Sky News pressing for TV debate

Sky News letter calling for TV debate

Sky News has launched a high-profile campaign calling on the leaders of the main political parties to commit to a televised debate – or strictly, several – at the next election. They make a compelling case – pointing out that even Afghanistan managed it. Why on earth, in the year of our Lord two thousand and ten, can’t we?

David Cameron responded almost instantly to Sky’s letter; Nick Clegg has also backed the idea in the past few weeks. Then again, of course they would. So ultimately, it all comes down to the Labour response – although Sky don’t seem to be ruling out the ‘tub of lard’ option.

meerkatI find it quite remarkable that we’ve made it to 2010 without TV debates becoming part of the British electoral process. How dare they refuse the electorate a neatly packaged opportunity to ‘compare the market’? (Sorry.) It shouldn’t be about whether each leader thinks it’s strategically advantageous to him or her. Doesn’t the electorate have an absolute right to expect those who wish to lead it to come before them, and present their case using the electorate’s preferred communication medium? And isn’t it reasonable, in a world where media profile is all, for those leadership candidates to demonstrate their competence in that regard?

For once, I think it’s in everyone’s strategic interests to have the debate this time round. Cameron’s good on camera. Clegg needs the exposure. And Labour can’t do any worse. Actually, if I were Labour, I’d be saying yes, specifically with a view to the long term. If we have a debate this time, it’ll be nigh-on impossible not to have one at every future election. And whilst it mightn’t actually help Labour on this occasion, they may well be grateful of the opportunity to embarrass Cameron (or whoever) in four or eight years’ time.

But you know what? I almost think the most compelling reason for doing it, is simply to do it. Because it’s never been done before, and it might spark a bit of interest among the disinterested. And because it means we’ll never have to have this argument again.

PS: Do I need to note that Sky might not be launching this campaign this solely out of a belief in the democratic benefits? It’s in their interests to ‘own’ the issue… otherwise the event would undoubtedly go to the BBC. (And probably still will.)

Breaking news: minister tweets

It’s just a small thing; but for the first time this morning, I noticed a Twitter message prompting a ‘BREAKING NEWS’ ‘strap’ on Sky News TV. Specifically, culture secretary Ben Bradshaw’s tweet about the Andy Coulson phone tapping thing (sent, I notice, from ‘mobile web’).

Now I don’t know if Sky were tipped off via conventional channels that the Minister was going to tweet something significant; or if it was picked up by the Press Association first… that’s usually where Sky’s breaking news straps come from. Sky’s Millbank studio should probably be keeping an eye out for precisely this sort of thing, but I don’t know if they are yet. It doesn’t really matter how it got there, though: there it was, word for word, on my TV screen, and being read out by the presenter. That’s the kind of media coverage press releases just don’t get.

Press officers in government, you’d better get into the social web thing before your minister does.

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.

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?

Big things at Sky News

The new Sky News website is open for public beta viewing, and there are some significant developments.

The use of actual moving video in the homepage’s ‘top stories’ carousel area is a genuine surprise, and I think it works, although there must be significant implications on the content production and technical sides. Personally, I don’t think I’d have moved the ‘left hand margin’ to be a thick horizontal bar across the top, particularly since it pushes the page’s defining element (at least partially) ‘below the fold’.

There’s a registration-only ‘story tracker’ function, allowing you to subscribe to a (seemingly very limited) selection of major story threads, with updates appearing in a sidebar. And there’s a much-needed rationalisation of their chaotic blogs, although slightly disappointingly, they’ve pulled the blogs into the same un-blog-like presentation as the main site. Instinctively, that feels like the wrong way to do it. I’m seeing more and more people wanting to make their big, ugly CMSes more like blog platforms.

But is it a better experience overall? I’m not convinced. There’s little improvement in look or feel: it’s all (still) a bit blocky, and I’m not fond of the huge Arial headlines.

My view of Sky remains that they should be accepting they can’t come close to matching the BBC, and should instead make a virtue of their smaller, more agile setup. The Sky brand is all about ‘breaking news’, and nobody is better placed to become ‘the site you go to as soon as news breaks’. This is not that site.

Here is the news

Some very interesting numbers from Robin Goad at Hitwise, showing just how dominant (or not, he concludes) the BBC News website is in the UK news market.

What I find most interesting is the mix of news providers in this ranking. You’ve got broadcasters, newspapers, portals and aggregators (both social and automated), with no one grouping particularly dominant over any other. The Daily Mail has gone from nowhere to being the national #2; meanwhile, the Independent’s radical redesign has yet to really pay off. And look at the Guardian: below the Telegraph, below Sky News even.

‘The market share of BBC News in the category has increased slightly over the last 3 years,’ Robin observes; ‘but at the same time overall visits to the News and Media category have increased at a much faster rate, and most of this increased traffic has gone to non-BBC sites.’ This, he suggests, ‘points to a healthy and competitive online market in the UK, not one dominated by one player.’

Personally, I’m looking at a market being led by one provider whose share (based on the table above, anyway) adds up to significantly more than its 14 nearest competitors put together. How dominant do you want?

