It seems the Guardian's fondness for chart-topper turned media-friendly physicist Dr Brian Cox isn't to everybody's taste.
This (reproduced in its entirety) from the letters page of the paper's Weekend magazine after Cox graced its pages a fortnight ago:
"Do you sponsor Brian Cox or something? He's not even the most famous person called Brian Cox."
Indeed he isn't.
This blogger is reminded of a presentation he was set to give on the media's recently renewed fascination with science - from the Large Hadron Collider to Cox himself - where a designer producing the slides had seen fit to illustrate one with Brian Cox, the 64-year-old actor who counts The Bourne Identity and Troy among his many on-screen credits.
The Times Playlist magazine has certainly tried to do its bit to promote new Alan Davies vehicle Whites, which screens on BBC Two this week, though it could have been a little more joined-up in its (almost) universal praise...
Page 3 (contents):
"In Whites, the excellent new BBC Two comedy starting on Tuesday, Alan Davies plays a talented...head chef. Page 40."
Excellent, no less. So onto page 40 for the review:
"Whites is enormous fun...because the characters are so strong, the humour emerges naturally and it promises to be a comic highlight of the weeks to come."
Enormous fun. Now leafing back through the pages you find this on page 26's 'Must See TV':
"Alan Davies is on fine form in this new comedy series..."
All fine and good. But there's still one more mention on page 5, in the 'Instant Expert' column where we're told what we should think about things this week (should we be people of a misanthropic disposition... which let's face it, most of us are):
"Whites... The latest in a steady line of British, kitchen-based light entertainment that spans Chef!, Pie In The Sky and, arguably Dinnerladies. It's like someone has actually commissioned this with UKTV Gold in mind."
Don't think those are compliments.
While the papal visit dominated much of last week’s news agenda - even the charging of cat-in-a-bin lady was sidelined - another story that could have huge ramifications for the UK’s media slipped under the radar: News Corporation’s planned £8bn buyout of Sky.
When BSB’s satellite venture went squarial-shaped in 1990, Murdoch’s loss-making Sky venture was allowed to take a share of what was then a publicly owned franchise (a fine synopsis of the whole episode is documented here). In June of this year, News Corp announced plans to buy the remaining 61% of the operation, although many of the original commitments of digital satellite broadcasting – such as the public service ethos – have long since been jettisoned.
Discontent over the buyout has begun to simmer again after media analyst Claire Enders prepared an ‘incendiary memo’, leaked on the Beehive City website, for business secretary Vince Cable. In a Guardian interview Enders, who is credited with predicting the dotcom crash and the more recent advertising downturn, gives a gloomy prognosis for the future of the UK’s media:
"Somewhere between 2015 and 2020, News International and Sky will control 50% of the newspaper and television markets respectively."
Enders also warned that a combined News International and Sky would lead to
"…a reduction in media plurality to an unacceptably low level.”
Despite the gloom, Enders’ memo does at least seem to have stirred up debate on the subject. In an Observer comment piece, film producer David Puttnam reiterated a similar warning about News Corp to the one he gave Tony Blair; the Financial Times also called on Cable to investigate.
At the same time the BBC has found itself under scrutiny from the government. The corporation has attempted to assuage criticism by announcing the freezing of its licence fee. There has long been suspicion that Murdoch’s influence over politicians in turn makes them anxious to reign in the public service broadcaster.
Claims that “It was the Sun wot won it” in the 1992 election may be a little far-fetched, but there can be little doubt politicians are at least keen to keep News Corp on their side: Murdoch was once dubbed the “24th member of the cabinet”.
With this influence in mind, will there be the political will to scrutinise a Sky buyout? Taking on the Murdoch machine would mean risking some unfavourable coverage – not a good idea for a coalition government in the middle of an austerity programme.
Also, a vulnerable BBC makes it easier for News Corp to become an even more dominant player. The decision to freeze the licence fee may blunt the best weapon the BBC has to fight its own corner – producing successful programmes. Other media outlets would find it to tough to match News Corp’s financial muscle.
Murdoch’s media outlets – four newspapers, Sky and a slice of ITV – also give him a platform on which to influence the country’s political agenda. A quick look across the pond, where the US is moving toward midterm elections, shows a political agenda that has been seized by Fox News – a subsidiary of News Corp – and the Tea Party movement. Closer to home, Silvio Berlusconi’s domination of the Italian media has propelled him to become the country’s prime minister.
Whatever one thinks of Murdoch, it is hard to deny he is a canny operator. But whatever political influence he may have, the Sky buyout must not result in one owner gaining, or extending, decisive power over the UK's media.A failure to raise concerns now, be it with debate or royal commission, could mean we lose the chance to fight for a plurality of ownership – unless we fight for it by pressing the red button live, and in HD.
