would you feel if it was something you disagreed with?

My point being that Stephen has over 1 million followers on Twitter. Why should his influence on them be any more or less than a newspaper has on its readers? How do we judge that?

If we can say his influence is the same, then surely we have to say that his responsibilities when wielding that influence must be the same. We need to look at this both for campaigns we agree with and ones we don’t because we will react differently to each. I suspect we are more likely to claim the newspaper acted irresponsibly if we don’t agree with their campaign’s aims.

Point 2: A very interesting chat with someone who understands the intricacies of UK libel law revealed this nugget to me: when it comes to libel, you do not necessarily have to sue the person who was first to utter the libel. You can sue anyone who repeated the defamation.

In this situation clients are advised to choose to go after those people who can afford to pay damages. The people most likely to fall into this category? Large organisations (like newspapers) and anyone with a large influence and (as a result) a potentially larger-than-average bank balance.

Of course Stephen is a pretty sensible tweeter and is unlikely to be retweeting libellous statements and getting involved with questionable campaigns. But, I worry about his lack of awareness of the influence he has and, therefore, the potential consequences of it. I don’t think he is the only one who thinks like this.

It seems, as I’ve mentioned before, that individual influence and responsibility online is a tricky thing for us all to guage. I think the consequences of that are interesting and slightly worrisome.

Is this useful? An account of how I started blogging and how it changed my journalism

I’ve just been going through my Google Docs and came across this draft post I wrote back in March last year about how I got into blogging.

I didn’t publish it at the time, thinking some of the things I was saying about The Birmingham Post wouldn’t go down too well considering the upheaval the newspaper was going through.

As you can see, it isn’t finished – and I certainly had no idea that in a year I’d be working for The Times – but I thought I’d post up what was there because it is a record of how I got into blogging and might be of some use to someone.

Let me know if it is and whether you think I should try and bring it up to date!

You know what you should do?” said Stef to me on the night of The Media Guardian Awards as we sat mulling over the night’s award-winning, stage-invading, surreality:

“Write a post explaining how things have changed since you started your blog.”

It’s one of those suggestions that makes your heart sink to your boots. Yes, I agreed, it would be a good exercise. But then so much has changed since September 2007 that I’m not sure I’m able to put it all into words.

But, having had a break for Easter, I feel re-enthused enough to give it a go:

The easiest way to sum it up is this: In August 2007, I was fed up with the state of UK newspapers and seriously considering my employment options. In March 2008, I am still fed up with the state of UK newspapers but now firmly committed to the industry.

So, what has changed?

I have always loved the internet and have been an active member of forums and chat rooms since I was a teenager. But, in all that time, I never considered that I deserved a corner of the web to call my own. I contributed to other people’s websites, but that was as far as I thought I would ever get.

I think that attitude came from the same stable as my dislike for writing newspaper opinion pieces. I’m happiest when I’m learning from and with others: bouncing ideas around.

A column doesn’t do this. It takes a stance, argues its case, ends the conversation. I think there is a confidence bordering on arrogance that you must have to write columns. I just didn’t have it.

My lack of confidence also extended to being unsure I had anything of value to say at all, because I didn’t think I held any strong opinions.

Then, some time in the spring of 2007, along came Birmingham blogger Pete Ashton. Really, Pete had been there all along, building Birmingham’s blogging community but I hadn’t really paid attention until I was directed to his Created in Birmingham blog by a member of AWM after following up a story for The Birmingham Post’s Media & Marketing page.

At first I ignored it as a rather amateurish publication. But soon I was intrigued.

At the time I saw it as a different model for distributing certain types of news and information. What stood out for me at the time (and I hope Marc, my editor, will forgive me for saying this) was as far as “What’s On”-style coverage of the specific creative sector in Birmingham was concerned, CiB kicked The Birmingham Post’s butt. It would take me much longer to understand how important it was in serving its community and giving it a voice.

So I followed CiB for a few months, found out what I could about its author and sent an email asking to have a chat. Pete, catching the whiff of mainstream journalism, promptly ignored me.

