Contributing to ‘100 Years of Music at UCD, a Centenary Festschrift’


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The School of Music in UCD (formerly the Department of Music) is currently marking an important milestone — its centenary. To commemorate this it recently published a festschrift (or celebration) of the past 100 years. It asked some of its staff members and students, both past and present, to contribute essays and I’m honoured to have written one of the 20 essays in the volume. Here’s an edited version of that essay:

It was an early Monday in May 2000 when I stepped off the lift onto the third floor of Newman Building’s J block in UCD, through the double fire-doors into the then Department of Music to await my entrance interview. Seated in a windowed room at the end of a long corridor I remember looking outside at the flowering cherry blossom trees below that were swiftly turning to confetti in an attempt to steady my nerves.

For me, as I am sure is the case for countless others, I wanted to go to university to study something that I loved. That day, after I completed my BMus entrance interview, I knew, if I successfully made it through the process, the first thing I’d do after finding my feet in the Department of Music was locate the offices of the college newspapers. I’d already identified journalism as my future career, but in May 2000 still aged 17 I knew all I wanted to do for four years was study music.

Almost every week there is a new story in the Irish media about the types of university courses students should be taking in order to be prepared for the precarious and ever-changing economy that awaits them upon graduation. The mainstream narrative around Irish universities has transitioned away from them being centres of critical thinking and has instead shifted to them being production-line training facilities, there to provide a stream of graduates to fill the jobs ‘created’ in the announcements that grace the evening news bulletins.

I was in UCD during a period when the Celtic Tiger was really finding its feet, but I also had vivid memories of the more depressed days of the 1980s and 1990s when unemployment and emigration were as prevalent as they are now. I was seeking an experience that balanced critical thinking and analysis with skills that would help me to find employment and even more crucially help make me a successful and capable individual. One who could not only competently follow other people’s instructions and ideas but also have my own.

A four-year music degree isn’t all keyboard harmony and Schenkerian analysis, and looking back at some of the activities I engaged with or initiated one could easily say that the Department of Music, now School, displayed all the qualities of the plucky, nimble and lean start-ups we hear so much about these days even if the school itself is well past its own start-up days.

Perhaps one of the best examples of this is The Musicology Review, a peer reviewed journal with essays and reviews from undergraduates, graduates and staff, which, together with fellow undergraduate Úna-Frances Clarke, I set about convincing the School of Music to publish. The pitch to the then Head of Department Professor Harry White in his office was one of the first of many pitches I have done throughout my career. I learned lessons that day that helped me in pitches I’ve made in more recent years to company boards, venture capitalists and other investors. What I liked about the pitch to Professor White is that we went in not only with a clearly thought-out academic proposal but a simple revenue model, which meant the publication would not be reliant on funding from the Department of Music itself.

We begged, borrowed and at one point temporarily relocated computers from The College Tribune’s office to my mother’s kitchen table for a weekend to design the Review. Although we encountered things we didn’t originally anticipate in that pitch in Professor White’s office the inaugural edition was published and it has come out every year ever since.

Thanks to the peer review committee of Dr Wolfgang Marx and Dr Julian Horton, the contributions from undergraduate and graduate students, the 15 patrons who subscribed, thereby financially backing the project, and Professor Harry White’s unwavering support, the 180-page 2004-2005 edition of The Musicology Review emerged with nine academic articles on subjects as diverse as ‘The Heroism and Reification of Dmitri Shostakovich’ and  ‘Strategies of Vocal Composition in Schubert’s Winterreise’.

When I reflect on my four years, what I value the most was the Department’s commitment to all of its students no matter what their chosen path was after graduation. I was very open from early on in my studies that I wasn’t going to pursue music in a full-time capacity after my undergraduate qualification. I found my choices supported and encouraged despite my graduate school goal being more professional than academic. The BMus programme helped me to become an analytical thinker, a competent communicator and an able collaborator.

