Twenty-four hours ago I posted a mildly ranty tweet (I know, I can’t believe it either) about the current proliferation of techniques/tools for modern web development. Here’s the tweet in question.
This was a frustrated summary of something I’ve been feeling for quite a while now. I’m a front-end web developer of a fair few years now and I feel like the last couple of years have really seen the rise of a kind of web development I’m not sure is actually good for the web. I’d like to expand a little here on why that is.
The rise of the DevOps movement of late has been a large factor in this process. There’s a lengthy article doing the rounds from Smashing Magazine describing a semi-mythical superdeveloper who can deploy code anywhere, test anything, automate package management and compile code assets like her life depended on it. Nowhere in this fantasy does it talk about the quality of the user experience of this imaginary product; the metrics of its user engagement; the visual language of its design (except to say that they’re all meaningless if the performance is poor).
Performance is of course a hugely important measure in this age of the mobile web, but performance for performance’s sake trivialises what we do. A relentless focus on how to scrape every last frame from Chrome’s rendering engine seems a bit redundant when the page it’s loading is a half-baked rendition of something a smarter agency did nine months previously. Why render a beautiful graph of pageload speeds if nobody’s converting on your product signup page?
I want to see more people talking and writing about incredible digital experiences they’ve had. How can we build products and sites more like them? How can we achieve a sense of playfulness and interaction that’s so uniquely native to the web? What kind of interface can we create to best reflect what our tool aims to solve?
The web browser is a bit like a car built to travel on the road that is the web. Each website and app we make is a destination on that road. Let’s stop tuning up the engine and start driving somewhere.
After the example set by my friend Andy, a veritable homebrew beer connoisseur, I decided it was about time I took my liking for proper craft beer and real ale to a new level by attempting to make some of my own. Anything that was possible to do in medieval times with a few wooden buckets and some questionably-sourced water should be more than do-able by a modern-day tech nerd, right?
It turns out that basic homebrewing is almost laughably simple, although the best results I’ve had have been from skipping the most basic methods and graduating to something a bit more respectable. The aforementioned Andy has taken things to an even higher level and his beers have the taste to match — look out for his stuff on sale in Leeds soon, I hope/imagine.
This post aims to document (by request of several beer enthusiast friends) my processes, equipment, what I’ve done wrong and what’s been the best tips. I’m also going to link copiously to the BrewUK website where I’ve bought most of my kit, because they’re a great little store competing with the big boys with brilliant customer care. Show them some love.
What you need to make drinkable homebrew beer
This isn’t an exhaustive list and I’m not an expert by any means, but these are the things I’ve gradually acquired since starting homebrewing in September 2012. You can get all these bits from any good homebrewing shop (or Amazon, but seriously, BrewUK have a great online shop and deliver anywhere) and they don’t take up too much space or require much expertise to use.
All of the stuff I do is “extract brewing” (so perhaps not “proper” homebrewing, but then I don’t have the time/money to fork out for equipment to do “all grain” just yet). You can probably get yourself set up to brew your own beer for about £60 for the equipment and maybe £20 a time for each brew. Here’s my kit list:
- 2x plastic 5 gallon fermenting bin
(these are used to store the brew while it’s fermenting – I use two so I can transfer the fermented beer to a new, clean vessel when bottling, although you don’t have to do this)
- 1x large metal pan
(needs to be able to comfortably hold 5 litres of water — if you’re lucky you’ll already have one; I did)
- 1x decent thermometer
(I bought a jam thermometer from Wilkinson which fits brilliantly into the above pan)
- Set of tubing
(used for transferring the brew from your vessel to your bottles)
- 1x automatic pump
(don’t bother with the suck-and-run type tube where you use your mouth to start it going, it’s unsanitary and often results in a mouthful of tepid beer)
- 1x pack of sanitiser
(this is a powder you add to water to sanitise all your equipment before brewing. I use VWP.)
