Monthly Archives: September 2008

From the FT.com newsroom

This is not quite live from the FT.com newsroom – I’m writing this a day later, but I did upload some photos during the trip.

Conference roomYesterday I attended a “bloggers event” at the The Financial Times, arranged by Ben and Drew from Hotwire PR. My friend and (now former) colleague Roo Reynolds had been to the previous one of these, so I was curious to find out what the FT would have to say to a second group of bloggers. Others in attendance were Alan Patrick, Adam Tinworth, Joanna Geary, Patrick Smith and Dominique Jackson; the FT.com team included James Montgomery (editor), Stacy-Marie Ishmael (Alphaville), Kate Mackenzie (Interactive Web Editor), Tim Bradshaw (Digital Media Editor) and Tom Glover (Deputy Director of Communications).

James MontgomeryIt does seem as though we covered similar ground to the last set of visitors. I say that without wanting to be unkind to our hosts… in all honesty I’ve not been an FT reader, so it was obviously worthwhile learning about the basics of the FT.com business model; and clearly we hadn’t heard the information before, so it was all useful background. James Montgomery kicked things off by talking a bit about the model that the FT.com is driving – trying to find a balance between subscription and free content. After that, the discussion widened out to cover a variety of topics, from their expansion into video, the reader and commenter demographics, the FT Alphaville site, microblogging and other social media, and some of the future technology plans.

The business model itself is a little different. Rather than an all-or-nothing free vs. subscription approach, anyone can read 5 articles on the FT.com site without any need to sign up. This makes the site search engine and blog link-friendly, and enables casual viewers a degree of access. After that you have to register, and can read up to 30 articles per month; beyond that, you should be subscribing, as the likelihood is that you are more seriously interested in the content. James sees the key plays here as the content, brand, expertise and accuracy of The Financial Times, and also pointed out that this model produced a certain quality of audience too. It would appear to be working – I note that the previous bloggers who visited were given a number of c. 450,000 registrations since October, and yesterday the number quoted was in the region of 600,000, so clearly there is some growth happening.

Newsroom

I’d never visited a newsroom before, so it was interesting to observe the setup. It’s big, and the team is obviously also distributed around the world, which resonated with me given that my employer is also a global organisation with people needing to collaborate across timezones.

Back to the social media stuff. The underlying technology is WordPress, although they are currently using two separate platforms for the main site and for Alphaville. Right now that means that the core search indexes are separate, but this will change in the future.

We talked a little about the expansion into video content, with around 150 items now being generated per month “we don’t want the website to be just an online newspaper”. This has produced some new challenges editorially as new skills are needed. I noted that the video production team in the newsroom somewhat unsurprisingly appeared to be using Macs 🙂

The discussion and feedback aspects of the site were covered at some length. I’ve observed that many journalists tend to view blogs as a means to post, but not to converse (the BBC blogs being a frequent example where a journo will post an entry, but not respond to reader comments). The FT are keen to find ways to engage “the wisdom of smart crowds” but there are challenges in their market where readers often have the inside scoop on a story and are therefore unable to comment. It was interesting and pleasing to hear that the journalists are generally aware of the need to respond. It was a surprise that it is not necessary to register to comment on the main FT.com site (although Alphaville does require registration) and the community is generally self-policing, with only very lightweight moderation required.

I’ve been taking a particular interest in microblogging lately. It’s surely a sign of the times that the first thing that we bloggers did was to exchange Twitter IDs… Joanna proceeded to Twitter from the event far more quickly and in more detail than I managed (this is probably a comment on the iPhone too… I just couldn’t type as fast or accurately enough to keep up). A couple of interesting angles came out. Firstly, the FT.com lists a set of Twitter feeds on their website, and I’m not aware of other newspapers doing this – quite progressive, but at the same time somewhat dependent on the success / stability of Twitter itself. We also talked about whether people reply to the feeds or whether anyone monitors the interwebs for references to the FT – obviously this would be a major undertaking, and the view was that people tend to view media feeds on Twitter as a way to consume the news, rather than to communicate with the newspaper. I also wondered whether the team had found microblogging to be a useful way of communicating internally… given the privacy constraints that they might be expected to operate under… several of us opined that a solution like Yammer was “never going to work” for internal communications, and the FT team currently exchange a lot of email and use Skype rather than having an internal social software platform.

Tools of the trade I had my iPhone with me but the lack of free wireless meant that I was mostly taking notes with pen and paper… (tenuous photo tie-in!). I’m curious as to the mobile strategy. On visiting the main FT.com site before going for the event yesterday, I couldn’t see a way of getting a view optimised for my iPhone, although I’m told that there is a mobile version. Alphaville does have some automatic optimisation for mobile, and I’m told that there is a (Java?) mobile application for some phones too… I guess as platforms like Android emerge, there may be more interest in developing this side of things (I note that Bloomberg makes an iPhone app available for free… but would the FT do the same?).  I guess the choice of video technology will become interesting here, too, since not all mobile devices can show Flash, WMV or whatever.

An interesting afternoon, and it was lovely to be invited. Delighted to meet the other bloggers, too. I’ll be following the evolution of FT.com to see where it all goes next.

Coverage from others:

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Photos I’m particularly happy with

St Paul's and the PierProhibitedGraffiti shadows

Taken whilst in London for the Thames Festival a couple of weeks ago.

Filtering photos from a feed

I sometimes use my Tumblelog to post the odd photo from my iPhone. Generally I don’t want to post iPhone images to Flickr (typically these are spur-of-the-moment snapshots and low quality). There are actually two very nice free apps for the iPhone that let me post directly to Tumblr (called, imaginatively, Tumble and TheTumbler – I’m still trying to decide which one I prefer).