The full version of this essay is available in ‘100 Years of Music at UCD 1914-2014, A Centenary Festschrift’, which has been edited by Dr Wolfgang Marx and published by the UCD School of Music. 

A quick thought on: “Readers, reporters, editors: you are in the digital zone”

The Irish Times

To start with, I commend The Irish Times and Hugh Linehan for bringing this debate into the mainstream and putting it before the audience, too often these discussions are confined to industry conferences and publications. That said, at some point we need to stop reminiscing for a time that’s gone and simply won’t come back, make the necessary and smartest changes possible and move ahead. We have to accept that many newspapers and media organisations will not persist into this new era. They have, and will continue to fall victim to this process of change and disruption.

I’d like to add a few comments on a few of the points that Linehan has articulated.

Linehan writes that:

“Even the New York Times, it seems, despite its digital talk, is having difficulties walking the digital walk, with online journalists still often regarded as second-class citizens and print continuing as the dominant force.”

What this misses is that the digital revenue of the New York Times is in the region of $300m per annum, which would cover the existing newsroom of 1300 journalists and associated costs with or without the printed newspaper.  The problem the New York Times has is not that it cannot finance a significant and impressive news organisation from digital revenues, and potentially make a small profit, but that the decline of print means that it will be forgoing another $1.1bn in revenue and it does not wish to do this yet (who would!). Crucially though that’s a business issue not a journalism or a financing of journalism issue as it is so often represented as. Other newspapers with less status may struggle to achieve the kind of results the New York Times has but that doesn’t mean that you cannot finance impressive journalism through digital revenue.


“Too often in the past, media organisations treated their digital publishing operations as an offshoot or an afterthought, shovelling newspaper articles online in an unsatisfactory manner, bolting a “breaking news” operation on to the side, and ignoring the fact that this was a different medium for a different audience with different requirements.”

I’d contend that this practice is by no means in the past, especially in Ireland. Look at many legacy Irish media organisation’s desktop and mobile output any day of the week and a user will find content that has been duplicated or at best repurposed for a digital audience with little consideration of how a user is consuming it. Unfortunately for many journalists, even a younger generation of Irish journalists, the print byline or TV report has much more allure than something web first.

“Let’s start the conversation” may sound like a nice slogan at a marketing meeting, but can be a profound ethical and intellectual challenge for journalists and editors if they are to take it seriously. The logic of accountability and transparency inherent in digital discourse should in theory sit well with journalistic principles; that this is not always the case is telling.”

Nobody in Facebook , Twitter  etc is worrying about the “profound ethical and intellectual challenge” of working with its audiences and enabling community. Conversation, UGC and community are not optional for media organisations they are necessities and ones that should be embraced wholeheartedly and enthusiastically. Why are media organisation so focussed on the challenge rather than the opportunity? Why are they calling their audiences a challenge, and after doing that why would they expect their audience to engage with them? The web facilitates conversation, UGC and community everywhere if the audience can’t participate in some way on a media website they will simply do so elsewhere.

Again, it’s great to see this debate surface properly in the Irish media world but I would caution about too much open navel gazing. Place your attention on the user and their experience. The biggest battle journalism is facing is for the users’ attention, the more of that we hold the easier it will be to solve the other issues. Make compelling content, integrate your audience into what you do and be willing to change and change fast.

Photo: JrGMontero/Flickr

 

In charts: New report for CIRCOM Regional on social media and community in regional European broadcasters

Over the past few months I’ve been researching a report for CIRCOM Regional, the association of regional public service broadcasters in Europe. It has just been published at CIRCOM’s Annual Conference, held this year in Croatia. The report, all 93 pages of it, examines the social media and online community activities of 39 regional stations across 31 different countries, from the perspective of the user.

