Lords say little about online comms

There’s something thoroughly disappointing about the House of Lords Communications Committee’s report on government communication, published today. There’s nothing inherently wrong in the conclusions it reaches, but with the greatest respect to Their Lordships, this same report could have been written a decade ago.
Online communication gets little more than a passing mention, and even then, it does little more than summarise things already in existence. The brief section on online doesn’t do much more than summarise the evidence given by the Citizens Advice Bureau – as blogged by yours truly at the time.
The highlight of the report’s conclusions is presumably the call for live streaming of the morning Lobby Briefing and ‘all major press conferences’; not a bad thing, of course. But the main reason for doing so is to make the government-media relationship more open and transparent, to ‘dispel any continuing myths about the Lobby and the sense of secrecy it still engenders’. In other words, it’s the preservation of the old established order by new means.
The Lords rejected Howell James’s concerns at a civil servant being put on camera every morning; but I don’t entirely accept that the media profile of the Chief Medical Officer or Chief Scientific Adviser represent appropriate precedents. The Lobby may understand the ‘rules of engagement’, where a civil servant is speaking on behalf of a politician; but I’m not sure the average viewer of the news would make any such distinction.
The way I see it, Mike Ellam isn’t Alastair Campbell. If we’re following the White House model, with televised briefings, surely we need to go the whole hog – and make the chief spokesman an explicitly political appointee. At least then, it would be clear where we all stand.
What’s most depressing is that these reports don’t come around very often; and online’s role this time round has purely been as a crutch for ‘conventional’ communication. We’ve missed the opportunity to say something really positive and exciting about the potential of online for true, two-way communication between government and citizen.

Independent launches blogging platform

The Independent‘s new blogging platform, Independent Minds, launched yesterday in a partnership with the now Russian-owned Livejournal. But unlike the Telegraph’s MyTelegraph site, it puts the journalists’ blogs on the same platform as the readers’. It’s a dramatic improvement (as you’d expect) on the very clunky, and frankly half-hearted blogging efforts they were doing on Typepad; and they also promise a strategic decision to ‘centre more on the writer than on the topic’ as they did before. The blogging content gets some high-profile space on the Indy’s homepage.
On the face of it, it’s a fairly basic re-skinning of Livejournal’s community features; the deeper you click, the less it feels like an Independent site, and the more it feels like plain old Livejournal. Nothing wrong with that; it makes sense to use a well-established and relatively beginner-friendly platform. It’s a natural move for Livejournal as the new owners are reportedly keen to expand their relatively modest UK user base: their statistics page shows they have 315,000 UK-based users.
Hmm… the Independent? Livejournal? There wouldn’t be a Downing Street connection there, would there? Former No10 web boss Jimmy Leach is now the Indy’s ‘editorial director for digital’; and Ben Wegg-Prosser, ex-head of the Strategic Communications Unit is Director of Corporate Development at Livejournal’s Russian owners, SUP. The two also worked together for ages at the Guardian (I think).
It’s another signal of blogging’s steady progress into the newsroom: speaking of which, it’s well worth reading BBC man Jem Stone’s write-up of Robert Peston’s talk to the BBC’s College of Journalism yesterday. ‘Central to everything that I do at the BBC,’ he says.

FT's bloggy new look

Is it just me, or is the new Financial Times website design, being rolled out progressively this week, heavily influenced by blogs – and remarkably reminiscent of the Downing Street site?
Whilst other sites seem keen to cram ever more into their homepages, the new FT homepage makes the site feel really quite small. Just ten ‘top stories’ in a list, sorted in order of importance; headlines and very brief excerpts, with timestamps, categories and related articles. There are still plenty of sections and subsections; but the primary navigation is mainly hidden behind dropdowns (Javascript-enhanced HTML blocks rather than traditional form dropdowns, incidentally). The page layout is (broadly speaking) three columns: fat, thin, thin – a configuration we’ve grown familiar with in the blogosphere.
Gawker.com shares my take, and concludes: ‘the online medium continues to assert its precedence over print; even the rich love blogs; and bloggers all deserve to be paid more money’. No argument on any front there. 🙂
It’s further evidence, in my mind, that the divisions between ‘blogs’ and ‘proper websites’, ‘blogging tools’ and ‘proper CMSes’ have disappeared, if they were ever there to begin with. Let’s just ignore the labelling. Blogs and blogging systems evolved as a means for writers to get news items up on the web quickly and efficiently. Guess what – journalists want to get their news items up on the web quickly and efficiently. So do (should?) press officers.
In my own work, once the decision is made to use a blogging tool (ie WordPress), certain design decisions are basically inevitable. But it’s very interesting to see the FT choosing to make many of those same design decisions, without any (apparent) requirement to do so.

COI's instant response to RSS request – blimey!


