Meetings and email get a bad rap

It is customary these days for a certain type of groovy web dude to declare “email is dead” and “meetings are a waste of time.” These two statements are usually followed by the rattle of a skateboard and the zip of a courier bag handcrafted in Frisco.

Well, perhaps not. But the point is this: meetings (like email) get a seriously bad rap inside big companies. The consensus position seems to be that if the meetings (and the email) would just get out of the way, we could all get on with our real work (and I’m reminded of a former boss who told me once that he had always believed that if the day-to-day hassles ended he could get on with his job, until he realised the day-to-day hassles were his job).

Meetings and email can, of course, be annoying. But then so can desktops that take ages to start up, desk phones with stupid interfaces, colleagues with bad music tastes and lossy headphones etc. etc. The thing is, if you’re in a certain frame of mind or doing a certain kind of activity, pretty much any kind of human interaction can be annoying. Coders hate to be interrupted. Writers, too. They’re face-down, high-intensity-and-focus activities. Interruptions are murderous.

But other activities are not like this. Discussing user propositions, for example. Negotiating priorities. Navigating towards consensus on forward planning. Nudging different groups and stakeholders to a common goal. All these things require contact and interaction. And guess what? Nine times out of ten, the best type of interaction is a meeting.

I say this at the end of a day which, this morning, looked like a nightmare. No yellow left in the Outlook, a series of quite edgy-looking meetings and some random-looking stuff in between. And yet I made enormous progress towards worthwhile goals today. I ended the day clearer on budget, clearer on priorities, pleased to have been listened to, and with a big user proposition agreed by major stakeholders. Without meetings, this would have taken weeks.

Similarly email, which I may come back to another day. Suffice to say that without email, most modern corporations would grind to a halt.

Final point. Corporations don’t organise meetings. People organise meetings. If you’ve got a meeting problem, it’s not a meeting problem, it’s a people problem.

Now, off to a meeting, of course.

Things I learned today

It’s the Vision Forum at the Beeb this week: lots of tasty sessions with super-famous creatives and actors, discussing their work and generally adding to an atmosphere of grooviness. I went to three sessions today, on Being Human, The Cut and Psychoville. Among the things I learned:

  1. Being Human was originally conceived as a drama about university graduates living together. One was an agoraphobic, one was compulsively anti-social with rage issues, and one was a recovering sex addict. The monsters were added later: ghost trapped in house, werewolf, and guilty vampire. Neat, no?
  2. The Cut is written in five minute chunks to create a 25-minute TV broadcast once a week. It’s really good. What I learned from this one is how creative production crews are being when it comes to shooting stuff on low budgets. The Cut is all filmed within five minutes of the offices of BBC Switch, the assistant director is also a writer, and the script supervisor also works on the Switch website. Also, the teenage stars looked embarrassed and blushingly young all the way through the presentation, until the moment the microphone was passed to them and they switched, immediately, until professional mode. It was amazing and rather charming.
  3. When Steve Pemberton and Reece Shearsmith started Psychoville, they had no idea when it would end. Also, while they were pushing to get it commissioned, they arranged an open readthrough/performance at Notting Hill which attracted an audience in three figures and which showed that the material was funny (the audience laughed) as well as horrific. And Psychoville is what they call Royston Vasey in Japan. Fact.

I would like to explain the gratuitous picture of Lenora Crichlow, who is beautiful in Being Human but mesmerising in the flesh. Not really a lesson, but interesting nonetheless.


Thompson on public space

Mark Thompson gave a punchy and coherent response to both James Murdoch and Ben Bradshaw today. Here was my favourite bit:

Wherever it can be – and certainly in the case of the BBC – public space is free at the point of use. And the more people who use it the better.

Consider the contrast between the availability of music and arts on Sky Arts and on BBC Television. Sky Arts is one of the most positive developments in multi-channel television. It has some brilliant programming. It extends the choice and range of music and arts available on TV. In a typical seven days, it reaches perhaps half a million people.

But arts on the BBC is simply of a different order. To quote just one statistic, this summer more than twelve million people in this country sampled the Proms on BBC Television before the Last Night. I’m not claiming any special credit for that, by the way – the BBC exists in part to make the arts universally available, Sky does not. Private space focuses on the minority who already have a taste for the arts, public space reaches out across the population.

In the case of the BBC, there’s another important characteristic. There’s no demand curve and no exclusion. You can’t buy a better service from the BBC no matter how wealthy you are. And you can’t stop people who are less well off than you enjoying just as good a service as you do.

Public space is shared space.

That’s why we will never erect a pay zone around our news.

That’s why we will fight tooth and nail to preserve our broad public remit – from Strictly to the Poetry Season.

And public space is independent space.

I got that from Mark Thompson speech | Tom Watson MP. And Tom applauds Thompson for coming out fighting. Having spent the last two days with young people who passionately believe in the BBC and passionately disagree with James Murdoch, I’m coming round to the idea that a good fight is maybe what we all need.

The Generation Gap is alive and well

I spent the last two days on the BBC’s very good induction course (learning new respect for the skills of shooting video and recording audio, among other things). There were about 80 people on the course, three-quarters of whom were in their 20s.

