NetHui 2013: The real trouble with journalism

TLDNR – too long, did not read.

It’s the kind of comment you might expect to hear in an online forum, not from a senior news executive at the nation’s largest newspaper. And certainly not in the context where it was used in front of former New Zealand Herald feature writer Chris Barton.

That snide comment tells you the real trouble with journalism – the people running the industry simply don’t get it. There’s a lot they just don’t get.

Depth and prestige

For the best part of a decade Barton worked on the kind of long-form, in-depth feature stories which win prizes and readers for newspapers. They add depth to the paper and prestige to the masthead.

Perhaps they weren’t read by everyone, but many readers would buy the Weekend Herald especially to get the more expansive, intelligent features.

By the time Barton left the Herald last year, the feature department was effectively finished. In depth features are no longer part of the paper’s mix.

Read on

And anyway, Too long, didn’t read is nonsense. People do read long form stories. They read them online and they continue to read them in magazines.

They read even longer stories. There’s a special name we give to those even longer stories, we call them books, They can be printed, although increasingly they are digital.

The Scoop Foundation

Barton was speaking at a session run by The Scoop Foundation, a public interest journalism organisation set up by Alison McCulloch and Alistair Thompson to fund journalism projects.

Also at the presentation was The Science Media Centre’s Peter Griffin who talked of his experiences looking at how similar organisations in the USA have stepped into to cover some of the issues journalists might have covered for large newspapers. He says there’s potential to raise money in New Zealand from philanthropic trusts.



Leanpub – a wonderful eBook publishing model

Leanpub ebook publishing

Leanpub send me a mail saying an updated version of Paul Bradshaw’s book Scraping for Journalists is available. The mail includes links to download the book in PDF, EPUB or Mobi formats – or perhaps all three if I want, there’s no digital rights management to worry about.

Because I already purchased the book, the updates are free.

Leanpub is a great way of selling ebooks: buy one, all future updates are free.

Royalties are generous for writers, around 90% less a 50 cents per book fee. If I ever get around to writing another book, this is where I’ll go first.

Another great thing about Leanpub, is the books are reasonably priced. Scraping for Journalists doesn’t include as much information as you might get from an everyday paperback, but the price is about half what you’d pay for a printed book. There’s also a money-back guarantee.

Oh, and it case you’re wondering the Scraping for Journalists book is good too.

Once were newspaper readers

After hearing Newsweek lost 51% of its print circulation in the space of just five years London-based digital media blogger Martin Belam looked at UK newspaper performance. He found the British market declined 27% over the same period.

How do New Zealand newspapers compare?

I went to the Audio Bureau of Circulation and found comparable numbers for the three large daily metro papers and the two main Sunday papers. This is not a direct comparison, The Herald on Sunday was just getting started in 2007 and that had a big impact on its direct rival The Sunday Star-Times.

During the five-year period the five big New Zealand papers collectively shed 16% of their readers.

The biggest loser was the Sunday Star Times down 28%, while the Herald on Sunday increased its circulation by 11%. The Dominion-Post is down 19% while the New Zealand Herald and the Christchurch Press are down just 15%.

Among these titles Fairfax newspapers lost ground to APN titles.

So, for now at least, New Zealand’s newspapers are holding up relatively well.

Livescribe Sky passes real world test

Preiously I reviewed the Livescribe Sky SmartPen at home, how does it fare in action? To find out I took it to Telecom’s Windows Phone 8 press conference.

Livescribe Pulse SmartPen has been my main note taking device for the last two years. I use it at press events, seminars, summits and conferences over the years. The Pulse is an essential part of my toolkit.

My technique is to take limited, staccato notes, usually one per idea. I mark key passages and juicy quotes while recording audio.

Monday’s press conference presented a challenge. The event involved seven speakers along with two or three short videos in a presentation lasting about 40 minutes.

The room was about the size of a tennis court, with a low ceiling. It opened on to a noisy atrium - the doors to the atrium were opened for some of the time and, unusually given the size of the crowd, the speakers didn’t use microphones and amplification.

Not great conditions, an ideal testing laboratory

All of this meant the recording conditions were not great. The Pulse would have handled it, but what about the newer pen?

One surprise was you can’t use the new pen with the earlier pen’s headset. That’s a pity because the headset has microphones built into each earplug, which can do a better job of capturing sound in a noisy room. Luckily it wasn’t necessary.

It did well. The Sky pen captured everything. While there were a few missed or unclear words, I could easily hear all the important parts in my 39 minute recording. Just as before I could tap the written words on the notebook page and the audio would jump to that point.

The pen was comfortable to use the whole time. Note taking was straightforward. I left the event feeling confident, but the real proof would come later when it was time to play things back.

SmartPen Lessons

As my earlier review mentions, the new desktop software for using the audio is not as good as the earlier stand-alone application. Rather than struggle to make sense of the new software, I played the audio back directly from the pen.

The pen has a built-in speaker. It is not loud and anyway it would disturb others working here so I hunted out a headset that was compatible with the new pen. Everything was fine, it took a few minutes to write-up my notes. The new pen works just as well as the older model.

I already mentioned that I didn’t attempt using the software to get my work done. When I checked later the file was stored in Evernote, it’ll be there if I need it in future. That’s good. I also didn’t test the Wi-Fi because although the Telecom’s building is equipped, the set-up procedure is fiddly, I was too busy talking to people to worry about organising it any anyway, it wasn’t necessary. I’ll give it a proper work out when I next go to a seminar.