- 1x bottling tap
(not essential but cheap and makes bottling much, much easier)
- 1x bottle capper
(you’ll need this to properly seal the caps on the bottles)
- 30-40x empty beer bottles
(ideally coloured as transparent bottles let light in, which is bad)
- 30-40x bottle caps
(probably buy a few more than you need, just in case)
- hydrometer and measuring tube
(this is used to measure the “gravity” of your brew, eg. how high its alcohol content is)
- 2x muslin bags
(not essential but make it much, much easier to filter your brew for hops etc)
You can buy starter kits which supply most of the above items for a relatively cheap price, if that’s your bag.
A note on “brewkits”
When I first started I began with a brewkit — these are ready-made tins of syrupy gloopy which you simply add water and yeast to. The results I got from these were fairly uninspiring: both tasted acidic and flat (I’m sure my lack of experience didn’t help either) and generally didn’t really feel like “proper” homebrewing. I’d compare it to cooking a meal from a sauce out of a jar versus making it from scratch yourself.
Extract brewing, the type I’m describing here, is a kind of halfway house: you’re essentially boiling malt extract, hops and sugar together, cooling it and adding water, then “pitching” yeast into it and leaving it to ferment. All-grain brewing is more complex still: you boil the entire thing (not just part of it) so need more equipment and you have to “mash” the malt yourself rather than use pre-prepared stuff like I’m doing.
Okay, that’s enough preamble. Here are the steps I take when making an extract brew. It’s worth pointing out that these are “recipe packs” I’ve bought from BrewUK: their members often reverse engineer popular ales and reproduce their taste and style using common hops and malts. I’m finding this a good way to learn more about the process as I’m not completely in the dark and have a recognisable taste goal to aim for when brewing. When I get more confident I’m excited to start experimenting with flavours on my own.
Brewing your first extract kit: step-by-step
0. Sanitise all your equipment (not pictured)
This is the most boring but most important step, so it comes before all the others. Using your sanitisation solution, soak all your equipment in it for the period indicated on the packet. I tend to fill my fermentation vessels with the solution then dump all the equipment I’m using in this liquid for an hour or so, which seems to work. You’ll also need to sanitise your bottles when it comes to bottling, but for my last few brews I’ve just ran them on a hot dishwasher cycle (after carefully washing them) which hasn’t seen any ill effects.
1. Boil your water and add the malt extract
The specific recipe you’re using will tell you how much to use. In my case I bring 5 litres of water to the boil and monitor the temperature carefully. Here’s the malt extract from my Timothy Taylor Landlord recipe pack:
The malt extract then goes in the water where I maintain a constant temperature for around 90 minutes. It goes in looking like this:
Once it goes in, depending on the type, you’ll immediately get a delicious, rich aroma, a bit like a strong coffee or dark chocolate. This scent is liable to fill your flat so be mindful of non-beer-loving friends and flatmates. Here’s me with a pan of malt exuding deliciousness (the malt, not me):
2. Add the hops
Next come the hops. These are my favourite part, mostly because I like hoppy beers, but also because the effect they have on the character of the brew is really interesting. First I separate them out in a bowl (they typically come in tightly-packed storage so this stops them being clumped together):
One thing I learned about this stage of the brew is the importance of bagging things. Here’s what I do now using a cheap muslin bag:
In earlier brews I just dumped the hops straight into the brew like this:
This smelled great but was a pain in the arse to then filter so I could leave it to ferment cleanly without the hops continuing to effect the flavour. It also meant I had to mess around with this sieve, too small for the vessel, so I sellotaped it in place:
I’ve since bought a large funnel instead, but you don’t need this so much if you don’t foolishly fill your brew with floaty bits instead. Here’s what a proper one should look like:
You can see the usefulness of the muslin bag: the hop flavours are still allowed to soak through and engage the brew, but like a giant teabag, I can just take it out when it’s time.
3. Add the malt and further hops
After an hour or so of maintaining the hops at the correct temperature, you can see how the brew has reduced somewhat and darkened. Now it’s time to add the spraymalt, which is a bit like sugar.
You add loads of this and stir it in: don’t be alarmed if it clumps together in white lumps; stirring it frequently means these mix in.