We did the normal things older media people do when they meet younger people (what do you watch? is it really true you just play games and shag? why do your trousers not fit?), but we older types were really feeding vampirically off the enormous energy and enthusiasm of these younger people. They were up for anything, massively pleased to be at the BBC, and astoundingly creative and committed to producing good stuff. If someone wanted to try “just another shot”, you can bet it was someone born under Thatcher.

Without wanting to sound wide-eyed and reckless, it really was a pleasure. While the media is controlled by white male fortysomethings, young people will always be either ignored, patronised or criticised. But these particular young people were too cheerful and too clever to care.

Join in our experiment

One of the projects that’s most excited me at the BBC is Lab-UK. Essentially, it’s a platform for doing mass-audience experiments which are scientifically valid (there’s other cool stuff going on under the hood, but that’s what we’re doing with it right now). Our latest mass-participation experiment is Brain Test Britain, which seeks to find out if “brain training” actually works, by getting people to play brain training games online and tracking their progress over time.

This is hugely ambitious, not least because we’re trying to get thousands of users to stay with a longitudinal experiment. But the designers of the experiment (Professor Clive Ballard of the Alzheimer’s Society and Kings College, London, and Dr Adrian Owen of the MRC Cognition and Brain Sciences Unit, Cambridge) hope that by getting thousands of people to complete the experiments, we can get proper scientific papers and proper scientific understanding.

There are more Lab-UK experiments in the pipeline. Suffice to say that what with this and our Earth suite of products (Earth News, the just-redesigned Out of the Wild and Nature’s Library) there’s some fantastically cool stuff going on here. And none of it could happen anywhere else.


Helping out at Merlin

As well as the new job, I’ve also been appointed a trustee at Medical Emergency Relief International, aka Merlin. It’s the best of good causes:

Merlin specialises in health, saving lives in times of crisis and helping to rebuild shattered health services.

I’ve never had any operational dealings with a charity before, and the people I’ve met so far have amazed me with their dedication to the cause and their appetite for helping people who are desperately in need. I hope I can help out a bit, particularly with their digital channel. If you’ve got any suggestions and ideas, or just want to donate to an organisation that’s treating literally thousands of sick people every single day, do drop me a line at lloyd [at] lllj.net.

Messing about with local information

Over the last two years I’ve spent more time in than is healthy mulling over how to bring local information together effectively. I’ve tracked the adventures of outside.in and Everyblock, I’ve agonised over postcode data, I’ve mourned for the dreams that nearly made UpMyStreet the finest website in the world, I’ve installed WordPress half-a-dozen times with 20 or more different plug-ins to pull in feeds from different places, and I’ve wandered the halls of Yahoo! Pipes like I’ve wandered the streets of Los Angeles – with an overwhelming feeling that a party was going on somewhere to which I wasn’t invited.

All this thoughtfulness hasn’t added up to anything at all worthwhile, but has yielded the following thoughts:

  • Wonderful as they are, there’s something rather unnourishing about outside.in and Everyblock. And I think that’s because they’re just not very good at tracking emerging narratives, which is something local newspapers do rather well. Narratives are where aggregation fails, I reckon.
  • There just aren’t enough UK bloggers with local viewpoints to create a rich aggregated experience. Don’t know why that should be, but there just aren’t. There’s maybe two dozen really good local blogs in South East London. There’s probably that many in four blocks in Brooklyn. Americans talk more, work harder and are just more intense.
  • There’s something a bit sleazy about “direct aggregation” – by which I mean pulling in a blogger’s full-text feed into your site, and then slapping some ads on it. I think we need to be honest about that. So any aggregation which isn’t sleazy involves some kind of quid pro quo. And that’s hard for an aggregation start-up to provide. What I’m saying is that this stuff done ethically and well does….not…..scale.

But set against that is my continuing conviction that this stuff is important and will, at some point down the road, become very, very big indeed. Someone somehow is going to find a way of combining the power of dozens and hundreds of passionate local bloggers and publishing their narratives in ways which are compelling and sustainable.

Until that day, I’m going to continue experimenting. And in that spirit, I’ve hooked up with ex-colleague Dave Cross who’s written some nice feed aggregation code in Perl and packaged it up into the concept of “planets” (read up on this here). After a high-level strategy summit (ie, a pint in Clapham on Monday night), he’s let me use his system to launch planets for Herne Hill, Dulwich and Tulse Hill/West Norwood. These simple little sites are simply reflecting local conversations at the moment, which is fine as far as it goes. So now to see how far it goes.

Next steps: hook up with local bloggers and see if we can get their content in there, play around with ways of distributing this concept, and continue to mess with Twitter. It’s not a grandstanding strategy or anything. Fred Wilson need not apply. But it’s a bit of fun nonetheless.

Are we buying this anymore?

David Simon in the Guardian is arguing that newspapers – and particularly local newspapers – are the last best hope of preventing the cancer of political corruption.

