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Google and PA put pressure on local journalists with ‘robot reporters’

Google yesterday announced an $800,000 project with the UK’s Press Association news agency, in which PA will develop ‘robot reporters’ that will write 30,000 articles a month for local newspapers.

That Orwellian piece of news got me thinking about local journalism and whether an algorithm, let loose in council databases, really can replace the reporter. Is it good for news journalism, is it good for reporters and what effect could it have on the role local papers play as a check and balance on local democracy?

My first contact with local journalism was when I did some work experience on a local weekly newspaper in the UK in the summer holiday of 1977 working with reporters and photographers. In many ways it was the age of the dinosaur; papers then were produced with huge production inefficiencies and the printing end of the operation was a tough closed shop with endemic restrictive practices and over-manning.  But the local paper, as it hit the street, did have the effect of keeping public authorities honest and often exposed them if they weren’t.

The newspaper office of the ‘70s had that heavy stationery-cigarette combination smell created by stacks of newspapers, copy pads, spikes, brimming ashtrays, wastepaper typewriterbaskets and rancid coffee cups. It was a world that hadn’t changed much since the 1920s – all reporters used shorthand, clattered away on manual typewriters and phoned-in copy (stories) from red phone boxes on street corners.

Fierce news editors demanded the facts and wielded a ‘blue pencil’, striking out comment or sloppy writing: words like ‘recently’, ‘quite’, ‘very’, and ‘big’ were outlawed. Did the story answer the where, when, what, why and how? If not – go away and do it again.

There were stacks of local and county council committee papers that reporters had to read and mark up to ensure a good story wasn’t missed – and they attended the meetings, known as ‘night jobs’, compensated for by an expense allowance of a quid or so for a pie and a pint for your evening meal.

Story tips came from indiscrete coppers, court ushers, friendly council officers and from blokes in pubs.  There was a weekly duty list for court reporting, ensuring all courts were covered or at least the charge sheet was collected and scanned for important cases.

Parcels of news stories marked ‘Urgent, useless if delayed’ were taken to the bus station and given to a driver who delivered it by bus to a neighbouring town. A messenger would meet the bus and deliver the parcel to the print works where a team of compositors would re-type the reporters’ stories into a type-setting machine.

Compositors cut, waxed and pasted paper columns of type onto a page layout, just like cutting an article out of a newspaper and gluing it into scrapbook. Printing plates were made from these layouts and fitted to an ancient Goss web-offset printing press, which thundered away producing the following morning’s paper.

Screen Shot 2017-07-07 at 10.07.05.png

Printing press from circa 1905

These inefficient ‘dinosaur’ newspapers and human news reporters frequently produced exclusive, investigative breaking news about ‘rotten boroughs’, often picked up by national papers, radio and TV news. The result was that a staff of half a dozen journalists often delivered a big helping of accountability for those in power locally.

And today, what of those newspapers in the summer of 2017 – if they haven’t already closed? On the positive side, the operations are far more efficient from a production point of view – email and shared drives are clearly more efficient than putting news stories on a bus…. There’s less paper and no ashtrays in the office and fewer reporters who rarely leave their desks.  That reduced staff have to fill paper and web editions, copy is transmitted in milliseconds, mobile phones that aid the job of reporters and photographers, citizen journalists and bloggers.

Those local papers that have survived can’t spare reporters to go to council meetings or read the committee papers and there’s no court reporting. There’s less time to dig around and tease out a really strong story, while press releases are being copied and pasted, unedited, into papers to fill more white space.  Great for the PR company writing press releases, but not great for an independent press. Ironically, the original Google/PA roboreporter announcement contained a typo in the first line (yes, really) – which is faithfully reproduced in many news stories on the topic. QED.