The brews I’ve done usually stipulate a second type of hops to be added here. Once this is done and the boil is finished, it’s a case of carefully transferring it to your primary fermentation vessel. I use my funnel and filter to strip away any remaining bits as I do this.
4. Fill up, cool, and check the gravity
Then I fill the vessel up with cold water (right from the tap, although if you’re ultra-paranoid about contamination you could use bottled water or cooled boiled tap water) and wait for the temperature to be around 20C. At this point you should take a hydrometer reading:
This tool basically shows you the “gravity” of your brew, which can then be combined with another reading once fermentation is complete to determine the alcohol content of your beer. I usually photograph it from a few angles then I have a less ambiguous reference if I need to refer back to it. On one brew I forgot to do this before adding the yeast meaning I had no concrete idea what the ABV was, but it’s not really a showstopper.
5. Pitch the yeast
At this point you should be ready to pitch your yeast. For this brew I used live yeast (as opposed to dried): I’ve had much better results with these types. This one is liquid yeast and simply requires a good shake before pitching (although it’s very active so treat it like you would a shaken beer can):
This one is a “smack-pack”: still liquid, but contains a dissolvable packet inside which basically activates the yeast cells once broken. You just slap the bag a few times to break the inner packet and then the whole thing expands excitingly. It looks like this:
This yeast worked amazingly well for me, so much so that the fermenting stage got a bit too vigorous and ejected foamy solution all over my bathroom cupboard. Here’s the (very active) fermentation a few days in:
6. Wait (not for the last time)
Now the waiting game begins. Many brewkit recipes say to leave it to ferment for a week but I’ve always done two weeks. Be patient and resist the urge to keep looking inside the vessel as you’ll increase the chances of contaminating it. After two weeks it should’ve reached “final gravity”, which you can see by taking a hydrometer reading. If the reading doesn’t change after two days’ readings, then it’s done and ready to bottle. Here’s the before and after shot of my brew’s gravity reading:
Once the gravity reading stops changing (or two weeks have elapsed, which usually does the trick for me), you’re ready to bottle. Some people at this point run a secondary fermentation where they transfer the brew to a new vessel but I’ve never bothered with that.
7. Get ready for bottling
Before you’re ready to bottle you’ll need to sanitise everything again. In this picture I’ve got a bunch of bottles soaking in hot water in my bathtub. This isn’t to sanitise them, but to make it easier to get their labels off. Some bottles have annoying plastic-based stickers which won’t come off so I gave up and threw them out. You can buy bottles from homebrew stores but it’s more fun to drink them yourself and save them, right?
Once the bottles are label-free, you’ll need to sanitise them. I’ve just been putting them in the dishwasher on a hot cycle which seems to work, but I’ve also experimented with leaving them to soak (again, in the bath) with sanitiser solution and then carefully rinsing them. The dishwasher is my preferred method since the inside of the bath is obviously not going to be the most sterile environment ever.
8. Priming your brew
Before you can bottle your brew you’ll need to “prime” it: this is basically to begin a secondary fermentation inside the bottle where yeast is allowed to react again. To do this you simply need to sanitise around 100g of sugar (I bought special priming sugar which gave better results than household sugar) by dissolving it in boiling water and letting it cool. You can speed the cooling by resting the pan in cold water, covered, like this:
My first brew, I manually added a teaspoonful of sugar to each bottle. This was messy, inaccurate and time-consuming. By transferring the brew into a new vessel containing the priming solution you ensure an even distribution and make things much simpler. Definitely worth the investment in a second vessel, just for this purpose.
Once the priming solution is ready, I add it to my other vessel and position it on the floor (gravity comes in useful in this next section). I then run a tube from the brew vessel (which I moved an hour beforehand to allow it to settle again) into the priming vessel. I bought an automatic pump which makes it pretty trivial to start the flow going as pictured here:
It’s important to try not to disturb the contents of the beer too much and allow oxygen into it at this stage so try to keep the end of the hose inside the priming solution so it doesn’t splash around and cause bubbles. This is how the inside of the fermented brew looks while this is happening:
9. Bottling tap fun
Once you’ve moved your brew into the priming vessel you can swap its position with the original fermentation vessel, again allowing some time for it to settle. I then add the bottling tube to the end of the hose and get it ready to go, as pictured here:
The beauty of the bottling tube means I can just place it inside a bottle and press it to the bottom of the glass. As soon as I lift it up it stops releasing beer so it’s trivial to fill up a bottle. Save yourself time and spillage by just buying one of these right away — much easier than manually turning on/off a tap.
