Headphones music sound audioPodcasting arrived on the scene more than a decade ago. The name tells you that. It comes from the words iPod and broadcasting. Ten years ago iPod was a name to conjure with.

Every so often podcasting goes through an up cycle. One is on now. It started last year when US President Barack Obama appeared on a podcast and there was a surge of interest in the digital audio format.

Podcasting is personal and public at once. For the last two years I’ve been a regular guest on the New Zealand Technology Podcast with Paul Spain.

This is a popular weekly show with a strong and loyal audience. At least as many people tell me they know my voice from the podcast as tell me they have read my writing.

When I’m on the podcast I speak personally with my own voice, expressing my own ideas. My journalism training tells me to be objective and stay in the background. Podcasting isn’t like that. Not at all.

Spain is the organiser of last week’s Asia-Pacific Podcast Conference in Auckland.

Although the event was on for two days, I only made it to the Saturday session. As a journalist I often go to conferences as an observer, reporting on what takes place. I still did that — my instinct it to watch, not take part directly. Yet I’m also intimate with the subject, so, just as when I’m on a podcast, it was hard to maintain professional distance.

What I saw was a mix of inspiration, business advice, advocacy, thinking about the mechanics of podcasting and some peeks behind the veil with the occasional what-does-it-all-mean questioning.

Usually I’d write a report of the conference, picking out highlights and newsy ideas. This time you get a handful of impressions and ideas I came away with:

The podcast conference vibe is collegial like, say, WordCamp. It’s friendly and co-operative. Even people who might compete with each other collaborate and share. There are people who are interested in the mechanics of making podcasts and others who focus on their messages more than how they get out. I noticed a lot of one-on-one help and support taking place in the background throughout the day. The overseas keynote speaker, Cliff Ravenscraft, was approachable and took time out to speak to anyone who approached him.

One panel session looked at collaboration between podcasters. The simple lesson: “Take time to refer to other podcasters when appropriate, they are not your rivals”.

Twice on Saturday the idea that podcasting was not just about old, white men was mentioned. Women were well represented on Saturday: two out of the three main speakers were female and the panel sessions were mixed.

There are many types of professional podcasts and some are damn good. Kaitlyn Sawrey from the ABC talked about professional quality podcasts she produces for the Australian broadcaster. Her production values are as high as broadcast radio. I was so keen to listen to these I downloaded examples while Sawrey was speaking.

On a side note. Sawrey’s ABC podcasts are often shorter than many others. Some of the ABC science podcasts only ran to 17 fact-packed minutes. This discipline pays off: less is more.

The attrition rate is horrible. Overseas keynote speaker Cliff Ravenscraft says: 80 percent of podcasters don’t get past their seventh episode.

Also from Ravenscraft: Quality is a key focus. He says: “No-one wants to listen to bad audio”. Podcasters invest in software, tools and equipment to get a good sound. The last session of the conference was a quick masterclass running through the tools and technique. Almost all the material here was new to me.

Good advice from Natalie Cutler-Welsh: “Extract quotes, the gems, from your podcast to share on social media.”

Lastly, this observation:

ipad pro apple pencil

While Apple’s iPad Pro is enough computer for day-to-day journalism, there are times when things might get tricky.

In the end I didn’t use the iPad Pro as my only device last week[1].

It wasn’t because of anything wrong with the iPad Pro. The iPad Pro stayed at home because I needed to play safe and use OS X.

My caution was unnecessary. In hindsight the iPad Pro may have been a better tool for the job in question.

Last Wednesday I was asked to help with production on  a  New Zealand Herald report.

For editors and writers, production is mainly about reading last minute page proofs. We’re looking for errors, writing headlines or captions and so on. It can mean dealing with files, usually PDFs, from the NZ Herald’s editorial design system.

There’s also fact-checking; researching people’s correct name spellings and job titles.

Files can fly thick and fast during last minute production. Speed is essential.

Too many unknowns

Although iOS does a decent job managing personal files generated with iOS apps, there were too many possible unknowns to deal with.

I didn’t want to get all the way to the office then find the iPad Pro couldn’t open one of the file types. Nor did I want to find out too late that my iOS apps weren’t the right tools to make late page edits.

Also it could have been embarrassing if I needed to find out how to perform some unexpected or unfamiliar operation while others were waiting for me.

MacBook instead

For all these reasons I packed the MacBook certain that it could handle all the work and that I know how to make it fly.

On the day we did the job with full-size paper proofs and pens. Someone else made the changes to the pages.

This may sound archaic to geeks, but proofreading is more effective on printouts than on screen. Eyes and brains read print and screens in different ways. Errors that stand out in print are overlooked on screen.