Google’s robot reporters project – in their words – ‘supports journalism’, but not journalists (my words).  In the final analysis, though, churning out 30,000 stories a month is less of a news operation and more intended to net more readers for the new content, alongside which Google can place its paid-for ads.  Follow the money…

The result of automation will be fewer reporters, fewer investigative, exclusive splashes on sharp practice in public organisations and those in authority are less likely to be held accountable. The local newspaper – paper and web – becomes an increasingly endangered species as their output is automated and quality diminished. The ‘food chain’ of stories from local news teams through to the national media has all but ceased.

And while the internet has brought information to billions of people, a team of Google-sponsored robot reporters isn’t going to be enough to provide sufficient checks and balances on democracy locally, or even nationally. Because even robots require someone to create real news stories and content in the first place before they can ‘scrape’ it and pass it on.

News isn’t so much being suppressed, it’s not even being created. As a result, there’s never been a better time to be a malevolent or incompetent politician, con man, dodgy businessman, criminal or corrupt public official.

Photo credits: Typewriter by Ian Livesey

Goss Printing press: By Unknown (Life time: Unknown.) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Human error’ blamed for BA’s server crash. But which human and what error?

When there’s an accident at work, it’s often the worker involved who is blamed.

Sometimes – after lengthy and thorough investigations – the multiple causes of accidents are revealed to be much broader than ‘someone doing something stupid’ and the hope is that the BA IS system crash investigation will be as thorough.

Just like in a safety investigation, the discipline of applying ‘root cause analysis’ will seek to find out what happened to cause the failure and more importantly, why it happened.  The ‘why’ is critical because it identifies systemic, cultural and management failures – the root causesPlug pic.

Fixing root causes permanently makes a company more resilient – first it’s less likely to face a similar problem and second, if it does, its resulting contingency planning will mean it ‘bounces back’ from problems and recovers faster in future.

As an example of some ‘why’ issues: why did the contractor re-connect power without going through a process and or without authority?  Why did they not know about the process, or if they did, why was it ignored. And digging a little deeper: how is the process developed and who has management responsibility for the process and for reviewing and auditing that it’s applied properly. How are ‘near misses’ reported, recorded and shared to the benefit of refining the process?  In terms of culture, are contractors pushed to get things done in double-quick time in order to reduce downtime, do they regularly feel they have to resort to short-cuts in order to meet management expectations?

In manufacturing companies – this is characterised by ‘productivity over everything’; do what you have to do to get it done fast.  Is there constant squeeze on costs?  Is there little interest among management in hearing about the consequences of the squeeze, or do they just insist that all activities must continue, but that they must be done more efficiently.

Capital cost reduction, combined with reduction in staff may also result in a situation where the margin for error or the presence of back-up systems compounded the effect of the error. Was the cost of failure factored-in to financial decisions and how much did management think a failure – with all its attendant brand damage – would cost?

And a proper root cause analysis of BA’s outage will get to the heart of the culture that created the circumstances in which a contractor did what they did – either because they didn’t know what the correct procedure was, or felt pressured to override the process.

All this ‘digging into the issue’ may seem tedious, but it’s as tedious as a pilot doing a pre-flight check in the same way, before every flight. As yet, the total cost of the BA outage is not known, but creating a culture that avoids future incidents will certainly save a fortune.

The culture of the flight deck would be a good aspiration for many companies.

Thanks to Kevin Grocki for the picture, used under Creative Commons Licence

The theme of Business Continuity Awareness Week is Cyber Security. No, really…

If businesses and public organizations needed a kick in the backside over their cyber crisis preparedness, then many got it over the weekend as the ransomware ‘Wanna Decryptor’ paralysed hundreds of thousands of users and systems in more than 100 countries, including hospitals and doctors’ practices in the UK National Health Service.