10. Capping and labelling your bottles
All bottled up? The final step is to cap those bottle. I’ve found that the capper can occasionally break the top off bottles and this has only ever happened with clear bottles, for me. Given that clear bottles let the light into your brew this is already a reason not to use them, so I’d avoid them altogether. Remember you should have sanitised your bottle caps too by soaking them in some solution.
All done? You should be tired, probably covered in beerstains, but proud of yourself. I end up with something like this.
And finally, if you have some artistic ability, you can make a label. If you’re a cheapskate you can just nick some envelope label stickers from work and write the name of your brew on there, but I bought some sticker template sheets from Amazon and printed a design onto them which I could then stick over the bottles. They looked like this:
11. A bit more waiting
The next step is more waiting: this beer will improve over time so give it a couple of weeks before you crack one open. If you did everything right you should have something flavoursome, drinkable and even good. Don’t give up if it doesn’t taste quite right: my first few were disappointing but once I got the hang of it I was producing things that I was prepared to share with other people (even with Andy, whose opinion was nerve-wrackingly important to me).
As a final note, it’s worth pointing out that I’ve only done four brews myself and am far from an expert. If I was starting from scratch, though, these are the tips I wish I’d known and the (cheap!) bits of kit I wish I’d had to save time. Good luck, and good brewing.
I’m a cycling geek. I love it: the romance of the road; the century of history; the epic duels; the famous climbs. It’s a sport not without its scandals but still markedly different from the world of primadonna footballers with fans shelling out hundreds of pounds just to watch a match.
I’m also a journalism geek. I work for a newspaper and have been interested in publishing and writing since I was a kid. Similarly, it’s an industry that’s been in the spotlight lately for all the wrong reasons. I’d like to explore the perhaps surprising parallels between these two seemingly-unrelated worlds.
Nostalgia and the “golden age”
Cycling has already had its day, if you believe the cynics and traditionalists. The Tour de France, cycling’s grand spectacle, used to be much harder than it is today, with average distances almost a thousand miles longer than the current race length back in the 1960s. Riders back then couldn’t rely on in-ear radios and mics with constant feedback from their support teams: they had to read the race tactically and respond with bravery, panache and judgement, rather than be told when to make their move. Equipment was less complex, with things like skinsuits, aerodynamic helmets (or even helmets altogether) and tri-bars yet to be dreamed up for use on the road.
If you believe certain hoary old reporters, the same is true of journalism. These days, of course, there’s no traditional “shoe leather” journalism: it’s all reported via Twitter or, god forbid, “crowdsourced” from “citizen journalists”. Back in my day, they say, we didn’t have SEO and analytics: we had to learn the knack of finding a good story ourselves. And there was no email, no YouTube, no tweeting…
Scandal and cheats
Cycling has been infamous of late for its doping stories: Lance Armstrong’s fall from grace is well-documented and other riders have suffered less mainstream but equally dramatic public exposures in the past. Some parts of the cycling community still regard all professional riders as cheats through-and-through, casting suspicion on any successful rider who claims to be “clean”. New and advanced techniques for escaping the eyes of the drug control testers are constantly appearing, with evidence that it’s been going on for years unchecked.
Journalism too has been airing its dirty laundry in public: phone hacking and its subsequent media farce has uncomfortable parallels with the Armstrong story: dozens of lackeys forced under the bus to hide the affairs of the senior figures; televised courtroom confessionals; the closure of publications (just as cycling teams were left without sponsors or equipment). A public who used to think only politicians were “all liars” now think the same of journalists, too. Seedy back-room collaborations with officials were rife in both worlds and laws set up to attempt to govern the misdeeds were quickly derided as toothless and irrelevant.