It has been a fascinating piece of research to carry out and shows that stations across the continent are using social media and interacting with their audience in quite different ways. You can read the report in full on the CIRCOM Regional website. Here are a few charts that show the broad picture of regional station’s engagement with the key social platforms:

Twitter

Twitter-Regional

 

Twitter-time-frame

{Above: Year regional stations joined Twitter}

Facebook

Facebook

Facebook Join
{Above: Year regional stations joined Facebook}

YouTube

YouTube


YouTube join
{Above: Year regional stations joined YouTube}

Instagram

Instagram join
{Above: Year stations joined Instagram}

Instagram type{Above: Type of activity from regional stations on YouTube}

Interactions and user generated content

interactions

Interactions type

{Above: Types of interactions}

There’s a lot in the report, it looks at trends across the region as well as briefly examining each station. It has been a most enlightening exercise for me and I believe a relevant document for anyone with an involvement, or interest, in broadcasting, regional or otherwise, in Europe right now. Full report available here.

Smartphones have liberated video from the constraints of TV but are media companies responding?

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Are media organisations thinking about video on smartphones the same way as users are? Perhaps not. In many cases, especially with broadcasters, there is still an assumption that what works for television works for video.

Before smartphones, video on the web was shaped by where that video originated — it was usually made for television, then YouTube (on desktop and laptop), which shared the same 16:9 aspect ratio. For the user, things changed, but they didn’t change that much. Users interacted with these screens in much the same way as they did TV screens. But that’s changed with smartphones — users have to turn the orientation from vertical to horizontal in order to best consume 16:9 video.

Meanwhile, media organisations encouraging UGC urge users who create video to turn phones on their sides when shooting. We’ve even had a vertical video PSA, which satirised the practice. Video shot with the phone held vertically looks terrible in a 16:9 video player or on TV. However many people like to shoot and consume video this way. A week ago there was a segment on a prominent television programme in Ireland that highlighted this for me. Viewers were asked to send videos to the programme and out of the seven that were shown on television only two were shot with the phone held horizontally. A lot of users create video vertically. That’s a reality and some companies have responded.

Instagram, Vine and recent entrants like Steller work for vertical. Instagram and Vine’s square aspect ratio means users can shoot in the app either horizontally or vertically. Naturally, with a square aspect ratio, shooting a video vertically does not produce a video framed by a black rectangle on either side, as a 16:9 orientated app or video player would. Steller has gone a step further — the antithesis of TV and YouTube — it fully embraces vertical creating a seamless text-photo-video storytelling experience for the smartphone user who holds their phone vertically.

I like Instagram and especially what people are doing with video there and although it’s early days I also like what Steller is doing. These platforms suit my user behaviour. I use my phone holding it vertically in my right hand using my thumb to scroll. The majority of right-handed people use their phones exactly like this most of the time. Apps are generally built with this use case in mind. One of the only reasons for me to shift my screen’s orientation is to watch or shoot a 16:9 video. Outside of apps, responsive design works on mobile for text but it doesn’t really work for video — it scales the video but it doesn’t change the original aspect ratio.

Video for smartphones potentially needs to be treated differently. It’s the only platform where vertical or square might be a better choice than the 16:9 ratio. Users should always be at the core of our decision making. Until touchscreen interfaces become a less important part of mobile, I think square and vertical are here to stay and we need to respond to it.

Originally posted on Medium, 3 April 2014

Snapchat and storytelling

I was at the BBC College of Journalism in Bristol recently where I was participating in a CIRCOM Training the Trainers course. As part of it I had to deliver a complete training session to a group of 11 people who work in media organisations across Europe, the challenge … it had to be done in 30 minutes. In the past I’ve trained people mostly in social media and web publishing and for people with limited skills in these areas you need more than 30 minutes to get up and running on most platforms.

It’s a good challenge to see what skills you can transfer in just 30 minutes. I decided to train the group on Snapchat Stories. For the unfamiliar, Snapchat is a photo messaging app especially popular with people under 23 years of age. Users send each other ‘snaps’ (photos or short video clips) either to one or multiple recipients. The photo or video clip can only be viewed for ten seconds or under, the duration is set by the sender, before it is deleted both from the recipient’s phone and Snapchat’s servers. Where it gets interesting for media companies is Snapchat Stories, introduced late last year. I wrote about it in my review of 2013 and suggested it and other messaging services are going to be a growth area for media orgs. Snapchat stories stay on the platform for 24 hours and they’re visible to everyone following you. Each new snap you add to your story is included in the sequence of snaps that followers see.