So the irony of this being ‘Business Continuity Awareness Week’ #BCAW2017 is only heightened by the fact that the theme of the week is ‘Cyber Security’. But the timing of this week – and the theme – couldn’t be better.Screen Shot 2017-05-15 at 10.08.25

As the hand-wringing, blame-gaming and shock-horror media coverage continues – it’s worth spending a few minutes leafing through the Business Continuity Institute’s guide on preventing cyber attack (this is safe to click, by the way). Sure, there is some VERY basic advice in the guide – like not using ‘password’ as your ‘password’, but don’t roll your eyes too quickly.  One in five passwords are things like ‘1234567’ or ‘qwerty’ – and other entirely predictable passwords. It’s clear people need reminding of the simplest security habits.

The BCI’s guide won’t solve complex IS security issues, but it’s often the weakest links that allow the hackers in to do their business.  That weakest link is commonly your company’s IS or information security policy (or lack of it) – and if you have a policy – how well employees have been trained to implement the policy AND how diligently they act on those policy requirements.

I’m in trouble – send money!

And finally, it’s not only the junior or non-techie employees who let the hackers in.  Scammers and phishers target all levels of an organization in an attempt to breach firewalls or just separate someone from their money.

I’m aware of one CEO who knew what a ‘419’ scam was (wonder how many of you opened that link…) and how to avoid it, but was nearly stung by another email scam.  We just managed to stop him from sending his credit card details (including the ‘magic code’ on the back) to an employee whose email to the CEO claimed he was in trouble abroad, having had his laptop, wallet and phone stolen and who needed credit card details for him to be able to book into a hotel for the night.  Except it wasn’t the employee’s internet email address and he wasn’t in trouble… and, and, and.

Creating a company culture that drives business priorities – the Bezos way

Jeff Bezos of Amazon bought the Washington Post three years ago.

Prior to that, journalists there had variable compensation based on one thing – operating income. Now it’s different, as described by Shailesh Prakash, the Post’s chief information officer:

‘When Jeff bought us, within about six months, he threw that [operating income metric] out. Now there are three other criteria. It’s basically: How fast do you move? It’s very subjective. The second one is that there are no sacred cows, to push experimentation. The third thing is debate, but commit. So you can argue all you want, but once we agree, then there’s no undermining. Those are the three things that now very subjectively drive the compensation. [1]’

Bezos paid $250m cash for the Post – a publication founded in 1877, a public treasure, winner of 47 Pulitzer Prizes and one-time employer of ‘All the President’s Men’ reporters Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward, whose ‘Watergate’ work precipitated the downfall of Richard Nixon.washington-post

It takes a brave investor to jump into the turmoil that is today’s mainstream news media – and especially one with such credentials, unless you are a natural disruptor and rich enough that losing some or all of the cost of the business would be less of an unmitigated disaster and more of a mild irritation.

But Bezos hasn’t bought the The Post out of a sense of nostalgic philanthropic generosity for an old warhorse.  It’s a fantastic brand and a business with a future, but he needed to ring the changes, rally the troops and point them in the right direction.

The creation of those three simple ways of working – that translate across the newsroom, the digital platforms and in advertising – is a great way to start and offers some lessons to those about to embark on the mission, vision, values tap-dance.

Personal view: I like that there are three elements to ‘how we do things around here’ because:

  • Individually, they’re easy to understand and act on
  • There are three of them, so  it’s not going to be difficult to remember all of them
  • They push behaviour to radically improve performance – ie which will help a great publication build on its clout and reputation, and move quickly to consolidate its position in the highly competitive world of global digital news, where competitors are nimble and who, rather than having a range of fixed assets including printing presses, invest in cloud capacity in server farms

It may seem obvious that smart, simple, memorable values work best.  But over more than 20 years, I’ve consulted for and worked in companies that have got their knickers in a terrible twist while trying to develop meaningful, unique values and behaviours that drive superior business performance.

The following completely fictitious scenario shows how this process can go wrong, and might be a good guide for the future.