Technology and spirit
As manufacturing and digital tech develops, cycling has changed dramatically: the rulemakers have to enforce arbitrary weight limits on ever-more-lightweight bike frames, and teams increasingly dominate through their mastery of data and communications. Team Sky (already helping make the link between the worlds of cycling and journalism more explicit) have been criticised for their dominance of the sport but reliance on data to win races, with bitter rivals complaining that they’re not riding in the spirit of the race, but instead focusing more on their power meters than their competitors’ legs.
Likewise, journalism has been shaken by the arrival of new tech, with the more canny organisations quickly cottoning on to the best ways to attract eyeballs to their content. The cynical manipulations of SEO and linkbaiting aren’t worlds apart from the rider with both eyes on his power meter, knowing exactly what numbers he has to hit to climb the mountain the quickest. Increasingly, the news organisations stubbornly sticking with print and insisting those who innovate digitally are digging themselves into a hole are becoming harder to take seriously.
In both industries, the wheels keep spinning (if you’ll pardon the pun). Cycling has had its watershed moment: riders are more conscious than ever that they’re in the public eye and they’re less able to get away with cheating. Similarly, journalists are more exposed than ever, with an audience frequently reminding them that they’re under scrutiny and potentially replaceable.
Cycling used to be a peasant’s sport, but now the best teams are the richest teams with the strongest commitment to data and analysis. That might not always be the case. In a stage race like the Tour, teams with a strong squad like Sky can dominate by sheer force of strength, but all it takes is a rouleur like Jens Voigt to blaze ahead and disrupt everything, adding a dash of excitement to proceedings and underscoring the point that ultimately, pro cycling is about courage, grit and showmanship.
Journalism, then, is at risk of becoming dominated by the numbers game too. In a climate where profits and losses are more crucial than ever, it’s tempting to dump the non-commercial sections and prioritise “viral” content to max out on monthly uniques. This won’t prevent a flyaway blogger or disruptive newcomer from stirring things up, though, and nor should it.
It’s also key to recognise that nostalgia is a fool’s errand. Riders in the days of Simpson and Merckx were doping too, albeit without today’s sophistication. Advances in equipment shouldn’t be ignored: they aren’t racing in a vacuum. Likewise journalists harking back to the glory days of print and sounding off about the internet “killing journalism” need to look at the bigger picture again.
The best stages of the Tour are the mountains: the sheer, grinding effort; the constant possibility that a leading contender might cave in and drop out of the race; the unpredictable young challengers rising up to overtake the seasoned pros. And after the climb comes the descent: not everyone can handle that relentless speed, either. But the ones who can: they’re the winners, it’s in their DNA. As journalists, we need to climb that mountain too, but we also need to be ready to move with speed and urgency when we’ve made it to the top if we want to pull on the yellow jersey.
A few months ago I was approached by John Mair of the University of Northampton who’d attended my class at the Guardian’s Digital Journalism masterclass. He asked me if I’d be up for speaking at a mini-conference for journalism students titled “Imagine journalism in ten years’ time”. I went along and presented my thoughts, along with a brilliant set of speakers: my former colleague Judith Townend, now finishing a PhD at City; Andy Dickinson, lecturer in journalism at UCLAN; Teodora Beleaga, Insights Analyst at KBM Group EU, and Jay Rosen, professor of journalism at NYU, who joined us via Skype. The event was chaired by former BBC editor Kevin Marsh.
This blogpost is a writeup of the ideas I rattled off in my fifteen minute talk. Judith and Andy have also shared their presentations, both of which were extremely interesting and well-presented — go and check theirs out, too!
A caveat to begin with: this kind of thing is difficult. Trying to anticipate the future is almost always an exercise in futility. Let’s start by looking backwards: what world did we live in ten years ago?
It’s 2003: Facebook and Twitter are just twinkles in the eyes of Silicon Valley. Google’s dominance of the entire information sector is mostly limited to search. No iPhone, Android or any other true smartphone. News websites are growing but not eclipsing print yet. Burgers were still made out of beef.