By the end of the 30-minute training session, working in groups everyone had learned about Snapchat, they were on the platform and had uploaded a snap. It’s such a straightforward platform. Moreover, after showing them some of the ways it’s currently being used (NowThisNews, Washington Post Politics, Mashable etc), the group were thinking about Snapchat as a really interesting storytelling platform even for hard news.

In particular, I love what NowThisNews is doing with Snapchat (in general, NowThisNews, which is focused on storytelling, does interesting things with platforms, especially Instagram). Here’s NowThisNews’ Snapchat Stories output for 24 hours:

Snapchat-Blog-image.001

It was the day after the Oscars, so naturally there is a lot of Oscar-related coverage. The entire sequence is 40 seconds long and aside from the Oscars (and Oscar-related news) it covers six other stories: a 65-foot crack in a Washington dam, the ongoing cold weather in the North East, the death of a US Marine Corps pilot in Nevada, a Gold Fix study on bank manipulation, Google’s plans to give free bus passes to San Francisco kids and a deal that enable LGBT groups being allowed to march in the Boston St Patrick’s Day parade. It’s the news, but delivered like Perez Hilton had a hand in it.

There are drawbacks. You have to work for every Snapchat-er, this is not a viral platform. Also, if you’re not creating your Snapchat using the platform itself you’ll have a problem with screen sizes. I’ve screengrabbed the above images from an iPhone 4s, but I’d say they were made with a 5 (or larger screen) in mind.

The most important thing with Snapchat is not to treat it as a lesser platform. It would be easy for news organisations to treat it more casually than some of their other channels, but NowThisNews and others have set the current benchmark for Snapchat as a storytelling platform. There is a lot more news organisations can do with the messaging app,  especially if Snapchat enables users to create Stories with other tools or makes more complex tools available for news orgs and brands. There are also opportunities  around audience-created content.

In some ways this type of storytelling reminds me of scanning the headlines and photographs in a newspaper, I think we underestimated how much news we ‘absorbed’ scanning across a page. Snapchat is quite passive, all the user needs to do is hold a finger on the screen and watch, but unlike scanning a paper it’s a mobile messaging platform and it feels a lot more personal.

If you’re on Snapchat, add me, username:  blathnaidh

Quick thought: Don’t forget UGC is not just for extreme weather

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With the recent spate of extreme weather in the US, UK and Ireland, User Generated Content has featured everywhere and there have been some amazing captures. There’s nothing new about this, everytime we experience a bad bout of weather news organisations go into overdrive seeking out content from their communities.

Although a lot of news organisations are working with their communities all the time, reaching out, curating, collaborating and encouraging them to contribute content, many are still only using UGC sporadically.

Good UGC practice is not about having an upload function built into an app, setting up a dedicated email address or using social channels to gather content it is centred on good community management. Imagine what your community might contribute if you worked with them all the time.

Image credit: David Thompson/Flickr 

From IPO to email: Reflections on social, community and content in 2013

I gave a guest lecture earlier this week in DCU to final year and masters’ multimedia students . For the lecture, I decided to take a look back over 2013 and pick out some of the key things that happened in social, community and content and how they have affected, or might affect, media companies. Thought I’d share some of them here also:

Video-slide-edit
2013 was another huge year for video. Media companies with any sense made it a large part of their strategies. I could easily write a half-dozen posts just on video and the major developments, but here I’m only going to talk about the trend towards shorter videos.

