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Design Thinking future of work journalism

🕵🏻‍♀️ #47: Exploring the future of journalism

How we can use Design Thinking to solve journalistic problems.

I’ve been to a few journalism events this week on the industry’s future and what needs to change.

NUJ Racism and the Media special meeting, Freelance Industrial Council, and the #buildbackwellDEN Spring ’21 meeting. 

Common themes: Digital transformation, reinvention, diversity, resilience, burnout and mental health.

There was a backlash to the Society of Editors’ bizarre statement denying press racism in the UK. Press Gazette did a survey which shows there’s still much work to do. NUJ Black Members’ Council made a statement about what we can learn from the Meghan Markle race debate saying how the industry should have used the comments made by Meghan and Harry to start a long-overdue debate about the best way to prevent racist coverage.  

We heard some shocking stories about racism in the media and how the media has a problem pigeonholing journalists of colour. Editors want pitches related to race and lived experiences, giving little space for journalists to explore other topics. 

Lack of diversity in newsrooms was the biggest issue flagged. It’s not so much a problem with recruitment, but retention – if the work culture isn’t diverse and welcoming, people won’t hang around. Depressing to hear stories of endemic racism in our media corporations and comments like: ‘Sometimes the only way to break out [of the box you’re put in] is to leave and come back in through another door.’

Look out for the full report on londonfreelance.org.


Do freelance rates discriminate?

We have some new data on gender, ethnicity and rates. Thanks to the #FreelancerPayGap initiative LFB has added over 1,000 Rates for the Job with info on ethnicity as well as gender. We have a gender pay gap and an ethnic pay gap. In this data set, women are getting less than men and people who don’t identify as ‘white’ are getting less than those who do.

We all need to step up. Sharing rates and being transparent about pay will help to dismantle the gender pay gap. You can submit your Rate for the Job here and via the #FreelancerPayGap. I’ve seen similar campaigns for advertising and publishing. 


#buildbackwellDEN (Digital Editors’ Network) 

More than 70 colleagues from across 12 time zones came to the DEN event – a 90-minute, interactive discussion on how we can build back well. It focused on three areas: PEOPLE, PROCESS and PRODUCT.

The aim is to co-create an agenda to take back to decision-makers so it’s not just a talking shop (there’s a working document).

Excellent speakers and breakout sessions to brainstorm ideas.

The Chatham House Rule means I can share information about the discussion but not identify anyone or attribute quotes. This is so people can speak freely.

Key points: 

– Flying the flag for freelancers. The fastest-growing sector of the industry. Will we all burn out? Is that where this is heading? Is there any research on freelancers and burnout, and where do we go?

– No more siloed working. Newsrooms and publications need to build a better relationship with freelancers and be more inclusive. Freelancers need to be paid fairly – more transparency around pay rates.  

– We need a database of freelancers showing who’s available, their background and what they can do. To help speed up the commissioning process and encourage collaboration. Databases like this exist within organisations, e.g. the BBC has a portal, but there’s nothing that can be accessed by the wider industry.

– What companies are doing to prevent burnout – training people up on mental health, working on user-generated content, creating intranets about COVID as a resource for staff, and enforcing wellbeing policies.

– How Design Thinking can transform journalism. Never thought I’d hear Design Thinking, empathy and journalism in the same sentence 😉 Exciting! I’m reading a lot about Design Thinking on my UX course – here’s a nice intro.

Newsrooms need to take a more holistic approach with human-centred storytelling and understand what people need before creating a story/product. How much do you know about your readers? Involve them in the creation process. 

– Soft skills vs hard skills: The importance of listening and empathy. The emphasis on hard skills in journalism is why I haven’t felt comfortable in it. It’s as though being argumentative, pushy and loud somehow makes you a better journalist. I did some subbing shifts on the nationals a few years ago – no women on the team, a hard-drinking culture and long working hours. A work culture that would exclude many.

Well done, DEN. An inspiring discussion and lots to think about. Feels like I’m heading in the right direction with the UX training – and I can see why I’m attracted to it.

I can combine my UX work with journalism to create better media products.

Check out the speakers and feel free to send in ideas for future DEN events.

Enjoyed this article by Rasmus Kleis Neilson, Director at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, on the vanguard and rearguards in the fight for the future of journalism. The tension between those who embrace change and those who want things to stay the same.

The vanguard is full of women and more diverse. The rearguard full of white men like me.

This mindset will continue to undermine journalism’s ability to adapt, remake, and renew itself, and the profession as a whole, especially younger journalists, will have to live with the consequences of this conservatism.