It took until Birmingham’s Creative City Awards in September for me to convince Pete to meet me. I had badgered Marc to take a table at the event and, as a result, I got to choose which guests to invite. Pete was the wildcard – I didn’t think he’d accept. But I was delighted when he did.

Luckily, we got on. Actually, as time has passed I think we’ve realised we’re doing similar things, just coming at them from completely different angles.

It was Pete – who many Birmingham blog scene know as an ardent recruiter of bloggers – who told me to write a blog. He had to tell me twice, because at first I said I wasn’t interested.

Although, I didn’t really know what I was doing with the thing, with hindsight I can see from the second post on I started exploring the idea of increasing audience interaction.

I swore Pete to secrecy and asked him not to tell anyone what I was doing.

I also kept it from The Birmingham Post. Not because I had plans to use it as a bitching platform, but because I was genuinely nervous about revealing more of my personality publicly. I thought I’d be a rubbish blogger.

But I didn’t understand that by linking to other people’s blogs, they would know of my existence anyway. So it wasn’t long before I got a few comments…and people were friendly.

The third post was another voyage of discovery. I outpoured about Birmingham and its support of the creative sector. As well as comments, this time Pete broke his silence and blogged about what I had said. Then things started to roll: suddenly people I didn’t know were getting in touch saying that they had read my blog. Then the Head of Communications at Birmingham City Council called to arrange a meeting to discuss my post.

The last one was particularly strange and got me thinking about the power of blogging. I could have written exactly the same thing in The Birmingham Post, which has tens of thousands more readers than my blog, but would I have got that response from the council? I am pretty sure I would not.

It was when I announced a change to my reporting role, that Marc found out about the blog. I’ll be honest, he didn’t find out from me (I hadn’t dared to tell him), but from a colleague of mine who had mentioned it to him.

I remember being told Marc knew and waiting nervously to find out what he was going to do about it. He didn’t do anything. In fact, I believe he walked past my desk and said: “like the blog”. I don’t think to this day he knows how relieved I was to hear that!

But still, the blog had an audience, and suddenly I didn’t really know what I was supposed to write about. Coming from journalism training that teaches you that there is a form and structure to the way you write, a empty blog page was a bit of a nightmare. There was no convention to cling to. It was entirely up to me what I wrote.

It was the post Blogisfear where I expressed that and, with the help of those that commented, particularly Nick Booth, I began to realise that it was only journalists who thought they always had to finish the stories by themselves. On blogs there was collaboration, often a story would remain open-ended. I started to think about why that wasn’t being applied in the same way to news.

I became engrossed in the concept of “Web 2.0” – that there were millions of people out there thinking, creating content and collaborating. I had no more ownership over content or news than they did and, in fact, it was my responsibility, as supposedly employed to be “the eyes and ears of the people” to consult them about what I was doing.

I decided to start asking people to put forward questions for people I was interviewing. This had varying degrees of success and was something I enjoyed (it’s died out a bit now as I don’t interview people all that often now).

Pete told me this was known as “crowd-sourcing” and had a wide range of potential applications for newspapers. I can not stress enough how helpful it was to have someone that I could call to have coffee with and pick their brains on how the web “worked”. I started to look at journalism in a new way through Pete’s explanations of blogging.

It was also Pete, I think, who was the first person to teach me the concept of blogging as a conversation.

I first joined the UK journalism “conversation” the day I wrote about Roy Greenslade leaving the NUJ. His decision was a fantastic catalyst for me to write about what I had been discovering for myself about the future of journalism. Some of the things I write about make me smile now (they were nearly there, but not quite), but I had some great feedback from people in the industry.

One commentor was Craig McGinty, who introduced me to the idea of papers developing online communty. It’s funny. Looking back at Craig’s comment, I remember at the time thinking that it was unlikely that any newspaper would employs a person with “the responsibility to help local groups and organisations set up blog-driven sites.” Now, after launching 35 bloggers on The Birmingham Post website, that idea seems perfectly reasonable!

The NUJ debate also showed me how blogging can take you into the heart of a community as, within a few posts, I was debating in the comments section of my blog with Donnacha Delong – the journalist that had sparked the whole debate in the first place with an article in The Journalist.