Today we live in a world where news stories break in seconds and the first people to report on them often aren’t journalists. Young people no longer buy newspapers but get their information from their social networks. The most profitable technology companies are the ones with the most information stored and capacity to use it. A huge proportion of society uses mobile computing as their primary or secondary device.
Trying to anticipate this all over again is challenging, but not impossible. It’s tempting to imagine that a decade from now we’ll all be using some revolutionary new device or app, living in virtual reality, that kind of thing. The reality is perhaps a bit less “futuristic”: the things that will dominate the year 2023 are probably already with us now, or at least, the seeds of their conception.
The journalism industry is in a strange place at the moment. An optimist might describe it like a phoenix about to burn to ashes, shortly to be reborn in a blaze of glory. A pessimist might describe it as just being burnt to ashes.
What’s certain is that change — dramatic change — is a constant. The brilliant thing about the web is that it’s levelled communication and collaboration — and it doesn’t wait to ask permission from those it’s making obsolete.
That doesn’t mean to say that in 2023, journalism will be obsolete. I’d argue that it will be even more relevant, perhaps more important than it has ever been. Right now, we’re in the infancy of what I’m creatively calling the “data age”. A decade from now, society will probably look back and laugh at us for the way we willingly surrendered our personal data to Facebook, Google and co, without really worrying. We don’t really appreciate the scale and the scope of what we’re giving away.
Prediction #1: Google and co will still dominate, but the news industry can add value via curation and verification of information.
The dominance of Google, Twitter and Facebook will continue — they’ve laid the groundwork for storing and retrieving all kinds of information, to the point where it’s not financially viable to even consider competing with them. Their monopolisation of the information space means their value lies in being able to do things with that data.
How is this relevant to journalism? Well: isn’t that all journalism really is: doing things with data? You don’t have to be writing about government statistics or financial scandals to be working alongside information: especially the “social” information Facebook specialises in.
This means that by 2023, large news companies need to offer something that Google and co can’t or won’t: human curation. Google pride themselves on the power of their algorithms: computational functions which decide the importance of various bits of data. Introducing human judgement into the process would be an admission of failure in their eyes; a weak link in the chain.
You can’t automate all journalism, though (but that won’t stop people trying). In a world where things are reported almost in real time, the problem of 2023 will be information overload. Actually, I’ll correct that: the problem of 2013 is information overload. By 2023 journalism should have fixed that problem. I can’t possibly keep up with everything that’s posted on Twitter, nor do I want to. Good journalism can find the story there, work out what’s relevant to me, and show me the parts I want to see.
This means, then, that the real value of future journalism is in verification, curation, and access. Even today when news is broken by “citizen journalists”, people openly speculate about the truth of the story until it’s “confirmed” by the mainstream press. A gas plant exploded up the road from my flat a few years ago and Twitter was the first thing I turned to for news: the papers didn’t cover it for almost 24 hours but in that period, Twitter “witnesses” had variously labelled it a tube train accident, an electricity failure, a gas explosion and a terrorist attack. The papers, when they got around to reporting it, had access to the right people and institutions and were able to get to the source of what had actually happened. In a future full of armchair experts, the journalism of 2023 can cut through the information density to show us what’s truthful.
Prediction #2: we’ll see sharper, more focused journalism.
One thing we’ll see in 2023 is sharper, more focused journalism. Gone are the days when newspapers were all things to all people. In a world where the news was hand-delivered to your door every morning, shipped to your town or village from the busy printing press every night, it made sense that your newspaper told you the news, but also the weather, the TV listings, the best new films and culture, and the football results. These days it’s getting harder to argue for that monopoly: in 2023 it’ll be gone. It’s already becoming unlikely that a single publication can provide the majority of content its readers consume. People are used to shopping around for the things they want to read, especially when much of it is free online. Larger publications might have to scale back to be leaner and more specific to the most loyal or profitable parts of their audience.
Similarly, because the concept of a “physical” newspaper is already in decline, by 2023, a general-purpose print newspaper will be a kind of luxury or “boutique” product, a bit like bands today still putting out their records on vinyl or even cassette: aimed at specialist, even hobbyist followers with niche interests. The upshot of this is that the “narrative” of a daily paper is completely removed: nobody will read the entire day’s news and features.
