Publishing failures unite at AOP 2010

Attending
the 9th annual AOP Digital Publishing Summit in Westminster
today proved to be something of a milestone for the UK’s media industry.

Unlike many
in the room, I remember the association’s first outing back in 2002. The dotcom
bubble had just bust and its messy entrails were still being discovered. The
room of mostly traditional newspaper and magazine publishers were still
understandably nervous about the implications of the web on their businesses.

It’s
all too easy to forget the speed with which the media landscape has evolved
since that first outing. Google was still
in its infancy, although swallowing-up ground fast. The likes of MySpace and Bebo
or Facebook and LinkedIn had yet to be created, while Twitter was far beyond anyone’s
wildest imagination.

Unbelievably,
I remember one of the key topics of the day was ‘can publishers charge for
their content?’ – clearly some questions can’t be answered overnight. Pearson’s
Financial Times was celebrated that year for being a digital innovator, after deciding it would
charge for its content.

It should come
as no surprise then, that some nine years later, at the start of a new decade,
there was a strong sense of reflection and soul-searching in the air.

With giant
screens of real-time tweets from the floor providing the backdrop to panels of
speakers from companies old and new, the debate repeatedly returned to the core
basics: ‘Where has digital publishing found itself? Who is now leading the
field? And, of course, ‘where do we go from here?’

From
memorable quotes alone, the morning sessions did not at first appear to be
making things any clearer: “Don’t be a frog”, advised keynote designer Jacek
Utko; “kill the Hippo”, chipped in Google’s Matt Brittin.

The very
appearance of Bonnier’s Polish designer Utko signalled a step change from past AOP
conferences. Previous keynotes have included WSJ’s Bill Grueskin, Reuters Tom
Glocer, Trinity Mirror’s Sly Bailey, and, most recently, C4’s Luke Johnson.

Utko, a
one-time traditional print man, turned the tables on the digital
innovators, by asking them to learn from the craft of print design.

In a
contentious 25 minute address, he reminded those operating in the digital space
about the need for more ‘entry points’, white space and emotional imagery. Core
to his argument was the suggestion that “the template is killing websites”, and
he called for greater flexibility.

The look and feel of sites for
The Guardian and the BBC were both acknowledged as being better than the norm, The
Independent’s
, unfortunately, was not.

However,
most of the sites he held up as potential beacons of good design (all non UK),
consisted of landing pages dominated by large, sprawling imagery. They did indeed enable more
weight to lead stories, but in reality what do they mean for SEO? It
takes a brave publisher to run with just three or four stories on their
homepage.


A strong contender for most inane comment of the day came from the Mirror Group’s digital content director Matt Kelly, who claimed that the publisher did not need an official style guide for its journalists because, after 107 years of publishing, it is ingrained in the company. The few remaining subs at Trinity Towers will no doubt be delighted to hear that one.

To be fair to Kelly, he proved to be one of the more colourful speakers and almost made up for this statement with a series of witty and insightful one-liners, incuding his observation that there is still an appetite and desire for long-form journalism: “What there is no appetite for is long-form crap,” he said. “If you are going to write crap, keep it short.”

We were on
more familiar ground with some household faces for the CEO panel. Tim Brooks, Stephen Miron and Mark Wood are as
quintessential ‘media’ as you can get.

All were rightly recognised as ‘leading the pack’ in terms of digital exploration. Yet Google MD Brittin captured the essence of the session when he admitted
“Every year from now is going to be more uncertain… at least now we recognise
this is the new norm.”

He added “The
big opportunity online is to kill the ‘hippo’ – the highest paid person’s
opinion. We need to have a point of view that is tempered with data about what
[the audience] do [when interacting with media]. For example, we test our
results pages with 40 different shades of blue links to see which people click
through more.”

In this
brave new world, the panel were united in the essential need to ‘experiment,
experiment and experiment’, and, as Brittin phrased it “be prepared to fail.”

Miron called for more collaboration between media players, to enable some “smart selling” outside the silos, while Brooks urged publishers to “take more risks rather than fewer risks”, before letting slip launch plans for new apps.

“One
of the things that’s changed is that nobody’s arguing about change anymore,” noted
Brittin. “The pace of change is accelerating. Wait until in two three years
time when we have mobiles with iPhone capabilities outselling computer internet
connections – that’s gonna change the world much more than the last five years.”

I wonder how many UK publishers will be united in their failures by then?