I’m pinching myself. Wednesday, 08:30am: Justin Kerr-Stevens makes a request via OPSI’s Public Sector Information Unlocking Service. A couple of dozen people sign up to say ‘good idea’. A few people (me included) add some more substantial comments. Fast forward two days to Friday, 12:32pm: COI publishes details of RSS feeds for (virtually) every Cabinet-level government department.
I say ‘virtually’ every Cabinet-level department: the exceptions are the Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland Offices. I can’t see an RSS feed on the Scotland Office site; the NIO site’s feed is curious to say the least, showing just one update since Christmas (which clearly isn’t right). But the Wales Office is happily pumping out beautiful RSS. Puffbox and WordPress may have had something to do with that.
Gripes? The URLs are truly revolting. But that’s the biggest nit I can pick. Justin, COI, OPSI, Mr Watson – thank you all. Did that really just happen?
Update: I’m told they were on the site somewhere, just not obvious. Even knowing that now, I still can’t find where they were. And if you can’t find them, they might as well not be there. Next steps, please: an entry in the site’s primary navigation, nicer URLs, and auto-discovery tags on each department’s homepage.

Sky News group-tweeting from Olympics

I note Sky News are trying something unusual in their coverage from Beijing. All 22 members of the crew departing Osterley for the Olympics will be contributing to an ‘Olympic Twitter Microblog‘. They promise we’ll hear from ‘presenters, reporters, producers, camera operators and engineers: 22 different perspectives, 22 different pairs of eyes & ears, and 22 different experiences of Beijing 2008’ – all via SMS, by the look of it.
It’s an interesting idea, but not without its problems. Of the 22 in question, we might recognise the names of a couple – Chris Skudder, Jeremy Thompson. The rest – no offence, chaps – could be anybody; and I can’t see many people signing up to follow them. There’s a generic SkyNewsOlympics account, but at the moment, it’s little more than a directory of the other 22 accounts.
So the only way to follow the entire group effort is via the page on the Sky website… which may or may not have been a conscious decision. But an idea occurs to me: could you aggregate the 22 accounts back into Twitter from outside, using Twitterfeed, and the 22 individual (outbound) RSS feeds? A bit of a roundabout method, but I’ve done such RSS-cannibalism before, to great effect.

Telegraph blogger quits for Tory blog

I’m not sure I’d call it a ‘stunning coup’, as some have done – but it’s certainly interesting to note that the Telegraph’s Jonathan Isaby has quit his ‘proper journalism’ job to become the new co-editor of Tory grassroots blog ConservativeHome… presumably ‘co’ with Tim Montgomerie. He fills the gap left by 22-year-old Sam Coates, who is David Cameron’s new speechwriter (an interesting move in itself).
I share the analysis of Guido Fawkes, who calls it ‘an example of how the news market will become fragmented in the future’ – although I’d probably have phrased it in the present tense. We’ve already seen similar moves in other spheres, such as the oft-quoted example of football journalist Rick Waghorn who took voluntary redundancy from the Norwich Evening News to set up his own network of niche football sites.
It’s better news for Isaby than this time last year, when he got into hot water for a possible breach of electoral law.
And it’s a reminder that the blogosphere isn’t the amateur free-for-all it once was. ConservativeHome has a publisher, Stephan Shakespeare: co-founder of YouGov, a man with a position in the Guardian’s ‘Media Top 100’, and clearly a few spare quid to bankroll professional writing on a website which doesn’t even carry advertising.

Mirror and Telegraph redesigns

The new Mirror website is a dramatic improvement. But then again, all previous Mirror websites have been terrible – particularly the last one, launched just 18 months ago.
As Martin Stabe notes, the site’s homepage takes an unfamiliar building-blocks approach… which, in this case, I really find myself warming to. It suits the kind of picture-heavy, celebrity-led material within. Dig a little deeper, and frankly it’s fairly average – but for the Mirror, as I say, that’s a big step forward.
Meanwhile, I can’t quite make my mind up about the Telegraph’s new design, being rolled out gradually this week, section by section. It’s very nice – structurally and visually; and fixes some of the things I didn’t like before. But it feels very – can’t think of a better word – conservative. There’s no hint of a ‘2.0’ feel to it whatsoever: no rounded corners, no colour gradients, no Javascript effects, no glossy icons. No homepage space for the ‘community’ or multimedia stuff. There are ‘sharing’ links, and links to related blog content, but it’s all downplayed.
You could argue that this is all good. It’s in keeping with the more conservative brand demographic. It’s classic rather than fashionable. But it’s, well, a bit retro. And with everyone rushing to be more ‘2.0’ than their rivals, that feels just a bit odd.

