Spectactorly bad

It seems as if iPhone applications are the latest bright idea that newspapers and magazines have for generating revenue.  It's an odd fact that people do seem willing to pay for stuff on mobile phones (and particularly on the iPhone), but not for a subscription to a website.

So I was interested to see that The Spectator has an iPhone app.  They charge just 99 cents for the application, including a 7 day subscription, and you can extend the subscription for an extra 99 cents per week.  Sounds like a good ide - or it would be if it wasn't such a hopelessly bad application. 

Incredibly, all you get are screen images of each page, and of course they are unreadable if you display a full page.  Yes, you can zoom in but then you can only see part of the page and it's incredibly awkward to read an article like that (scrolling down the first column, then down the second column).

Aha, you think, I'll turn my iPhone on its side.  Well, yes you can, but now you get a "cover flow" type thing showing all the pages.  Gee, thanks.

It's as if the person who designed this had never used an iPhone.  At this point I gave up and decided I had wasted my money.

The Guardian is planning to release an iPhone app, and one has to assume that they'll do a better job than The Spectator.


All the news we found by reading yesterday's paper

Today's SCMP has a big story on the front page of the City section informing us that Cable TV would like to provide a free-to-air television channel.  They say that it's unfair that TVB has a Pay TV service and free-to-air terrestrial channels, but no-one else is allowed to do both.  Which seems like a fair point.

Indeed, it was a point that Cable TV's very own spokesman put forward in a letter in Tuesday's edition of the SCMP - though you wouldn't know this from reading the story in today's paper. 

If anyone at the SCMP actually read the letters before they publish them, they would presumably have had the wit to put the story in Tuesday's paper and not make themselves look like idiots by running it 24 hours later.


Dead famous

Here in Hong Kong we have had the hilarious Edison Chen saga, in which we have had to face up to the horrible reality that pop stars have sex with each other.  No, really they do - and apparently some of them take drugs.  This is obviously just too shocking for many in Hong Kong, and poor old Gillian Chung had to quit showbusiness for a year because of the hostile public reaction after the naughty photos of her and Mr Chen appeared in inboxes everywhere, and is only now making a very tentative comeback. 

In the UK, meanwhile, tabloid headlines are dominated by Jade Goody, who discovered that "bad" behaviour (on Big Brother) actually makes you more famous and more wealthy.  Her career (if you can call it that) has certainly had its ups and downs, but since she announced that she has terminal cancer the media has become totally obsessed with her.

For the last week or two (at least) the tabloids have been writing about her final days or hours, and OK! magazine has even published a tribute issue.  Which is ever so slightly premature, what with her still being alive and all that. 

The justification for all this is that the money she is earning will go to her two children, but it's hard to avoid the conclusion that having found fame from living her life on TV, she regards it as normal to end her life in the media spotlight, and newspapers are only happy to go along with the story, utterly banal as it all is.  Even the serious papers can join in by condemning their downmarket rivals. 

What's worse?  In Hong Kong way, management companies create celebrities, pre-packaged with a wholesome image that often bears no relation to the truth.  In the UK, reality shows such as Big Brother make ordinary people famous, and the more ghastly they are and the worse their behaviour the more money they can earn.  No need to hide way after a scandal, just milk it for all it's worth.  


Read all about it

This week's Economist suggests that the Kindle might be the saviour of newspapers

The growing popularity of electronic books could offer hope for newspapers

THINGS are suddenly hotting up in the rather obscure field of electronic books and their associated reading devices, the best known of which is Amazon’s Kindle. A new, sleeker version of the Kindle was unveiled on February 9th. Just days earlier, Google said it was making 1.5m free e-books available in a format suitable for smart-phones, such as Apple’s iPhone and handsets powered by Google’s Android software. Amazon said it was working to make e-books available on smart-phones as well as the Kindle. Plastic Logic, the maker of a forthcoming e-reader device, said it had struck distribution deals with several magazines and newspapers.

The iPhone, meanwhile, has quietly become the most widely used e-book reader: more people have downloaded e-book software (such as Stanza, eReader and Classics) for iPhones than have bought Kindles. Might e-books be approaching the moment of take-off, akin to Apple’s launch of the iTunes store in 2003, which created a new market for legal music downloads?