For years US comic Jon Stewart has been a popular voice of reason in American broadcasting - the face of the US media it's OK to like. He has done his bit to douse, through satire, the flames of extreme conservatism fanned by the right-wing media.
As such, the TV star has announced his "Rally To Restore Sanity" - a planned coming together of like-minded moderates (from both sides of the political divide), launched via his Comedy Central vehicle The Daily Show.
The event is planned for the National Mall in Washington DC on 30 October, 2010. And although attendees will be furnished with tongue-in-cheek placards, such as "I disagree with you but I'm pretty sure you're not Hitler" (a dig at US extremists who have likened President Obama to Hitler, with no apparent sense of irony regarding their own beliefs), it sounds as though Stewart is at least serious about encouraging people not to take things so seriously.
Speaking on The Daily Show, Stewart said:
"You may be asking yourself, but am I the right person to go to this rally? The fact that you would even stop to ask yourself that question, as opposed to just jumping up, grabbing the nearest stack of burnable holy books, strapping on a diaper and pointing your car towards DC – that means I think you just might be right for it."
There were clearly a lot of very strong feelings on show as thousands marched in London today to protest the Pope's visit to the UK, but see if you can spot the Father Ted fans in the crowd, with a 'Steady Now' placard (captured by the BBC, right) and a largely-obscured 'Down with this sort of thing' to the left. They reference the Channel 4 comedy's "Careful Now', 'Down With This Sort Of Thing' cinema protest.
According to Wikipedia there are around 1.27 billion Muslims in the world - approximately one fifth of the world's population. Now, treat with some caution statistics from Wikipedia, but even allowing for some variance it's definitely more than six people.
Still, best to err on the side of caution and blame the whole Muslim world for definitely trying to kill the Pope.
UPDATED (19.09.10): Surprise, surprise, the Mirror is now reporting this was just a poor taste joke, (overheard perhaps by an Express reader of a therefore understandably nervous disposition). The Express will have been aware of this risk to its typically scaremongering story, so knew it only had a very limited window of opportunity for its entirely unsubstantiated, almost certainly inaccurate story to have any effect:
It's incredible, not to mention very embarrassing, that this was yet another story played out almost entirely in the media's own imagination, against a back-drop of irrational public fears and prejudices stirred up by the same.
* To be fair, it is still a great Sun headline, and if somebody hadn't used it (...even The Independent included it in a pun-riddled piece) there would have needed to be an inquest.
There was a piece in Sunday's Observer from John Naughton arguing that "Good journalism will thrive, whatever the format". Have a read, it's a good piece and I wholeheartedly agree with Naughton's central idea:
"The implicit assumption... is that the only way for journalism to thrive is by squirting its inked output on to processed wood pulp. That was true once, but it isn't now. Print is just one way of publishing the fruits of journalists' labours; the web is another; iPhone apps are a third. And there may be more to come as the internet continues to work its disruptive magic. So any intelligent discussion about the future needs to make the distinction between a particular format (print) and the function (journalism)."
But Naughton illustrates his point with an anecdote which I believe to be counter to his own argument - that function must be the hero over format.
He quotes the editor of the New York Times Magazine saying:
"Contrary to conventional wisdom, it's our longest pieces that attract the most online traffic."
Could it really be so simple? Given "long" articles aren't labelled as such (though readers may note labels such as 'Feature' if navigating the publication's site) and length alone is never a reason to read anything it seems far likelier there are reasons beyond their length - such as their positioning and promotion - that play a more logical role in their attraction of readers.
But there is another factor at play in the success of longer articles.
Check out this article from the New York Times website for an example of how it publishes long-form journalism. A reason quickly emerges as to why longer pieces certainly generate, rather than attract more traffic. It is spread over six pages, where readers must navigate from one to the next.
The New York Times Magazine would be less quick to volunteer figures supporting this, but it is a fact of online publishing that long-form articles spread over multiple pages are a marathon that many entrants do not finish.
Of course that's the case in print too but now journalists online - if allowed to look behind the analytics curtain - can see that drop-off with their own eyes. And what's more they can see just how steep it can be.
Page breaks are put in to keep eyeballs up towards the business end of the website. There is an argument about an unbroken column of text being off-putting in itself for readers but the primary reason for splitting articles is commercial. The further 'beneath the fold' readers scroll the further they are from the ads. The more times a publisher makes the reader click, per article, the more times those ads get served.
Now - for argument's sake - let's say 30 per cent of readers decline to click 'Next page', after reading any part of page one. Following that, even if readers tail off at a rate of just 15 per cent per page - figures I'm assured are fairly conservative - that means for every 100,000 readers who start to read a five-page article online there will be just 45,230 who read it in its entirety.
However, the good news for publishers is that article which initially attracted 100,000 readers has actually generated 331,780 page impressions from those readers - including the 55% who didn't read the full article.