“Oh, to be a state or local official in America over the next 10 to 15 years, before somebody figures out the business model,” says Simon, a former crime reporter for the Baltimore Sun. “To gambol freely across the wastelands of an American city, as a local politician! It’s got to be one of the great dreams in the history of American corruption.”

Couple of thoughts on that. In South London, our local paper is the South London Press, and to be honest the ratio of stories about local government to stories about crime, depravity, awfulness and local entertainment listings is not one which lends hope that they’re going to ape the Baltimore Sun. Maybe there’s something about different traditions of local journalism here – it’s perhaps instructive that London, a city many times bigger than Baltimore, has no publication with the same news values as the Baltimore Sun, and is rather served by a right-wing rag aimed at the suburbs and three freesheets with the emphasis on gossip and entertainment. Local professional journalism could die in London and, you know what? No-one would notice. Literally no-one.

And the flipside to that is that local bloggers and writers are increasingly holding people to account. Check out Brockley Central for a test case in how a group of committed local people can start to catalyse change and deal with corruption at street-level, not on a “us versus them” level which sanctifies professional journalists at the expense of narratives that actually matter to people. Or look at what Dave Hill’s been doing, initially on his own but now within the auspices of the Guardian (and am I the only one who thinks his stuff was rather crunchier when it was on his own Typepad site?).

And, irony of ironies, look at the most successful holding-to-account of recent weeks: the blog campaign, exemplified by Graham Linehan and Tim Ireland, against the poisonous, depraved and vicious actions of “professional news organisation” the Express. Yes, sometimes you do need hard-skinned newshounds to sniff out stories of local corruption. But when there’s so few of them actually doing it, what exactly are we trying to protect?

(Yes, I know it’s different in some cities. Yes, I know there are fine traditions of local journalism in Manchester, Yorkshire and Birmingham. Yes, I know all of these are under threat. But London hasn’t had serious local journalism in, what, over a decade? Or even longer?)

Interactive journalism

Back when I were a wee lad, journalism was about print. And that meant, if you had a story, you threw everything you had at it to get it as complete as possible in preparation for one thing: the Deadline. And the deadline was not just about an angry editor trying to fill the gaping void in his publication which you’d promised to fill. It was also the moment that, as far as you were concerned, the Story was Done. So you’d better be bloody certain you’d got it right. Or rather, as right as you could get it. If that meant last-minute calls and a flurry of rewriting even as the Editor approached, steam coming out of his ears, So Be It. Better to be Stressed than to be Wrong (or, even worse, Formally Corrected In The Next Issue).

I screwed up in my very first published newspaper piece, in the Guardian, a review of a book about the murder of John Lennon. The mistake I made was offhand and silly (I’d given the wrong publication date for Albert Goldman’s poison treatise on Lennon), but it meant getting called in and shouted at by the literary editor, who had already been bawled at by Goldman’s publisher. It was one of those silly mistakes which a newspaper is never going to correct without being pressured into it by m’learned friends, so the only option was to grovel. To the editor, to the publishers, to the whole damn world. I can still remember the sick feeling in my stomach when I realised what I’d done: I’d put something Wrong out into the world, and there it would remain, permanently and irrevocably Incorrect.

Flash forward almost 20 years (oh my God), and I find myself the subject of sloppy journalism rather than the creator of it. A couple of people got the wrong end of the stick today about some Channel 4 work we’ve been doing, and I found myself having to correct it. How did I do this? I twittered the journalists involved. I left a comment on one of their articles (the other didn’t have commenting facilities). At the time of writing, they haven’t corrected their pieces, but I’m hopeful that they might.

It’s clear what’s happening here.

Firstly, the ability to correct stories on the fly (aka The Death of the Deadline) means that, conceptually at least, a story is never finished. It’s always subject to refinement and change. This is a Good Thing.

However, the Death of the Deadline means sloppiness becomes a danger. Without the adrenalin rush of commitment, it’s perhaps easier for writers to fly a bit closer to the seats of their pants.

But when they do, we are there to correct it, the subjects of their efforts. We know (by definition) more than they do about the subject, it being ourselves. We understand the impact of their journalism, because it happens to us immediately. We are invested in its being as correct as possible.

Now, if I was a particular type of strategic snake oil salesman, I’d be saying We Are All Journalists Now, or some such nonsense. But my point is that, rather than being The Word From The Mountaintop, journalism is necessarily morphing into the Current Best Guess about a particular story. It outlines the facts as the journalist understands them but (and this is the snake oil bit) I think it also opens up a space in which those facts can be refined and illuminated by other perspectives, be they from comments, corrections or other means. Each story becomes a miniature Wikipedia, capable of refinement (but, caveat emptor, also capable of infinite distortion, which raises the interesting matter of what happens to Authority).

As for the journos out there, some advice. If a subject of a story reaches out to you, respond (and if they reach out to you on Twitter, respond quickly and personably). Feel relaxed about involving them in making your story better. And don’t forget the axiomatic first rule: put in the calls and get it right in the first place. If someone you’re writing about has gone to the effort of publishing information about what they’re doing, then make the effort to read what they’ve said, rather than what someone said they said. It’s not rocket science, this stuff.