Vine was introduced to iOS users in January with an upward limit of six seconds. Its simple format uncomplicated video, making it easy to shoot and even easier to upload. Soon after it launched, media organisations started to try it out as a distribution platform. One company that has been using it well is Ireland’s RTÉ, which has been leveraging the platform to showcase its archives. Archive material can be inaccessible but using Vine brings it to a new audience. Here’s an example: buying the Christmas turkey in Ireland, 1964. A month after its iOS launch Vine was used to cover a news event when reporter Tulin Daloglu used it after the bombing of the US embassy in Ankara, Turkey. In many senses Vine was just the catalyst as it was Instagram that took the ball and really ran with it.

In June, Instagram added video to its product, enabling users to create clips of up to 15 seconds. Smartly, Instagram allowed users to upload videos shot outside the confines of the app, which meant media organisations could edit and produce content before uploading. I really like what mobile news start-up NowThis News has done with Instagram as a distribution platform in recent months. Here are a few examples: Syria, the UN and chemical weapons, ice rink opening in Tehran, photos of winter storm Dion from the community.

On the news gathering side, Storyful’s Malachy Browne recently wrote a good blogpost on Instagram as a source of news video, it’s worth a read.

slide2-IPO
We really began to experience the impact of Facebook’s 2012 IPO this year. A week didn’t go by without a new headline about a possible or confirmed change to the social networking site’s ad platform or its News Feed (this week it was auto play videos in the News Feed). Facebook is clearly pushing hard to generate revenues and keep investors happy. A lot of page managers had anecdotally talked about organic post reach falling, but Ad Ages’s story earlier this month seems to have confirmed this. This change certainly affects brands marketing products, but it is likely to also have an impact on news sites that built large audience numbers on their Facebook pages (often spending to do so) as a way to drive traffic to their sites. Facebook wants pages owners to pay to reach the audiences they have built. This is definitely something to watch in 2014 as Facebook continues its experiments with the News Feed.

2013 brought Twitter’s IPO. Like Facebook, we’ve been hearing a lot about changes to Twitter’s ad platform with users receiving emails every week encouraging them to advertise to build audience. It’s early day yet, but it’s inevitable that the public nature of the company will mean an increased focus on revenue-driving measures in 2014, which will have knock-on effects on users, brands and media.

It is worth noting that both platforms invested in reaching out to big media companies this year.

Slide3-social
Content created with social in mind (like Buzzfeed, Upworthy, Distractify, ViralNova) boomed in 2013. Upworthy, which launched in 2012, had a huge impact this year. According to Newswhip, which analyses and ranks publishers in terms of social sharing, Upworthy didn’t feature in the top 40 social sharing websites in 2012, but by 2013 this year it had charged into the number 5 spot above The New York Times, the Daily Mail and the Guardian. It’s a feat that is even more interesting when you consider that, on average, Upworthy only publishes 250 stories a month, substantially less than its social-sharing-focused competitors. There are some good practices within Upworthy – most notably that staff members write 25 headlines for each piece of content they post (good explainer on this here). I also think its tagline is so simple: ‘Things that matter. Pass ‘em on.’ In just six words Upworthy tells users what it is and what it would like users to do. I’m not sure exactly how long the Upworthy formula can sustain but we’ll continue to keep an eye on it.

Buzzfeed’s announcement that its partner sites received a huge boost in referral traffic from Facebook is significant. Traffic from Facebook referrals to Buzzfeed’s 200 partner network sites are up 69% from August to October of this year. Facebook is placing a premium on, and rewarding content that is entertaining, funny and valuable.

There are some drawbacks, of course, to this. Firstly, let’s not forget what happened with content farm Demand Media, which is now valued at a quarter of its peak value. Demand Media created content to appear in multi-word searches. However, Google’s shift in its algorithms made content from websites like Demand Media’s a lower priority, drastically reducing traffic to its site. I think it’s a cautionary tale for sites that hitch their wagons to platforms like Facebook relying on them for almost all their traffic. Bryan Goldberg wrote an interesting piece on why viral content is a bad business model, it’s a must read.