Govt comms: better, but years behind

Flicking across the news channels tonight, I bumped into recorded coverage of Wednesday’s Lords Communications Committee. You had the BBC’s Frank Gardner and Sky’s Tim Marshall, plus a couple of other senior journalists, giving their frank opinions on the state of media, politics and government. I only caught the last few minutes; it looks like I missed coverage of the earlier session with Nick Robinson and Adam Boulton.
The session closed with each ‘witness’ being asked: is government communication getting better or worse, and how does it need to improve? Fascinatingly, the two TV correspondents referenced the world of multi-platform, multi-media, online-driven news.
Frank Gardner told the committee: ‘I definitely sense a desire to be helpful. [But] they are still in about 1985, when it comes to being in tune with the modern, multimedia environment we work in. We live in a fast-moving media environment. Government departments generally are far too slow – unnecessarily.’
Tim Marshall, never one to mince his words, agreed that things were ‘getting better since 2004, because things were pretty bad before that. The flow of information is much better, putting things on the internet, the Prime Minister’s conferences being televised, Lobby being on the record – these are all very positive things. But there are still not enough professional people [in media operations]. It’s people passing through for two years, sometimes they don’t want to do it.’
Tim then quoted an email from an unnamed colleague, who had recently spoken to a conference of 60 government press officers. ‘I got the distinct impression they are several years off the pace.’ ‘We in the media have had to embrace the blogosphere, all this stuff,’ Tim said in conclusion. ‘We’ve had to, because it’s survive or die. It’s not like that in government press offices, and I don’t think they’ve quite understood 2008, and the multimedia platform.’
So, to any press officers who happen to be reading: it isn’t just the geeks saying this now; it’s the journalists you’re there to serve. They’re telling you – politely, positively – that you aren’t serving them satisfactorily. You need to play catch-up.
PS: I’d never have found this if I hadn’t been channel-hopping at the right moment. The fact is, some of the most insightful and intelligent broadcasting in the UK is happening at weekends on BBC Parliament – and it’s a crying shame that we can’t find a better way to get it out there. The iPlayer is a start (and yes, this recording will thankfully be on iPlayer ‘soon’ – Monday I guess). But surely it’s crying out to be a TED-style podcast series?

BBC blog feeds go full-text

Credit where it’s due. By popular demand – and contrary to the implication of Jem Stone’s piece, I can’t claim to have started it  – the BBC has switched from sending (very short) summaries in the RSS feeds from its various blogs, to sending the full text of the blog postings in question. ‘Sorry that it’s taken so long,’ Jem writes; no apology needed, sir. Thank you.
Full-text feeds on the blogs was always The Right Thing To Do. There are basically two types of BBC blog: the senior journalist, offering instant analysis or adding background; and the ‘behind the scenes’ staff commentary, aimed at engaging / assuaging the community.
In both cases, we’re already paying for the work these people are doing through the Licence Fee, so it was arguable we were entitled to getting the item however we wanted. The excuse of stat tracking via click-throughs didn’t go far, as we’d already paid for it all anyway. It wasn’t for BBC management to judge a business case; it was our content, to receive however we might want.
The growth of mobile internet usage is perhaps the greatest user-centric justification for the move. I can speak from experience; I’ve got several BBC blogs in my Bloglines account, which I frequently read on my mobile phone. The inconvenience factor – reconnecting to the data network, pulling the page, and hoping the mobile browser doesn’t destroy it – was often enough to stop me clicking through.
But it also reflects the reality of the blogosphere, where most ‘normal’ bloggers are happy to share their full-text feeds. The Beeb’s bloggers are playing by the standard rules, joining the community rather than putting themselves above it. Again, it’s just The Right Thing To Do.
So will be see full-text RSS of news items? I doubt it; it would open up all sorts of anti-competitive arguments, and would make it just too easy for the Beeb’s content to be republished by others for profit. Mind you, since we’ve paid for it already… etc etc. 😉

New Today programme site's post-match interviews

There’s a new look to the BBC Radio 4 Today programme’s website. Gone is the bizarre Soviet styling, to be replaced by something a bit more blue and funky. Stalinist to Cameron-esque? It would be churlish to note the coincidental synchronisation with the swing of the opinion polls at the moment.
A couple of additions seem worth mentioning: a box for ‘REACTION FROM AROUND THE WEB’ (ie blogs) on the homepage, plus feeds from del.icio.us and Twitter accounts; and the rather odd spectacle of Sarah Montague’s video review… which resembles a footballer’s post-match interview in front of a board of sponsors’ logos, and is equally enlightening. ‘We’re mid-way through the second half, I’ve thrown it to Nick Robinson, he’s dropped in a blinding anecdote…’ You get the idea.
Worth noting, too, that Evan Davis is back blogging again, this time under an intriguing address: /blogs/today/evandavis. Which surely leaves open the prospect of /blogs/today/johnhumphrys in due course? We can but hope.