By the time Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Sly Bailey turned up at our offices, to explain why The Birmingham Post & Mail was no longer for sale, I was being watched by a number of management-types in the company… which was a little unnerving to say the least.

So much so, that I actually stopped posting for a bit, worried that I was starting to act like a monkey performing tricks to try and impress an audience.

It’s something that has continued to be on my mind when I write. I still want this to be a home for half-baked ideas and chats with colleagues, but you can not forget that what you say can make people pretty darn cross… as I was to discover a bit later into my blogging experiment.

Blogisfear II – return of the blog fright

Way back in the dim and distant past of this blog (about 2007),  I discovered folk were reading it.

The result was a panic post entitled “Blogisfear” that partly outlined my worries about balancing my personal thoughts on the media industry with my professional position as a reporter at The Post.

I got some great support from friends and fellow Brummie bloggers and, after a while, settled into a style and a subject matter I was comfortable with.

Eventually, even when I was being quite controversial, I didn’t feel too out of my depth.

I put the anxiety down to new-blogger nerves, but it seems that wasn’t quite correct. It wasn’t the blog that was causing the concern, it was the learning to negotiate a new social situation.

So, with a new life and a new job, it appears the fear has returned slightly.

I didn’t notice at first – especially as The Times have been very supportive about me continuing to blog on my own site – but I’m finding it daunting to post.

Combine this with my usual fear of getting things wrong and I’ve got myself some blog fright.

This may lead to slightly strange/strained posts for a little while.

Bear with me?

Rupert Murdoch: editors are forgetting their readers

“It’s not newspapers that might become obsolete. It’s some of the editors, reporters and proprietors who are forgetting a newspaper’s most precious asset: the bond with its readers.”

I have been catching up with an ABC Boyer Lecture given by Rupert Murdoch in November last year (thanks to Dilyan for the recommendation and link).

In it Rupert about his career in newspapers, gives his take on the Wapping dispute, The Times compact, plans for the WSJ and the loss of newspaper power in the face of the internet:


Some other interesting quotes:

“Instead of finding stories that are relevant to their readers’ lives, papers run stories reflecting their own interests. Instead of writing for their audience, they are writing for their fellow journalists. And instead of commissioning stories that will gain them readers, some editors commission stories whose sole purpose is the quest for a prize.”

“I do not claim to have all the answers. Given the realities of modern technology, this very radio address can be sliced and digitally diced. It can be accessed in a day or a month or a decade. And I can rightly be held to account in perpetuity for the points on which I am proven wrong—as well as mocked for my inability to see just how much more different the world had become.”

There is also a full transcript.

Thoughts on running a live blog on a national news website

I have been lucky enough to be involved in many interesting projects since arriving at The Times, but I think the G20 Live Blog is the one that gave me the biggest adrenelin rush.

Running over the two days of the G20, it was like no other live blog I have been involved with. Four journalists were filing pictures and texts to the CoverItLive blog through Twitter and we had comments from tens of thousands of readers.

It was primarily run by web development editor Lucia Adams, my counterpart on news (I’m on business).

That meant that as well as being a contact point for reporters and responsible for answering readers’ questions, she was also moderating comments.

It was a pretty full-on task.  I tried to help out by offering up a few helpful links when and where I could and, if Lucia needed to step away from the computer, I would take over moderation.

Moderating a Times Online live blog is a task verging on insane. Comments are pouring in – at some points in their hundreds in a minute – and one person is responsible for allowing them on to the site.

You have to check that the comment is legally ok and that it is not offensive and inciting violence – that’s standard. But, in addition, we had a large number of comments that looked like protestors sending coded messages to each other. If anyone knows who the “Rofchester Crew” are, please let me know. Those had to be moderated too.

Yet, even after removing all these comments there were still too many coming through to get them all up on the blog. We did explain to those commenters convinced Rupert Murdoch was blocking their comments that there was a moderation process and that we weren’t able to publish everything because of the volume.

But what was the decision process behind the ones that did get on screen?

At the time, I didn’t really think about it. It wasn’t until Lucia and I started planning a talk on the subject for last week’s Social Media Camp, London, did we realise we had been applying our own unique criteria for what would get published.