My earlier review gave the pen a tentative thumbs up. I’m much happier now to say the Sky a worthy successor to the Livescribe Pulse. This is one tool I want to keep.

Livescribe Sky WiFi SmartPen

While Livescribe didn’t design the SmartPen especially for journalists, there are times when it feels that way. The pen is a powerful tool for anyone who needs to take notes. Sadly the latest Livescribe Sky version needs a little work before it will live up to its predecessor’s reputation. 

Livescribe’s Sky WiFI Smartpen lets you write ink note on special notepaper while recording what is being said. The notes upload directly to the internet when you can read them back and step through the recorded audio in sync with the written words.

Sky is an updated take on the orginal Livescribe Pulse SmartPen reviewed here two years ago. At the time I described the pen as a paperless journalist’s dream. It would be fair to say it changed the way I work. More about that later.

You still use pens?

Pens and paper are unfashionable in an age of smartphones, tablets and laptops. In many situation they are still the best way to take quick notes. Journalists often have to stand around for impromptu press briefings, speak to people on the hop in the back of cabs, in bars or cafes. Whipping a laptop out isn’t always practical.

And, here’s the big point, laptops, smartphones or traditional voice recorders create a barrier between the journalist and the interviewee. They switch into formal communications mode. A pen and pad rarely triggers the same reaction. I’m not out to trick people, but I find they relax and talk like humans when I use a pen in an interview.

Where Livescribe really scores

Livescribe’s pen and paper approach has another advantage. My shorthand was always atrocious – work pressure meant I never finished the training course as a junior journalist. At first I made the mistake of taking shorthand notes with the pen. Now I don’t bother.

Once you get used to the technology, you realise you no longer have to capture every spoken word with ink. Instead, you can just write brief notes, markers if you like, indicating which bits of audio are worth winding back to. This simplifies the task enormously, so I can concentrate on what’s being said, think up fresh questions and so on.

Big pen

Livescribe Sky and the starter notebook

Physically the LiveScribe Sky is the size and weight of a large fountain pen. There’s a small ball-point at the sharp end, the other end has sockets for a USB cable and a headphone jack. Along the flattened shaft there’s a microphone, speaker, a OLED display and an on-off button. Once switched on, you use it just like an everyday pen.

Well, not quite like an everyday pen. It needs special paper – which comes in a variety of notebooks and notepads. They’re more expensive than standard paper, but you don’t use as much. I estimate I spend about NZ$15 a year on the paper. If you’re pushed you can print your own paper.

Easy to use, not idiot proof

Using Livescribe is simply enough. You switch it on, tap the button at the bottom of the page to start recording then start writing. The pen remembers which audio is recorded at the same time as which piece of text, so you’ll need to make reasonable notes. I focus on speaker names and key words.

Over the years I must have recorded 50 or so sessions with my earlier pen, two failed. In both cases I forgot to hit the start recording button. The pen’s display tells you when it is recording, so I now make a point of checking this two or three times just to make sure.

What does Wi-Fi bring?

Less and more than I hoped. The good thing about Wi-Fi is you don’t need to struggle to find the pen cradle – which was the case with older SmartPens. On the other hand those earlier Livescribe pens would run for days at a time without needing a recharge. I used it to record an intense three-day conference and still only used about a third of the battery charge.

Wi-Fi can chew through batteries at an alarming rate. Testing at home indicates it should be good for about a day’s work between charges. Which means you may need to carry the USB charging cable and top up power. The USB cable also comes to your rescue if you don’t have a good Wi-Fi connection. Overall, I’d say Wi-Fi takes as much as it gives. Your needs may be different.

One of my favourite uses for the Livescribe pen is covering press conferences and seminars. If you’re in a venue with Wi-Fi you can sync locally and have the files sitting ready for you when you get to a computer. The Sky is great for travelling light and I’ve even had it working with my iPad.

Software changes

Previously you needed a separate desktop application. The latest version works with Evernote, an otherwise excellent cloud application that I need to get around to writing about. Sadly this is a step backwards for Livescribe. It feels like beta software.

One great feature of the earlier software was a handwriting recognition add-on app called MyScript, which could turn my written notes into text. My writing is awful Evernote claims to do handwriting recognition, in practice it scored a big fat zero dealing with my scrawl – MyScript fared better.

Finding stuff is harder in Evernote. Text and audio integration is less complete and clumsy. I had difficulty playing sound files on my PC – luckily you can play them back directly from the pen. Frankly, if Livescribe stuck with its own software this would be a glowing review, it isn’t. Make no mistake, the Livescribe Sky is impressive, the software feels under-cooked.


Despite misgivings about the software, the Livescribe Sky remains a powerful tool. It does things tablets can’t. It is essential if you’re a journalist, student or someone who needs to take lots of notes while working. Wi-Fi is a nice feature, but  not essential. The software badly needs updating.

With Livescribe Sky prices starting at NZ$274, this isn’t an impulse buy although I can’t function at maximum efficiency without one. If you like the idea, consider the earlier Livescribe Echo at NZ$190 – it doesn’t have Wi-Fi, but uses the older software which is more reliable and consistent.