Company ‘A’ already has values and behaviours – quite good ones and they’ve been around just three years.  But a new CEO is appointed and wants to stamp his/her authority and style on the company.  The CEO gives some input on the dozen values and behaviours they want to bring to life to a working group of communications, HR and business people, supported by an agency with experience and a track record ‘in these things’.  Three months later the group comes back to the CEO with a tidy set of proposals, based on vast in-depth research and focus groups among employees and other stakeholders. [SO FAR, SO GOOD]

CEO quite likes the proposals, but has some doubts whether the work covers all areas sufficiently.  So instead of sending the working group away to tweak the proposal and re-submit, the boss decides to put the values and behaviours proposal as a topic on the next board agenda. [FYI: FATAL MISTAKE]

The board members like some of them, but also share the view that some additional work is needed and it’s agreed that each board member takes the proposals back to their business or functions for consultation. [FYI: AS ABOVE]

It’s already obvious where this is going, but instead of calling a halt by having conversations about ‘not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good’ and launching the simple but imperfect proposal from the working group, the values project begins to die the death of a thousand cuts.

Three months later and nine months into the ‘new’ CEO’s tenure, the inputs from the dozen or so board members land with a thud on the boardroom table.

The new version will have 26 values and behaviours.  Some of the original values and behaviours will be hacked into their three constituent parts, renamed ‘drivers’ or ‘imperatives’; values will be muddled with behaviours.  The only benefit is that each board member’s business or function is represented by AT LEAST one value or behaviour.

Camels, a dog’s breakfasts and big cheeses

The values and behaviour project becomes a ‘camel’; the result of designing a horse by committee, augmented by an injection of Myers-Briggs personality profiling.  The resulting ‘declaration’ can look like this:

‘Company A and its employees are a force for good in society and business.  We stand for: Speed, simplicity, clear communications, integrity, risk-taking, responsiveness, customer-focus, fair-dealing, respectful, entrepreneurial, hard-working, work-life balance, environmentally empathetic, process-driven, leading supplier to the paper industry, low inventory, and it’s a great place to work.’

The agency with experience and a track record ‘in these things’ decides to take the fees so far and resign the account, fearing for its own reputation if they’re further associated with what is shaping up to be a ‘dog’s breakfast’.

This ‘basket’ of values is then launched to (dumped on) a bemused senior management team at the annual ‘big cheese’ meeting. Powerpoint packs for cascading the new  ‘what we are and how we behave’ program to employees are issued at the end of the first day of the conference. And there’s the threat of a quiz on the values on the last day of the conference.

Senior managers burn the midnight oil learning the new values and behaviours,  and most of them ‘pass’ the quiz on the final day. There’s schadenfreude (a behaviour that nearly made the cut for the ‘long list’ because someone on the project had their spell-checker switched to German) in the conference hall when the CEO publicly belittles only one poor soul who couldn’t remember that ‘respectful’ was one of the values…or behaviours.

The roll-out ensues across the globe and employees with more than three years’ service sigh and play the game of ‘Value and Behaviours Workshop’, just two years after they played ‘Behaviours and Values Workshop’ which the previous CEO had spearheaded, before he was fired.

Sadly, if you work for a company where this value-destroying festival of fun occurs every few years, you risk dismissal or being passed-over for promotion if you question ANY part of the Values and Behaviours project.  Dissent and skepticism (two values that didn’t make the long list)  will be seen as disloyal, a signal of not being a team player and evidence that you are a dangerous subversive ‘who may, sooner or later, wish to work for another company whose values they prefer’.  Invariably, declaring that the king is short of a few items of clothing is never career-enhancing.