Sky News covers threesome live

There’s no stopping CoverItLive, the specialised live-blogging app. It’s becoming a regular feature on some of the leading political blogs… and now the Sky News website has arrived at the CIL party, carrying a live three-way interview (you can’t really call it a ‘chat’) with the leading candidates in the Crewe & Nantwich by-election this morning.

They’ve used it as a pseudo-chat application, which (as I’ve said before) isn’t its optimal use case. It’s a live blogging tool, intended for one individual to post rapid-fire comments, with occasional contributions from readers. Yes, you can use the same functions to deliver a moderated chat function, but that’s really not the point. To be honest, reading back through the chat transcript, it’s really quite hard to follow without the strong leadership of an active moderator/host.

Still, it’s quite interesting to see the very different approaches to the live chat medium. Lengthy contributions from an eager LibDem candidate, occasionally too eager on the copy-and-paste a few times; mind you, host Martin Stanford did the same a few times. Snappy – almost too snappy? – answers from Labour’s Dunwoody Jr. And (it must be said) very rare contributions from the Tory, who appears to have arrived late.

PS: I’m just sorry they didn’t invite the Monster Raving Loony candidate, The Flying Brick (?) to participate. My favourite from the list of policies on his website: ‘I will introduce piranha to the river Weaver, this will make fishing a spectator sport. Tourism would be increased tenfold and jobs increased in the Leighton Hospital. I propose a new, world leading, ward opened specialising in fish bites.’

BBC finally embedding video

BBC embedded Flash playerSteve Herrman, writing on the BBC’s Editors blog, is absolutely right: the move to video embedded on the page is ‘quite a significant moment’ for the Beeb’s website. Except that, judging by the first visible example, it’s got issues. It’s either failing to buffer, or returning an error message.

As explained in more detail on the Internet blog, the move to Flash video means faster processing for them, better quality for international users, and better usability for everyone. Clips will all have their own ‘permalink’ pages on the site, which makes for easier linking – but if you’re thinking of embedding clips on your own site, you’ll be disappointed.

It’s a welcome improvement from the Beeb: the News site’s use of video was starting to look ridiculously dated, when compared to the iPlayer… or indeed, to competitors like Sky, who went down this route almost a year ago. But I think Sky still has the edge in terms of usability. The Beeb’s pages already feel too long to me; I doubt many people ever read to the bottom of a story. By embedding video at the top of the page, as they seem to be doing, it pushes the text content even further down. Sky’s ‘rich sidebar’ treatment gives the best of both worlds.

Sky’s innovation rewarded

Breaking news from, er, last week. Amid all the usual yah-boo of who won the RTS News Channel of the Year award, I missed the fact that Sky’s ‘Sky dot com news‘ bulletin at 7.30pm won the Innovation award. ‘The winning entry aims to integrate the web and tv audiences and was judged to be innovative because it lets the public rather than the news editor set the Agenda,’ reads the citation.

As I noted when it launched, they’d done a ‘reasonable job of making it feel a bit more internetty, without becoming cheesy’. I don’t catch it often, as it clashes with family bedtime… but on the occasions I do catch it, it’s amusing to see a steady stream of familiar faces from the blogosphere, some more comfortable on-air than others.

So what next for the show… or by bagging a trophy, has it achieved its objective? I’d personally want them to make more of their blog, which consists of little more than a list of post-show links each day, and a trickle of comments. Take the award as justification for pushing forward, guys. I’d look to do two or three blog posts through the afternoon, as the show comes together… maybe Twitter’s a better channel than a conventional blog. Invite the gang to react beforehand, if you like. And please, embed each day’s video recording in the post-show writeup.

Microsoft-Yahoo: I’m past caring

I’ve been extensively quoted in a technology story on the Sky News website this morning, in which I describe Microsoft’s proposed purchase of Yahoo as ‘a deal for the accountants and advertisers, not the users’. I’ll tell you why.

I like to keep a lid on my RSS consumption: anything over 100 feeds feels like too much. I had one of my occasional clearouts at the weekend, and I was actually surprised to find myself removing the final feed in my Microsoft folder. But it’s been a long, long time since Microsoft launched or announced anything which excited or inspired me. It’s not just the disappointment of Vista. There have been too many underwhelming ‘me too’ launches lately: the Zune and Silverlight spring immediately to mind.

Over at Yahoo, it’s more like a succession of false dawns. The 2005 purchases of Flickr and Delicious suggested they really ‘got it’, and I still use both daily; but they don’t seem to have moved on much since the purchase. Whatever happened to Flickr’s promised video? Delicious has promised ‘big things coming soon‘, but the definition of ‘soon’ is stretching all the time. And just as significantly, neither seems to have influenced Yahoo’s core service much. (I’ve used Pipes a few times, but it’s for RSS-obsessed geeks only… like me.)

The unpleasant truth is that a Yahoo news story these days is unlikely to solicit more than a disinterested grunt from me, and Microsoft is rapidly going down the same road. From a user’s perspective, all this deal would/will do is reduce the field from ‘Google plus two also-rans’ to ‘Google plus one’. I sense more dread out there than enthusiasm.

And those following the Puffbox philosophy won’t be surprised to read my quote: ‘Being successful online isn’t about being big – if anything, it’s a hindrance rather than a help.’ Discuss.