There was plenty of fact-checking, but no file-juggling. There was some emailing of photos to designers — I’ve worked places where you need to log-in to a server to get the pics to the right place. That could have been a challenge on the iPad Pro.

On the occasions where I needed to read proofs on screen, the large high resolution iPad Pro screen would have been a better option than the MacBook. Granted there’s not much in it, but the iPad is a better reading device than a conventional computer.

I should have had more faith in the iPad Pro.


  1. Look out for my post about my experience after using the iPad Pro for seven days not quite in a row. It contains useful insight into where the device fits in the bigger picture.  ↩

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Publishers with unique, must-read material and a well-heeled audience can charge readers. They sell subscriptions and build paywalls showing hints of tempting stories that non-customers can’t read.

Everyone else has to rely on advertising revenue or deliberately run online publishing at a loss.

That’s where the problems start: online advertising doesn’t work well for most publishers.

No money in online ads

The money earned per ad impression is tiny. So tiny that, in the normal run, only publishers with huge reader numbers or those offering reliable, lucrative specialist audiences are profitable.

Online advertising is often ineffective. Readers are either blind to online ads or they make a conscious choice to ignore them. It doesn’t matter which, the net effect is the same.

To get around reader blindness publishers resort to ever shriller, in-your-face techniques. Ads with loud blaring sound tracks, ideas borrowed from commercial radio. TV-style ads.

The evils of pop-up advertising

And then there are the hated pop-up ads. The worst are borderline malware where you can’t read a story until you’ve clicked the rubbish away. We’ve all seen those more disreputable ads that look like system messages telling us there is a security problem on our computer.

Publishers argue they have no choice about using pop-ups.

Remember, their customers are not their readers but their advertisers. If that’s what the market demands, then given the choice between annoying or abusing readers or bankruptcy you know which way they are going to jump.

Modern browsers often block pop-ups. Which leads publishers and advertisers to other annoying practices.

Another kind of big data

A media company web page might download as much as 10 MB of data to deliver, perhaps, 500 kB of editorial content.

That’s not a problem if you’re reading the page using an unmetered Internet account. If you’re paying for mobile data, then the data cost of getting the page will be far higher than the revenue the publisher earns from serving you the advertising.

That’s economic madness.

A lot of these large downloads are not advertising content as such, but code scripts. Again, it’s often not far removed from malware.

Online advertising at a tipping point

Pop-ups and other nasty obtrusive forms of advertising have brought us to a tipping point.

Five years ago in Ad-blocking hurts I argued against ad-blocking on the grounds that it was taking money out of the pockets of publishers and writers like myself.

That’s still true.

You are the product

On the other hand some online advertising is abusive. Advertisers track your activity, they can know far more about you than you may be aware. They swap or sell data about you, they use this to feed analytics projects. Advertisers snoop and pry. They are often worse than the most abusive government agencies.

They do all this without your consent. It’s just about cold, hard data using inhuman algorithms. Moreover it’s about money. You can’t negotiate, explain or mitigate any inadvertent damage to your reputation.

Marco Arment has an excellent post on this at his blog.

Online publishing: not mission impossible

It’s tough being a publisher in 2015. Tough but not impossible.

Sadly we don’t have the take-the-band-on-the-road option that musicians have to bypass unhelpful online economics.

Yet there are proven, ethical ways of making online publications pay without resorting to evil practices.

Native advertising

If I was to return to commercial publishing – that’s still an option – I’d bet on running clearly marked advertiser sponsored comment in my news feed. This sometimes called native advertising.

Native advertising is doubly profitable if the publisher originates the copy as well as distributes it. You charge for the creative and the access to an audience.

I’d also explore paywall publishing and micro-payment technologies. They are now ways to get small per-story payments. Although only a tiny fraction of visitors will pay even a pittance because many just expect material to be free and would never pay.

Other online publishing business models

Meanwhile there’s my experience with my own free site. For a while I toyed with advertising. It annoyed readers and paid pennies making just NZ$40 to $50 a month — barely enough to pay the overheads of running a website let alone making an income.

Perhaps the most important lesson was my reader numbers rocketed after I killed the ads.

In effect my site is a shop window. It sells my main business which is writing about business and technology. I get one or two enquiries a month from potential clients who see my work here. That means a steady flow of new commissions. I also get paid speaking engagements this way.

It’s taken years but this has gathered momentum to the point where I’m now often too busy to write fresh content. You can tell when I’m busy with paying work, I post less here.

Ad-blocking: coming if you’re ready or not

Where does this leave ad-blocking? Like it or not. It’s now inevitable and unavoidable.

While ethical publishers will pay the price of the abusive behaviour of unethical publishers, widespread ad-blocking will give the industry a chance to reboot. To find a new business model.