This was what we were both doing:

Me: if it’s longer than a sentence, it goes in.

My justification: If someone has posted a few words, it’s unlikely to be adding anything particularly well considered and, very often, it was more likely to be abusive. Therefore, with very little time to dedicate to reading and approving comments I chose to spend my time on the ones that came in sentences.

Lucia: if the comment is adding something new, it goes in.

Her justification: Lucia decided to put the reader before the contributor. Very often different commenters would repeat the same point (“why don’t these protesters help the economy by getting jobs”, “I bet the taxpayers are going to have to pay to repair the RBS bank’s windows now, why didn’t they board them up?”). If a reader came to a live blog that was just a stream of comments all repeating the same point, it was unlikely to encourage them that the live blog had any value.

In Lucia’s mind, the role of live blog as a public service – answering questions on traffic disruption, providing latest information from the police, reporting on G20 developments, etc – was paramount. Therefore, she chose to publish those comments that best fitted that.

Who was right? I’m not sure there is a definitive answer. Certainly when we talked it though with others at SMC London, there was understanding for both points of view.

I guess part of it is about how you see the live blog. Is it primarily an editorial tool (live updates and information of the G20 as it happens), or is it a forum (where commenters are free to say whatever they like about a subject, within the law)?

One thing I found particularly fascinating was that, in the 48 hours of running the blog, we built up what we named a “flash community”.

People that enjoyed the live blog stayed and started to help us answer questions from other commenters. As this community solidified, the quality of comments improved and moderation became easier. At one point one commenter was helping Lucia to transcribe the G20 Summit speeches.

Perhaps community is too strong a word for what happened, but I like the idea that such blogs can encourage collaboration. It’s something I would like to build up with live blogs I do in the future.

A big thank you and an invite

I have been utterly blown away by the response to my new job blog post last week and have felt guilty that I haven’t been able to thank everyone for their kind comments.

If I haven’t been in touch – please know I’m chuffed to bits and very grateful for the good wishes.

To answer the main questions: my last day at The Birmingham Post will be March 6th. After that I will be off to SXSWi and will start at The Times on March 23rd. Inbetween I will find somewhere to live in London!

In the meantime I would like to invite my friends and colleagues to join me for a drink at Pennyblacks in the Mailbox, Birmingham on March 6th. It would be great to see you there.

New Job

Today I have resigned from my job at the Birmingham Post.

I will be leaving the paper and Birmingham in just over a month to take up a new position as a web development editor for The Times.

This is a pretty big deal for me. The Post was where I got my first break into journalism and where I had the opportunity to develop my interest in the web. I am a passionate supporter of the title and of the city and I will miss both immensely.

I’m really grateful to everyone at the paper who supported me and encouraged me to develop my expertise in blogging and social media. Also, big thanks to Birmingham’s exceptionally friendly and welcoming online community who have been generous with their time and taught me so much.

Looking forward, The Times is a phenomenally exciting opportunity for me and, in very many ways, my dream job. I’ll go into the details in another post soon, but suffice to say I’m really looking forward to it and will, I hope, be able to fill you in about my London adventures via this blog.

Enviromental journalism: question for BCU students

This afternoon I’m popping down to Birmingham City University to meet Paul Bradshaw‘s group of online journalism students.

They’ve been doing some fascinating work on developing an environmental news service, with each of them specialising in a different subject area.

Environmental news is close to my heart. I would love The Post to be giving more coverage to stories on sustainability.

But it’s also one of those subject areas that many readers regard with great suspicion. Look at The Times guide to the most popular environmental stories of 2007 and you’ll see what I mean.

So, I guess the big question is, can you write environmental stories in a way that builds trust between you and the reader? Is the current suspicion surrounding climate change – for example – caused by media sensationalism or poor scientific reporting? Perhaps it’s neither, maybe it’s just human nature to respond to environmental stories with suspicion.

I certainly don’t know the answer. But in a world where the hegemony of large news corporations is increasingly challenged, the issue of maintaining trust as a way to maintain audience is critical.

And, I suspect, if you find a way to crack the hardest nut of trust and environmental reporting, then you have probably struck gold.