Rasmus Kleis Neilson

Go deeper 🛠

World Press Trends Outlook 2021: Digital transformation in the driver’s seat. Nearly 60% of publishers say staff will either WFH or have the option to WFH going forward. Only 5% expect to move everyone back to the office. 

Content is Product and Product is Content: Why deeper alignment is the only way forward. Dmitry Shiskin on why it’s time to start treating content and product as one. They are slowly merging into one thing. 

People pay for other media, but they won’t pay for journalism (Heather Bryant).

The idea that the user experience of the delivered product of most journalism is anywhere near the quality of any of other media is in many cases a delusion of grandeur. 👏

Facebook is Starting a Substack Competitor (Nieman Lab) – Facebook to pay $5 million to local journalists in news push. They’ve pledged to invest $1 billion in the news industry over the next five years. Be interesting to see what happens – Facebook has strong community groups.

Substack says, bring it on! 

Listen up! #FutureMediaPodcasts roundup 🎧

Why journalists NEED to be researchers (Shirish Kulkarni) – on how journalism can apply Design Thinking principles to tell better stories.

Most of our news is presented ‘top down’ – do we actually want something ‘bottom up’ where communities are more involved in telling their own stories? 

How to use design thinking to solve journalistic problems (newsrewired.com)

Freelancer Magazine – well done to the team for getting this out, an inspiring read 🙌 Get your copy here.

Freelance Business for Writers, 3-4 June 2021. Free online event for freelance copywriters, editors, journalists and translators. Speaker callout🎙

Global Freelancing – take the survey. ‘The goal is to understand the experience of freelancing during the pandemic and looking ahead at the future of work.’


This month, I’ve been… Building backlinks 🔗

I wrote an article on how to build backlinks. What they are, why you need them, and how they’ll help your business.👇

Google has over 200 factors that determine your site ranking, and number one is backlinks. 

Link building is an art and science, creative and analytical. It involves detective work, psychology, tools and relationship building.

I’ve done a few things so let’s see if my Google ranking improves.

Happy link building! 


LINE OF DUTY

Ted Hastings. A man of principle. He can’t retire!

Will we find out who H is…? Not long till I get my fix…

Categories
Creator economy journalism newsletters technology

🕵🏻‍♀️ #45: Substack: the Marketplace of Ideas

(and some great newsletter resources for you)

Interesting read from Ben Smith in The New York Times on the Substack debate. Media company vs tech platform, their editorial role (or not), the advances paid out by Substack Pro, and their biggest challenge: competitors like Ghost and Twitter/Revue.

The quote from John O’Nolan, Ghost CEO sums it up: Subscription newsletter publishing was ‘destined to be commoditized.’

The news is that Substack has signed up two high profile transgender writers – Danny and Grace Laverty so we have a household with two Substack incomes. A smart move, as it helps counter the backlash they’ve had from some writers who don’t want to share the platform with people who they said were anti-trans. It shows they want to be a platform for all – even those who criticise the company.

There’s been a media storm around Substack over the past year – about money, mostly (they are VC funded and valued at $650 million (Axios), the compatibility of VC funding and journalism, and the ethics of paying writers to join the platform. Why not? Authors get book advances, and we don’t bat an eyelid. And subscriptions are a much better deal for writers.

As Casey Newton said, Substack is taking up a lot of mindspace and has become a target for ‘a lot of people to project their anxieties.’

Substack has captivated an anxious industry because it embodies larger forces and contradictions. For one, the new media economy promises both to make some writers rich and to turn others into the content-creation equivalent of Uber drivers, even as journalists increasingly turn to labour unions to level out pay scales. – Ben Smith.

Some writers (a minority) are making big money on Substack – good for them. It’s inspiring to check the leaderboard and see what’s possible – it introduces a bit of friendly competition. They’ve built a following over time and bought their audiences with them.

But most (like me) are making money via support from readers, not paid advances. It’s a side hustle alongside their main job or freelance projects. It’s fun. I’m learning as I go, and it’s an opportunity to have a product and a platform. There’s no obligation to stay – I can take my work and publish it elsewhere.

Power to the creator 

The power shift has been happening for a while – Patreon CEO Jack Conte talks about it here. Substack isn’t creating it, but it’s part of it and riding the wave. There’s a cultural shift towards the creator economy, valuing good content and being willing to pay for it. David Lat calls it the ‘great reset’ of charging for content (we all need to get used to paying more for content!). And the fear is that it’s helping writers to discover their market value.

The genie is out of the bottle, and there’s no going back!

And it’s not legacy media vs Substack either – we have broad tastes, and there’s room for all types of media. I’m not paying for news on Substack; I’m getting opinion, analysis, and diverse views from people who may not fit the traditional media mould/niche, which is refreshing. Journalism is still largely a white, middle-class profession.