It may mean still fewer opportunities for paid journalism, but it could lead to better paid work writing native advertising – something that needs journalism skills to do well.

iPhone 6

Apple is working with publishers to add a new and fast-loading news app to iOS.

The app, called Apple News, will show up on iPhone and iPad home pages when iOS 9 arrives later this year.

Apple News pulls in news feeds from different publishers. It displays them in a magazine-style format like Flipboard. Readers will be able to filter their feeds so they can get the subjects they care about most.

The idea is that you’ll be able to quickly read the material you consider important from a variety of sources without jumping from one app or website to another.

In some respects it’ll replace RSS readers. They never recovered from the death of Google Reader.

Because it comes from Apple there’s an emphasis on how things look. Apple News is prettier than Google Reader replacements like Feedly. Although they set a low bar to beat.

The app will format material for iOS devices and will adjust for screen size. Most likely there will be something for Apple Watch owners too.

Apple has signed up publishers — including my technology news site. I’m curious to see how the model might work for publishers and writers.

We need fresh ideas. Few existing online publishing models work except for publishers with material worth putting behind a paywall.

Apple News will include advertising. At the same time the iOS 9 Safari browser will include optional ad blocking.

You could see this as Apple making life hard for publishers operating out the in the wild while offering something cosy inside the walled garden.

There’s another way of looking at this: Online advertising is a mess. Few publishers make more than a pittance from running banner ads, Google ads or indeed any kind of advertising. Ad sales stopped on this site because the revenue didn’t cover administering ad sales let alone other costs.

Things are extra hard for publishers when it comes to earning money from mobile readers. That’s where the audience is, but mobile ads earn a fraction of the money earned by PC browser ads. A small percentage of bugger all is not worth the effort.

It’s unlikely Apple News will do much for income, but it’s a publishing channel and business model worth exploring.

Can Apple will make it pay? That’s not a given. Remember the old iOS newsstand wasn’t a rip-roaring success. Remember how excited news publishers like Rupert Murdoch were about the iPad’s potential to save their broken business models?

New Zealand has a vibrant and flourishing technology sector. Nobody would use those words to describe New Zealand technology journalism.

Like a retirement village, there are still pockets of life, but things are winding down.

You can count the number of full-time technology journalists writing for New Zealand audiences on your fingers. Experienced local journalists are as likely to turn up on overseas publications as on local titles.

It means we no longer tell the best stories about local technology companies. We don’t report the ways New Zealanders deal with technology. A lot gets missed.

We’ve stopped telling our stories because no-one wants to pay for that kind of writing.

Specialist tech publishers

Three specialist publishers dominate:

Techday makes the most money. It publishes two monthly print magazines: IT Brief and The Channel. It operates as an umbrella website featuring eight virtual publication brands covering subject niches.

Techday lists three staff journalists are listed on its website. The last time I asked none of them worked full-time. This may have changed. Update: Techday Publisher Sean Mitchell tells me his journalists are all employed full-time.

IDG is US-owned and Australian managed. It publishes a print edition of CIO magazine three times a year. If you want a subscription you have to apply to Australia. That speaks volumes. IDG also operates Computerworld, NZ Reseller News and PC World as online-only publications.

IDG employs two full-time journalists. James Henderson is the editor of Computerworld NZ while Divina Paredes is CIO editor. Randal Jackson writes stories as the group’s Wellington-based freelance. Reseller News and PC World don’t have local editorial staff. Update: James Henderson is the editor of both Computerworld NZ and Reseller News.

iStart publishes a print and electronic magazine three times a year. The business is Auckland based with New Zealand and Australian print editions and websites. Auckland-based Clare Coulson is the editor.

Part-time technology journalists

Between them the three specialist publishers employ three full-time and four part-time journalists. Update: six full-time and one part-time. That’s still fewer than one journalist per masthead. They rarely break hard news stories. News pages are mostly filled with rewritten press releases and PR-fed material.

That sounds like criticism. On one level it is, but it also reflects commercial reality. There’s little advertising revenue. What advertisers the publishers can scrape up are looking for a shortcut to sales leads, not hard-hitting exposés.

You will find longer features in most titles. Sometimes there’s even analysis although there’s little of the deeper material that characterised the technology press in the past.

Again that’s commercial reality: journalists are under pressure to pump out a lot of content fast. There’s not much time for reflection.

This also explains why the IDG sites are full of overseas filler material. It keeps the pipeline full at no extra cost to the publisher. The stories seem to be picked at random. No thought is given to whether a story serves readers.

This can get extreme. Last week Ian Apperley noted there wasn’t a single local story among the 100 most recent news items on the Computerworld NZ feed.