Don’t mention the war, how to nudge the culture and the ‘mirror test’

So, that’s what can go wrong. But what are the key elements of a successful process. Here’s some of the lessons I’ve learned:

  • KISS – Keep It Simple, Stupid.  Why?  Because employees are normal human beings who, aside from the pressures of their work, will only remember about three ways of working or important behaviours.  If you’re already up to six, start again
  • Who’s Running This Place? A new CEO can run a mission, vision, behaviours and values project on their own with expert input. The fact they do it this way – rather than as a representative sport for board members –  will do more to stamp their authority on the company than many other things.  And they will maximise the production of horses, instead of camels
  • Define the process [for the values and behaviours project] – and respect the process. Thanks to Alan Mulally, former President and CEO of Ford for that.  Our CEO of Company A didn’t define the process, got cold feet early on and threw the project to the dogs by letting the board fiddle with the content of the project
  • A Devil’s Advocate Reference Group.  Pull together some of the most cynical, diverse, incisive old soldiers and young bucks and tell them to tear the early proposals apart.  Listen to them and amend as necessary
  • Cut the Formality. Labelling things ‘behaviours’, ‘values’, ‘principles’, ‘imperatives’ is in itself a warning to employees that a new regime is flexing its muscles.  Their reaction will be to start digging psychological ‘slit trenches’ that they can jump into to avoid being hit by yet another cultural salvo from HQ. So try to avoid referring to the new values and behaviours as such.  Tell stories around what the new desired culture looks like and the values will likely get embedded more quickly as ‘the way we do things around here’. This need not be a full-frontal artillery barrage, if a clever special forces op will do the job
  • Link to the Business. While you don’t label them ‘behaviours’ etc (The Post guy called them ‘criteria’…without a capital ‘C’), where possible, make the behaviours part of the scorecard for variable compensation and stick them on the appraisal template so employees can focus on these things and get rewarded AND recognized for ‘walking the talk’.
  • Blah, blah, blah.  Make them as unique to the company as you can. So many companies’ values are so samey, bland and interchangeable that they look like they bought a subscription for the same online ‘values generator app’
  • The ‘Values Project’ May Be the Most Important Thing in Your Life, but… Be clear about what you mean by missions, visions, behaviours, values etc and what’s intended for internal and external consumption.  If the values and behaviours are aimed at employees, don’t be tempted to share them in too much detail with external audience, like the media.  In my experience, it’s the quickest way to empty a press conference.  Shareholders, on the other hand, might want to see a return on the huge amount of management time spent on something they might see as peripheral, so if the behaviours enhanced performance, have some examples ready for questions at the AGM
  • The Mirror Test. And finally, the CEO and senior colleagues should be able to wake up every morning and look in the mirror and run through all of the values without blinking, flinching or forgetting one.


[1] Thanks to the Columbia Review of Journalism for prompting this blog  and for this para quoted verbatim. Their original article by @kylepope is here

Washington Post photo: Thanks to Esther Vargasc

Link to original Washington Post Photo

Photos posted under Creative Commons Licence.


Northern Powerhouse: a new pub or an economic policy?

A BBC survey shows nearly two thirds of northerners have never heard of – or don’t know what the Chancellor’s Northern Powerhouse is…

Imagine the scene: pollster stops man in the street in Manchester and asks if he’s heard of the Northern Powerhouse? Answer: “Is that the new pub on Deansgate?”

While some may think the idea of creating an economic force to equal London is like trying to push treacle up hill, it’s also a tad patronising.  Southern johnnies telling the Northern masses what’s good for them has a long and dishonourable history.

All in all, however, from a communications and engagement point of view, I’m not sure it is critical whether people in the North (cue stereotype of flat headgear and skinny racing dogs) know about the policy or even whether they’ve heard of it.

Indeed, spending money promoting the concept ‘up North’ would simply be a back-door way of spending money on the Conservative re-election campaign and the attraction of doing that for George Osborne, the leader-in-waiting and would-be PM is obvious.


Investment in infrastructure will be helpful and promoting the region – if you can ever unite the counties of the red and white roses – will also be important. But what is crucial is an externally facing business and investment campaign outside the UK to inward investors across the world.

If Northern England is to compete with regions in Europe, then the communications must be targeted at  so-called ‘foot-loose’  investors for whom a flexible workforce with world-leading skills is a prerequisite, coupled with good infrastructure and travel connections. They also want their ex-pat employees to feel safe and secure and be well-served with excellent education, hospitals, culture and natural environment.