It's an interesting idea, and I'd happily pay US$10 per month for my daily fix of The Guardian, but there are a few problems to overcome first.  For starters, there's the price of the Kindle ($359) and the fact that it's only available in the United States (and I figure that Hong Kong is unlikely to be high on their priority list).

However, there is speculation that Amazon will start to offer support for the iPhone (and presumably the iPod Touch as well), so maybe there's some hope.  Or maybe Apple will create an iBooks or iNews application similar to iTunes (using USB synchronization), and some people think they will launch a tablet computer, for which that would be an obvious application. 

I've been reading newspapers on mobile devices for more that ten years, starting with the Handspring Visor, using Avantgo to download various newspapers (including The Guardian).  By current standards it was very primitive, but at the time I was very impressed to be able to sit on the MTR reading the same day's Guardian (well, parts of it).  The biggest limitations were that the website had to create a special cut-down version (to fit the smaller screen) and Avantgo set a maximum number of kb (though you could pay to increase this). 

Next came Mobipocket.  The SCMP adopted it because of their stupid paywall, but its best feature was that anyone could write a script to extract content from any newspaper (or any website).  One kind person wrote a script to extract the whole of The Guardian each day.  Which was fine until the website was re-designed and the script would pick up nothing.  Then came Mobipocket Creator, which was supposed to make it easy for anyone to do the extract themselves from any website - and it worked (up to a point), but it also had many frustrating features, and rather than fix them they abandoned the product.  Gee, thanks, guys.

These days, both Mobipocket and Avantgo take the easy option and use RSS feeds.  Which is all very well, but it isn't the same as reading a newspaper. So I am currently using Sunrise XP and Plucker, which works reasonably well for The Guardian (though I had to create a simple HTML file to serve as a contents page), but it can't handle sites which split articles over multiple pages (yes, that means you, The Times of London). 

So I'm certainly on the lookout for something better, whether from Amazon or Apple or anyone else.


More podcasts

Danny Baker discovered the hard way that you can't make money out of podcasts.  His "All Day Breakfast Show" started off free but closed down only a few months after they started charging a fee.  As far as I know, no-one else has tried to do the same thing since then.

Of course, most podcasts are either radio shows re-packaged, or are run by newspapers or magazines to promote their website.  However, there are a few notable exceptions:

Herrin and Collings is a very amateur production (it's recorded on an Apple Mac in Richard Herring's attic).  Journalist and broadcaster Andrew Collins is the straight man to comedian Herring, and they fill an hour or so talking about stories from the day's newspapers.  Apparently Herring used to be a regular guest on Collins's Sunday show on (BBC Radio) 6 Music, and they seem to have quite a good rapport.    

Phill and Phil's Perfect Ten is rather more professional (it's recorded in a studio, and they have announcements read out by Stephen Fry), and ostensibly it's more structured (in that they supposedly answer 10 questions from listeners).  However, basically it's the same concept - two blokes talking away about whatever they want.

Here the two blokes are Phill Jupitus (comedian, longtime team captain on  "Never Mind the Buzzcocks", former presenter of the breakfast show on 6 Music), and Phil Wilding (who was the producer of his radio shows, and previously worked at GLR with Danny Baker). And, yes, they have a website  

The theory is that they have exactly 30 minutes to answer 10 randomly selected questions, but they often start with something like "why did you go to Wembley Stadium this weekend?", which clearly didn't come from a listener and simply gives them the excuse to talk about anything at all.  Entertaining enough if slightly self-indulgent.

Phill Jupitus can also be heard on The Game podcast (from The Times), and Andrew Collins sometimes fills in for Mark Kermode on the Friday film podcast, but I guess they get paid for those gigs.

So why do a podcast for no money?

Herring and Collins did a talk to the Radio Academy about their podcasts, and they said that it does give them each a higher profile for the work they do (probably more for Herring's stand-up comedy) as well as advertising their availability for a radio show - though it might be hard to accept the constraints of a show on the BBC after the freedom of being able to say whatever you like on a podcast.  Maybe it has even worked for Danny Baker, because he now presents 606 once a week (also available as a podcast) and is the temporar.y replacement for Jonathan Ross on Radio 2.