Technology journalism in mainstream media

The same pressure to pump out volume applies to tech journalists working in New Zealand’s mainstream media. Both Stuff and the NZ Herald fill their online pipelines with low-cost, low-value overseas filler material.

In the past the newspapers did great work keeping industry insiders, users and the public informed about events and trends. Now they publish shorter, less analytical news although there are some notable exceptions, particularly when covering telecommunications.

One reason you don’t see as much local technology news is there are no longer any full-time technology journalists working on mainstream newspapers and magazines.

Chris Keall who at one time edited NZ PC World is the most notable specialist journalist in terms of output. He is NBR technology editor. Keall is also the paper’s head of digital, so he spends less time at the tech coal face. Keall manages to write roughly a story a day and at times gets behind more complex issues.

At the Dominion Post Tom Pullar-Strecker was a technology specialist but now has a general business journalism role. Being based in Wellington he sometimes gets insight into issues such as telecommunications policy. These days he writes roughly one tech story a week.

NZ Herald

The NZ Herald gives technology assignments to a number of journalists. The best know is Chris Barton, who writes features and commentary covering technology and telecommunications topics. Barton goes deep, but his work only appears occasionally.

The Herald also runs a weekly blog by tech veteran Juha Saarinen. Saarinen is one of the locally based technology journalists who appears to earn most of his income from working for overseas publishers. Unlike most of us, he has a firmer technology background. He mainly writes for IT News, an Australian online publication.

Rob O’Neill is another virtual ex-pat New Zealand journalist. He writes for ZDNet and is listed as part of the ZDNet Australia team. O’Neill writes local and international stories, maybe two local items a week.

Wellington-based Owen Williams has only recently moved to working full-time as a journalist. He is now on the team for US-based The Next Web.

On a personal note

This round-up wouldn’t be complete without mentioning my work. I’m a freelance journalist. I write a regular technology column for NZ Business magazine — it mainly appears in print. In the last year have also written features for iStart, NBR and for Management magazine, which is now part of NZ Business. I also turn up on TV3 Firstline and the NZ Tech Podcast talking about technology.

My highest profile freelance work would be on the business feature pull-outs that appear in the NZ Herald about ten times a year. Although I get to write about tech from a business point of view, the stories range across most business areas.

There are also overseas jobs. In the last year I have written for ZDNet’s PC Magazine and for Computer Weekly out of the UK. Both publishers commissioned stories that are specifically about New Zealand themes.

Undergunned

Most experienced New Zealand technology writers, myself included, are not writing full-time for New Zealand audiences about local themes. Some are writing for overseas publishers, others split writing duties with other editorial responsibilities.

Those who are writing full-time spend their lives in a haze churning out short items dictated largely by the flow of press releases and PR-initiated pitches.

Too often an exclusive is nothing more than first dibs on a press release. You’re not doing your job when you post 20 smartphone shots of someone’s new data centre or are the first New Zealand site to publish alleged leaked photos of a yet to be launched product.

Getting eyeballs is everything. Local publishers fight with Google over the slim pickings available from online advertisements. They also compete internationally. New Zealanders probably read more overseas written tech news than locally written stories.

I’m not judgemental about the problems they face or the way local publishers tackle the problems, I’m on the receiving end of the same economic forces.

Who pays the piper?

The market doesn’t serve the readers. It doesn’t serve the local tech industry. Leaders of New Zealand tech companies need to be aware of what is going on in their industry, not what someone’s promotional output says. They need intelligence, not propaganda.

The current approach doesn’t serve the public good.

There’s also a problem when a big news story breaks that has technology woven into its fabric. Remember the fuss in the run-up to the 2014 election over stolen emails? Perhaps the planned $1.5 billion reboot of the IRD computer system. How about the business of the Edward Snowden leaks?

In some cases journalists who don’t have tech expertise or the contacts needed to make sense of what is happening are sent to deal with these stories.

That’s a pity. There’s a bigger pity. Hundreds of real, hard news stories, things that the public needs to know about go unreported because they are not part of a public relations campaign. Or worse, public relations managers block the news from getting out.

Oxygen

Let’s put aside the worthy goal of keeping the public informed and get to a different commercial reality. New Zealand’s homegrown technology sector doesn’t get the media oxygen it needs to breath.

Because overseas news feeds dominate the agenda in New Zealand, people buying here are more likely to hear about an overseas supplier than a local one. Investors will put their money overseas, skilled workers will look for jobs overseas. This is already causing problems.

The lack of balanced, impartial and thoughtful New Zealand technology journalism creates the impression there’s not much going on here.

Blogs take up some of the slack. So does Mauricio Freitas’ Geekzone website and projects like the New Zealand Tech Podcast.

Technology needs a local voice. It has to be an honest voice. That means turning over rocks some people would prefer stayed untouched.