It’s all to play for. But I just wish the Northern Powerhouse concept didn’t sound so Westminster-driven and condescending.

What should tomorrow’s leaders know about sustainability?

Theo Hacking is Programme Director for the University of Cambridge Programme for Sustainability Leadership (CPSL), which currently deliver two part-time Master’s level sustainability programmes. They are exploring new accredited programmes that will address gaps in the sustainability-related qualifications currently available at Cambridge or elsewhere.

They are especially interested in targeting the needs of business and would welcome your suggestions regarding themes to cover, which you believe would address current learning needs.

I share my thoughts here on what might be useful in terms of course content.  My response is also on Linkedin.

Some broad brush policy stuff mixed with some practical business and ‘techy’ stuff would be a good mix from my perspective (and thinking about what my non-sustainability colleagues find useful in my company’s own internal senior leadership training courses).

  • Systems thinking and interrelationships of risks and opportunities.. This was extremely well-done and very relevant when I attended the Prince of Wales Sustainability Leadership course in Schloss Leopoldskron, Salzburg  (right below) in September 2006.

    Library at Schloss Leopoldskron

  •  Vision 2050 from the WBCSD is good source material and will appeal to business people as it represents their views on how to get “9 billion people living well and within the limits of the planet…
  • You could include impact of socio-political instability on progress to a more sustainable world, ie what is the balance sheet of benefits and impacts of democratization / Arab Spring. Case studies would be interesting to see, although I admit this would need a lot of work (or consolidation of other people’s work) if it is to be of use. However, business is very interested in how resilient they are from a basket of risks, including how instability or hostilities in a country, part of a country or in a larger region can affect business. Deloitte and Forbes did some good and interesting work on this, which was published in August.
  • The apparent contradiction of the ‘greening of the armed forces’, particularly UK and USA – lots of web resources on this. Some weeding and triaging of sources is needed, but when they cite turning over 16 million acres of Defense Department-owned land for renewable power generation, this looks significant. And in the field, deployed and fighting, fuel efficiency for example, makes good military sense in terms of going further on less and a shorter supply chain. The BBC had an interesting programme on this too.
  • Energy efficiency (INTEREST DECLARED as this is what my company is pushing, because 50% or so of our products have an ‘energy efficiency’ criteria). BUT, the McKinsey CO2 abatement curve shows a significant proportion of CO2 reduction will come from energy efficiency. Possibly not the most inspiring topic, but critical for the future.

You can respond to Theo on Linkedin or I will pass comments on from this site.

Sustainability leadership

Big problems probably need a range of people with a range of skills and perspectives to solve them.

Take climate change… or have we given up and are we really talking about ‘the effects of climate change’?

So who are the cast of thousands? And how could they be more effective.

There are the climate experts and the engineers who, respectively, will keep our focus on the issue and who will come up with many solutions for adaptation.  The politicians will debate and either agree on global regulations (incentives and penalties) or agree to disagree.  Businesses will see if there is a buck in contributing to the solution and civil society will see the focus on climate compete for space with the ‘urgent’ issues like fixing economies and stemming unemployment. 

And together we will meander towards the mid-21st century with 9 billion people trying to live productive, peaceful lives ‘within the limits of the planet’.

Some of our future leaders (indeed, some of our current leaders) might like see how education like this can help.

System thinking that brings together and synthesizes experts from fields as diverse as medicine, business and finance, economics, NGOs, trade and employee representive organizations, utilities, armed forces, the media and individuals could start to promote real solutions. 

What is happening in the blogosphere (and Twittersphere) to convene to work through issues – could the cloud be a forum or a workspace to share and work through challenges?  Are they all being used already – and I’m just so far behind the curve?

It seems to me that there are many possible solutions, but few gain traction. 

Any bright ideas?