One standalone podcast that isn't presented by a has-been DJ is Stephen Fry's Podgram.  Far less frequent, shorter, not so funny, and clearly more of a vanity project than anything else - I doubt he is looking for any more work.  Of course he has a website


Not mad at all

It ought to be obvious to everyone by now that it simply isn't possible to stop audio and video content being freely distributed, and the challenge is how to generate revenue around that fact of modern-day life.

Recently The Guardian reported on the Monty Python response (Now for something completely different):

"For three years you YouTubers have been ripping us off, taking tens of thousands of our videos and putting them up on YouTube."

So begins one of the current hottest viral videos. It stars the Monty Python team, and explains why they have decided to stop attempts to remove the illegally uploaded videos on YouTube - and have instead signed up to the site's Video ID system, which identifies rights holders' material and allows them to choose to have it either removed from the site, or have adverts attached to it.

The Pythons have decided on the second option. And, while a year ago the industry might have thought this was one of the team's characteristically absurd plots, the Video ID system is becoming well-established. More than 300 companies have signed up since its launch (six months ago in the UK, nearer to 12 in the US), including Sony Music International, AFP, Electronic Arts and CBS. The vast majority of those rights holders - 90% of them - are choosing, like the Pythons, to place ads around the content.

However, the Guardian writer still seems not to have quite got it:

And there is method in the Pythonesque madness of giving away valuable content for free - Monty Python's DVD sales are up more than 1,000% following the launch of their YouTube channel, and that's on Amazon alone. Fans must have been listening to the Python message: "We want you to click on links and buy our movies and TV shows. Only this will soften our pain and disgust at being ripped off all these years ..."

It's not madness at all, it's common sense.  You can't stop people accessing your content for free, but you can give them the opportunity to pay for something. 


NTSCMP Print Edition

At first I thought this was a joke.  Why would someone who claimed to believe that the Internet is the future (on RTHK) publish a printed magazine? 

However, having finally found copies of the third issue of NTSCMP in a branch of Dymocks (quite a lot of copies, actually), I can confirm that it does really exist, and the layout is every bit as awful as the website.

Spike was a good magazine written by professional journalists, and that failed, so it's really hard to see how NTSCMP can survive - and that branch of Dymocks still seems to have the same number of copies on the shelf after about a month, so the signs are not good. 


Not a leg to stand on

imageAn amusing mistake by The Sun newspaper, from Photo Shop Disasters via The Guardian.

The Sun carried photographs of a member of the royal family in a boat (he was actually on Royal Navy manoeuvres off Montserrat).

For some reason, they decided the local who was actually driving the boat (see right) should be removed from the photograph.  This can be clearly seen by comparing the photograph in the newspaper with the same picture in other newspapers (and on The Sun's website).

imageThe really funny part is that they didn't actually remove all of him -  his knee and lower leg.are still clearly visible in the photograph (see left) even though his arm and body - and his lovely hat - were all lovingly erased.

They also removed the boat's engine, presumably because having removed the man they were left with half of the engine, and that looked a bit weird.

Though not quite as weird as a stray leg, it has to be said.


Apparently the Internet isn't the future anymore

One of the things you have to admire about George Adams is that he is always willing to admit that he was wrong.  He used to complain that blogs were trivial and inconsequential, and then he started putting photographs of his girlfriend (and all sorts of other trivia) on to his own website - though he can't quite bring himself to use the b word.

He took part in a phone-in on RTHK and predicted that Spike magazine would fail because the Internet was the future.  Apparently he was also wrong about that, because he has now deleted all the content from his website and started publishing a print magazine instead (well, he deleted everything on the main page apart from a long plug for the print edition, but has now added a couple of new stories). 

I haven't seen the magazine (distribution up in the wilds of the New Territories is patchy to say the least), but it is apparently available in dozens of branches of Park'n'Shop, which is owned by Li Ka Shing, who George accused of blocking his website (though others felt that it was actually a technical problem with his web host).  Obviously he's changed his mind as well.

It's hard to believe that he can sell enough copies even to cover his costs.  Or maybe this is all an elaborate joke.  Does he do jokes (apart from hugely amusing one about all bloggers being fat)?