So while this model supports the claim that longer pieces get more traffic, returning to Naughton's initial argument I'm not sure it's one where the function, rather than the format, is the hero.
It jars of course that quality journalism could be supported by a business model based on the majority of readers not reading all of the content. But hasn't that always been the case?
The newspaper industry was predicated on a business model that accepted few people read any or all of every single page, yet presented absolute circulation figures to advertisers. The web has just moved this to the article level.
So this is where I am once again in agreement with Naughton. In both instances quality journalism can find a way, I'm just not convinced we can discount the impact of the model or the platform.
Did you see this story from the Daily Mail towards the end of last week?
Of course, Daily Mail pieces bemoaning change and technology are nothing new but the tone appears to be getting discernibly more insulting, more personal, in recent weeks. Previously we've seen pieces about Facebook causing cancer, for example, but now the headlines are more aggressively mocking, insulting the consumers (who may have delighted in its own very public LOL-fest earlier this year) rather than attempting merely to undermine the technology they use. You'll remember this from earlier in the summer where the headline follows a similar format:
An interesting point to note is that both of the above articles received high numbers of reader comments; a key indication in terms of website 'stickiness' and returning traffic. Many were at odds with the central claims of the article but that's hardly surprising.
What's more both stories got around three times the number posted on the story about Facebook giving people cancer (from February 2009) - arguably a more ridiculous story, equally open to criticism but lacking the tone of personal insult that readers may feel an even greater need to respond to. This seems to be the element of such stories that the Daily Mail is now refining.
Of course the suspicion that the Daily Mail is deliberately courting outrage is nothing new but what we're really starting to see now are the numbers which support its approach.
Since the 21% hike in website traffic which followed the Twitterstorm over Jan Moir's comments last year about Stephen Gately it would be very difficult for any under-pressure editor - and surely there isn't any other kind nowadays - to ignore the sheer numbers of modern outrage and it seems this evolving tone from the Mail is little more than the paper's highly successful commercialisation of flame-bait.
You might argue a national newspaper should put its credibility ahead of such tactics. But the Mail has several million reasons not to care. The path it has chosen is proving very successful currently.
Last month the Daily Mail recorded 44.2 million unique users - putting it 10 million online readers ahead of nearest competitor The Guardian. Year-on-year the Mail has grown its online readership by a staggering 43% and the newspaper of middle England now draws two-thirds of its online readership from overseas.
There is a lot more to the Mail's success of course than baiting angry social networks and Apple fan-boys. There is actually a fine-tuned approach to SEO that belies the paper's Luddite stance. Not to mention the courting of those looking for candid upskirt and down blouse photos and celebrity gossip.
But all such tactics are indicative of a paper which has very successfully acknowledged that its online readership can be entirely different from its traditional newspaper readership and it really doesn't seem to care 1) where that traffic comes from, 2) why they come, and 3) whether they hate the content when they get there... as long as they read it and post a few reader comments about it.
It could be said the Mail's philosophy is the anti-paywall, an open-house of cheap commodity, outrage, search-engine friendly keywords (how many 'Daily Mail readers' know who Kim Kardashian is?) and flame-bait directed very deliberately at communities of people who would never pay to read its content.
Here's a picture of George Osborne from the Mail Online (and it's still there as I write this so go and check it out!) Can you see anything odd about it?
Here's a closer look.
PS On the version on the mail site, there is an "enlarge" button at the bottom right.
World Exclusive says the Mirror: "Wayne Rooney cheats on pregnant wife Coleen with £1k-a-night prostitute".
Exclusive says the News of the World: "Cheating Wayne Rooney beds hooker: £1,200 romps while Coleen was pregnant".
So who got it first? Well even though the News of the World has a video of Jenny / Jennifer Thompson, and its site decided to go down under the weight of the traffic, Google News is calling it for the Mirror - having found its story an hour before the News of the World's.
Personally, I just want to know what Holy Moly is getting at here about South African prozzies. More revelations to come?
You commit a few war crimes and some people simply won't let it go. Spotted in Waterstone's book shop, Covent Garden:
UPDATED: In fact it seems there are many shelves on which Blair's book sits quite convincingly, including this gem - a New Labour double-whammy - captured at Bristol Airport and shared by Media Blog reader @hayjane:
If you were Andy Coulson, Downing Street's director of communications, facing the prospect of fresh phone-hacking allegations relating to your time as News Of The World editor and renewed calls for you to be sacked from your high powered job, what would you do to lessen the impact and coverage of the story?
a) Tip off and brief the press about BBC Director General Mark Thompson visiting Downing Street to discuss the broadcaster's coverage of government policy, thus sparking a fresh media storm?
b) Stage a hastily arranged photoshoot for the media to snap the Cameron's new baby and push exclusive photos out on Twitter?
c) Both of the above.
d) None of the above.
No, we're not sure either. Probably d) right?