Again, even today this is already the case: every weekday the Guardian publishes enough words to fill the average Tolstoy novel. Newspaper websites can no longer rely on all their visitors being “Guardian readers” or “Daily Mail readers”: traffic will largely come from referrals via search and social networks where readers are less interested in the specific brand of the newspaper they’re reading as the content of that news itself. This is great news if you’re a journalist but perhaps less great if you’re a newspaper company.
Prediction #3: (some) journalists and their networks become more valuable and powerful than newspaper organisations.
This means that the real value for newspapers of the future are journalists with a strong network who know how to promote their own content. In the past, less popular editorial content was buoyed up by virtue of its inclusion in the larger body of a popular publication. In the future, individual journalists will become more empowered to own their content from production through to publication and promotion: you don’t need a printing press any more to be a journalist, but a decade from now, you might not even need the newspaper company.
Prediction #4: hardware becomes even more fragmented; networks will be always-on.
Hardware is another interesting area: while we probably won’t be strapping on headsets and goggles to view augmented reality eight-dimensional newspapers, we will certainly be using handheld, portable computers as our main entrypoints to the web. It’ll be a given to consumers of the future that the content they read follows them from device to device, seamlessly. Leave the house and read half an article on the bus, then get to work and carry on from the same paragraph on a desktop computer. Similarly, we’ll always be connected: the days when we had to stand, arm outstretched, in a field in Glastonbury just to send a text will be long gone. Fast 4G (or better) signal will be a given, even underground or in the sky.
In relation to this web of devices, the role of digital editors will evolve to become much more data-focused: specifically metadata about content itself. No more will journalists battle with CMSs to arrange pixels on screens to tell the day’s news. Instead they’ll focus on providing context and guidance to algorithms and functions which can in turn lay out pages for a variety of screens, devices and other contexts — automatically. In a world where the concept of a single template for a page of content is almost completely impossible to define, we’ll focus our energies on automating what we can’t keep up with manually.
The always-on connectedness of the future means that breaking news will become a kind of arms race: some publications will choose to end hostilities altogether. News companies will have to choose between chasing breaking news and competing against less scrupulous sources who don’t wait to verify or confirm stories, or accepting they’ll never beat the social networks and instead focusing on in-depth analysis, verification and comment. Newspapers were originally created to tell people what had been happening: the future won’t need them for that any more. This gives journalism a unique opportunity to act not only as the voice of record, but the voice of response.
Prediction #5: readers will replace editors (in some capacities)
Will the journalism of the future need editors any more? The great democratisation of the web means that users are becoming commissioner, interviewer and reporter. Sites like reddit offer an “Ask Me Anything” section where members of the public, celebrities, and, occasionally, sitting presidents of the USA turn up to ask questions submitted by reddit users. This community is self-organising: reddit’s staff didn’t create it and they don’t police it. Users suggest interesting topics or people to talk about; users submit questions and vote for the ones they like best; users step up to answer questions where they’ve had interesting jobs or experiences. Users do the investigative work when a dubious source appears, often tracking down internet history to prove or disprove a particularly bold claim. They’re doing the jobs of journalists without knowing it. Reddit gets over four billion pageviews every month.
In this kind of environment it becomes harder to justify the inner circle of privileged people who control the day’s new agenda. Power is transferring away from institutions and directly onto content. The internet today is becoming a tapestry of connected links, with traffic crossing and diverging from every thread. Individual nodes on that graph attract readers and revenue, but those nodes are pieces of content, not entire publications.
Prediction #6: models of content become much more web-first and driven by information
The model of that content is also likely to be dramatically different in the future. For an industry claiming to be “digital first”, much of the production work is still rooted in print. Newspaper websites use clunky content management systems to dump lengthy blocks of text into boxes, add a few tags and then press “Publish”. In the future this will be exposed as dumb and unhelpful. Even today, forward-thinking news organisations are looking at how to re-model news to show its narrative: the articles that cover a specific event; the events that happen as part of a larger story; the importance and tone of these stories against other things currently occurring.