With Facebook’s algorithms placing an emphasis on content created for a social audience it’s likely going to lead to smaller markets becoming even more competitive and it will become more challenging for straight news sites to get traction on these platforms.

slide4-email

Email newsletters have, of course, been around for a very long time, but for a lot of news organisations they were farmed out to someone very junior to write or pulled direct from the RSS feed. I don’t know why organisations bother sending these mails, they are so ineffective.

However this year there have been some changes to the once humble email newsletter with the likes of Quartz, Circa and recently-launched Ampp3d leading the charge. This is mostly for two reasons they’re writing emails with mobile users in mind and secondly the mails sound like they’ve been written by a human (a simple thing really, but how many email newsletters do you get that feel like they’ve been written with you in mind?).

Quartz sends its email in the morning (it has three regions for users to select from), emails are around 800 words long and are perfect for a commuter, containing links not only to Quartz stories, but other links to stories on other sites that people should watch for, things that happened while readers were sleeping, matters for debate, Quartz’s obsession interlude and surprising discoveries. I also like that the emails tell me to have a productive day – it’s a nice sign-off for a business-focused website. The email is good set-up, digest for the day and one that is clearly worth reading. A recent column from the Monday Note shared an insight that Quartz’s daily mail goes through four people, including two editors, before it is sent.

Circa sends only one email a week on a Friday evening with a pick of its stories curated from the week. The most important point about the Circa mail is that it’s designed (like everything Circa does) with mobile in mind. Ampp3d, the new data-driven spin-out from the Trinity Mirror group, also has a very nice email, it’s probably the most ‘human’ of the three examples.

slide5-collaboration

Organisations and their audiences have been working collaboratively now for some time. User generated content projects from the BBC and CNN are seven/eight years old. However, I think this year we saw some interesting steps towards proper collaboration between news orgs and audience.

In particular, I think Storyful’s Open Newsroom project is a great example of collaboration between a news org and the wider community. There are more than 460 confirmed members so far. Anyone can watch the process, but only verified members can contribute – thus keeping it open but reducing excessive noise and confusion. In August, the Open Newsroom played a key role helping Storyful to verify videos emerging from fresh protests taking place in Cairo. This project has shown great potential for how organised collaboration can produce really good results, especially considering the other conversations we have had this year and the backlash that happened following the Boston Bombings.

I thought BBC News Director James Harding’s remarks earlier this month were interesting and telling about where big news orgs are at when it comes to audience: ‘When we talk about “our stories”, I hope that will mean not just the work of the 8,000 people who work for the BBC, but the information and ideas of the 300 million people who use it.’

Hopefully 2014 will prove to be a more collaborative year.

Slide6-Private

Finally, for this post, I’d like to talk about the growing importance of private. Of course when I talk about private I mean privacy in a non-private sphere. Most people will have noticed the trend of teenagers and people in their early 20s making their Twitter and Instagram accounts private – some even deactivating their Facebook accounts for short periods to avoid being tagged in photos or checked in to a location. The rising popularity of photo messaging service Snapchat with its 350m photo messages a day has lit a fire under both Twitter and Instagram (don’t forget Facebook offered $3bn to acquire Snapchat, which it turned down) with both announcing significant changes to their platforms to include a private photo messaging element in the last few weeks. Twitter users can now send photos in direct messages, while Instagram offers its users the option to send photos to one follower or a small group of up to 15 people.

News orgs (and brands) are already trying to find their feet in this new environment. I’ve started to receive Snapchat messages from Ampp3d in the last week. It’s early days but it’s definitely a space to be experimenting in! When it comes to private vs open I don’t think it’s a competition – we’re always transitioning and this is another part of the transition both are going to be a part of our lives in 2014, that’s for sure.

*****

This is not a definitive list of the major things that happened this year, but it’s my reflection on some of the interesting changes, events and trends. I think we’re heading into somewhat uncertain waters with Facebook and also with Twitter. However, that said, there are lots of opportunities ahead for 2014. It’s shaping up to be another interesting one.

Here’s to a good 2014!

Blathnaid

Image credits: clasesdeperiodismoclasesdeperiodismoGuudmorning!, Grizdavecroland