I am excited about Substack – it’s the biggest tech challenge in a while, and captures the spirit of early blogging with diverse views and a dose of reality. Columnist Heather Havrilesky is taking ‘Ask Polly’ from The New Yorker Magazine to Substack to ‘regain some of the indie spirit and sense of freedom that drew me to want to write online in the first place.’

As long as they keep adding value, supporting writers, and building community, I’ll stick around. It feels good to be part of a bigger mission.   

As a writer on the platform, the pain points are SEO – very important!! I’m giving away my Google juice. So I publish on my site first, tell Google I own the content and then share it to other platforms – Substack, Medium, and social media. And for those writers earning a living here, the 10% commission is a killer and needs to come down.

As a consumer, it’s expensive to subscribe to lots of newsletters – see this thread from Laura Hazard Owen. I can claim expenses if they are work-related, but I’d love to see more ‘bundling up’ newsletters in similar industries to offer value to readers. I’ve seen posts on Reddit asking if people are interested in joint subscriptions to split the cost.

Companies need to get in on the act, too – newsletter bundles would be a great perk for employees – fresh ideas and perspectives enhance workplace culture.


What are publishers doing to solve the ‘Substack problem’? 

  • The New York Times has bought columnist Paul Krugman’s free Substack to their platform.
  • @Choire is stepping down from the NYT Style desk and ‘taking on a new and exciting challenge, as a senior editor charged with a project to help expand our newsletter portfolio alongside Sam Dolnick and Adam Pasick.’
  • Vanity Fair meets Substack – former VF editor Jon Kelly is launching a new, private equity-backed publication. ‘Writers have been offered equity and a percentage of the subscription revenue they would generate.’

As Ben points out, the biggest threat to Substack isn’t politics amongst writers but another tech stack with a different (cheaper) model, e.g. Ghost, Twitter/Revue. Ghost is open-source and non-profit, which will appeal to many publishers.

They are aware of this and working hard on ‘brand Substack’. Good to see they’ve announced a $1 million initiative to support a new group of local news writers on the platform (non-famous writers ;-).

This is not a grants program, nor is it inspired by philanthropic intent. Our goal is to foster an effective business model for independent local news that provides ample room for growth.

There’s more to come. ‘We will make a large investment in a support program that includes initiatives related to healthcare, personal finance, editing, distribution, design, and coworking spaces.’ Which gives them the edge.

And writers will find creative solutions for siloed working and isolation. 💪

Today, eight writers with paid newsletters on tech and culture, including Casey Newton, Anne Helen Petersen, and Delia Cai, are launching Sidechannel –

‘A shared Discord server where our paid subscribers can meet, hang out, and participate in a vibrant daily conversation about tech, culture, and society.’

They have big plans – shared channels, jobs, networking, and Clubhouse-style chats where you can ask questions. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg is their first guest tomorrow.

Let’s celebrate Substack’s success. Indie media is super important, as is diversity – we need more voices. Please support your favourite writers, artists, and musicians via Substack, Patreon, Podia, Soundcloud, and Stack Magazines – leave a tip or comment, share and like a post – a little goes a long way to help.

Self-publishing is a hard, lonely job 🎻

From the NYT comments:

In a media ecosystem where six companies own systems that deliver 90% of the news, indie platforms can only be a good thing.

Substack is filled with cancelled, edgy writers. It’s where Ernie Pyle, Hunter Thompson and Martha Gellhorn would be if they were alive and writing today.


Go deeper 🛠

✍️ Sovereign Writers and Substack (Stratechery) – Ben Thompson on ‘the fundamental issues about the Substack model specifically, and the shift to sovereign writers generally, that are being misunderstood.’

📬 Newsletters: The market is booming! (Marie Dollé). Mapping the newsletter ecosystem. ‘Creating content for and with your audience is exciting and crucial, especially when you realize that the community builder is the creator too!’ Brands, take note!

📣 You’ve Got Mail (Anna Wiener, The New Yorker) on the history of newsletters and embracing change: ‘Carving out new ways for writers to make money from their work is surely a good thing: the US lost 16,000 newsrooms jobs this year. I ❤️ Hayley Hahman’s comments on how writing her newsletter ‘Maybe Baby’ has made her reflect on how she measures success. 

👩‍🎨 Li Jin on the Passion Economy and the Future of Work (andreessen horowitz). ‘Gig work isn’t going anywhere—but there are now more ways to capitalize on creativity. This has huge implications for entrepreneurship and what we’ll think of as a ‘job’ in the future.’ 

And some newsletters resources for you 🤗