The problem is that I also feed my blog titles and my del.icio.us links to Tumblr, and my Flickr images, and sometimes I will also post a text note there too. Tumblr does not provide feeds on a per-item-type basis, it only gives an aggregated feed containing all the stuff you’ve uploaded there, or pulled in from other sources. Plus, if you then add that to FriendFeed, you get duplicates, even though FF can now work that out to some extent and roll them up into single entries.

Anyway… I put together a quick Yahoo Pipe which filters just the photos that were uploaded directly to Tumblr (ignoring Flickr images, for example). Feel free to clone and re-use, you can just enter your own Tumblr feed URL in the entry box at the top.

Update: well, shoot. It doesn’t ignore the Flickr images at all, does it? Gah. Apparently they are imported to Tumblr as images… which makes me suspect that even when I remove photos from Flickr they will stay on Tumblr. How annoying. And the more I look at the way that the Tumblr feed is constructed, the more I don’t like it at all.

iPhones, iPods, headphones

Although Steve Jobs described the iPhone as the “best iPod [Apple] ever made” back in January 2007, I have to say I’m not sure.

I previously owned a 2nd generation nano, and loved it. Light, easy to use… OK the screen was tiny and the capacity was limited, but it did the job.

The iPhone has that nice big screen with video playback going for it, and now it also has the new (and very, very cool) Genius playlist feature. Just a small number of issues, then…

  1. No search? the 2G nano had search! Am I missing something?
  2. No ability to read the notes for podcasts. On the nano I could press the button to cycle through time / cover art / lyrics or info display, and on the iPhone I get lyrics or the “back” of the album cover. Nothing useful for podcasts.
  3. The time slider is way too difficult to control with a finger. On a longer podcast, say over an hour, skipping over a minute or two of the duration is almost impossible. The click wheel definitely wins there.
  4. Finally, and most annoyingly: no external skip / pause control. I have to take the phone out of my pocket, potentially unlock the screen, and then skip to the next track. Really not the best idea when travelling on the London Underground (“that’s right folks, I have a 3G iPhone, please mug me at the next station”).
    OK – time for a confession here. I never unpacked the iPhone headphones until last week. I didn’t realise that they have a mic on the wire with a click switch which gives the forward/back/pause control. Why? Because I’m so used to the poor audio quality of the Apple earbuds that I switched to Shure ones several months ago and I’ve been using them since. So it seems to me that what is needed is some kind of cable which can fit in between third-party headphones and the iPhone’s headphone socket with an external switch on them.

I think the iPhone is an awesome device, but for me, it just isn’t the best iPod I’ve ever had.

Dogear Nation housekeeping

My friend Michael Rowe dropped me a line last week to ask if I’d be able to help with a spot of website maintenance around the Dogear Nation website. It has been a while since I’ve had to do much in the way of fiddling with website backends – WordPress.com does all of that for me, really – so I flexed my fingers and thought I’d give it a shot. Here are some notes on what I had to go through.

I needed to update the blog from an older version of WordPress to the latest 2.6.x release. The first stumbling block I encountered was a lack of shell access to the hosting service… instead they offer a web console based on cPanel. This system is actually OK, once you get use to how it all works, although everything would have been far faster at the command line. The web interface offers a level of “automated” application installation through something called Fantastico, which showed me that an upgrade to a newer (but not the newest) version of WordPress could be done automatically… but that I’d potentially lose any customisations and plugins.

Being a podcast, Dogear Nation does use some plugins to extend the basic WordPress experience. In particular it uses podPress. I thought I’d research whether this would cause me any issues if I upgraded, and sure enough it turns out that podPress doesn’t currently work with WordPress 2.6.x and that the plugin author hasn’t been able to release a fixed version yet. Luckily there’s a workaround which involves disabling the new feature in WP 2.6 which clashes with it – a simple switch in the wp-config.php file.

I wanted to check that the workaround plus the upgrade wouldn’t hurt the site, and fortunately there was another instance of WordPress available on the box… but I didn’t have an admin ID. I did have access to the WP MySQL database for that instance though, so I was able to hack myself an administrator ID through a couple of SQL INSERTs into the appropriate tables. Once I’d done that, I disabled the plugins, switched off the revisions stuff in wp-config.php, deleted the older 2.x.x files and replaced them with those from WP 2.6.2 – and things seemed to work, once I’d re-enabled plugins. Since that was a success, I then went ahead and applied the change across the site.

The only thing was that Fantastico continued to think that an older version was installed, so I had to modify an additional file in the install (fantversion.php) to reflect the updated WordPress level… which has now resulted in the system informing me that any further upgrades must be manual. WordPress makes upgrades so easy, I’m really not too scared by that.

While I was at it, I thought I’d make a few more cosmetic changes:

Dogear Nation iPhone screenshot

Dogear Nation iPhone screenshot

  • the site now has a favicon
  • the site now has a Web Clip icon, so if you add a link to the home screen of an iPhone or iPod Touch, a nice Dogear Nation logo shows up. This is a simple case of putting a file called apple-touch-icon.png in the top-level directory.
  • talking of iPhones… I’ve installed the very excellent iWPhone plugin, which means that the content is now optimised for Mobile Safari, whilst still working as before in desktop browsers.
  • the links in the sidebar now point to various other places where tags can be created (as well as the traditional del.icio.us)
  • I’ve locked off a few files that shouldn’t have been accessible, tweaked robots.txt, fixed some typos, updated the podcast description in iTunes, set the home page to show the last 10 posts … basically I’ve done a bit of tidying 🙂

An interesting exercise, and hopefully the results are good. As an occasional contributor to the show, and a regular listener, do let me know if you have ideas that might be useful – happy to have a look at implementing additional improvements if the audience demands it!