In ten years’ time there’ll be a much reduced concept of the “atomic unit of news”. Articles will no longer have a single, one-size-fits-all form. We’ll tailor content automatically to different audiences: the reader who has five minutes before their train arrives; the reader with half an hour on their lunch break; the reader who’s an expert on this topic and doesn’t need the context; the reader who’s never heard of Oscar Pistorius and needs background. These newly-modelled articles can show you what’s new since you last visited; show you the key events in the sequence; cut out the paragraphs of “explainers” you already read in the four previous articles.
Prediction #7: digital advertising will never replace print advertising in terms of revenue.
Digital advertising as a revenue source will perhaps never replace print advertising in terms of scale. The future of ad-supported journalism is therefore at stake: it seems unlikely that it can continue a decade from now. This could mean that all large publications eventually put up some form of paywall, but I think the trend in free digital products on the web will continue and the news industry will eventually conclude that it can never reproduce the model it had in the print days and find alternate revenue streams. Advertising will be much more focused and quality-over-quantity than it is today: even in the age of Facebook advertising where brands can aim their ads at ever-more-specific niche audiences, we still see newspaper website lumbering with dozens of unrelated and irrelevant ads. In the future there might only be one ad on the page, but it’ll be the one most likely to engage you.
Prediction #8: user comments “below the line” become tamed (or neutered)
Reader interaction with papers could transform hugely: most newspapers today offer comment sections for readers to respond, and these are currently becoming fairly polarising among journalists, many of whom have called for comments to be disabled on their articles. We’ve also seen the rise of Twitter users being charged for contempt of court, with a gradual understanding coming into place that the “free speech” of the web isn’t always as free as we think. Newspapers of the future may decide to revert back to a one-way form of communication, moderating all responses via the equivalent of the “letters page”, rather than opening things up as a free-for-all.
Prediction #9: we’ll learn how to “scale” journalism.
There’s a term in software development called “scalability”: it refers to the ability of the software in question to expand outwards to satisfy increasing demands. In software terms it means writing efficient code which doesn’t put unnecessary strain on servers, and also the ability to deploy code into “the cloud”, meaning that in times of high traffic, we can quickly add more server capacity to cope with the extra load.
By this definition, journalism as we know it today doesn’t scale. To put it in software terms, it’s a “legacy product”. Once, it was feasible to have journalists around the world in various bureaux, each reporting on their patch and filing copy over the wires. The day’s news was assembled in one location and sent off to the printers, who then shipped it around the country while the nation slept.
Today, though, this approach is no longer scalable. More and more of the world is becoming “connected”: where once an Egyptian revolution would’ve been covered by foreign correspondents, we’re now seeing local citizens tweet minute-by-minute accounts. The notion of a newspaper reporting events from 12 hours or more ago seems laughable in this information age: it’s old news. The physical labour and financial burden of shipping newsprint around the world seems archaic and quaint. The old mechanisms can no longer scale to meet the challenges of modern journalism.
Luckily for us, though, the means of upscaling the news are already here — we don’t have to wait for the future. Where once an investigative reporter had to sift through six thousand documents to find the three important ones, now they can work with data scientists to find the stuff that really matters: or even open it up to their audience. This doesn’t devalue journalists: in fact, it gives them more value because they have the ultimate say in what goes and what doesn’t. They have the specialist knowledge of the subject, whereas the crowd of assistants might simply recognise something juicy and pass it on.
Prediction #10: there will still be journalism in ten years’ time.
This period of change that we’re in now is a perilous time for those old structures: it’s hard to see how we get to this utopian future of curation, automation and, well, profitability. Nobody feels confident enough to make the first move and every mis-step is branded a failure. Journalism is too important to be tied down to nostalgia and traditionalism
I’m definitely a believer in the phoenix-from-the-ashes analogy, though: the internet may herald the death of many “offline” traditions and methodologies, but it also ushers in a thousand new ones, each with massive possibilities for change and engagement, in ways impossible even a decade ago.
Our choice as journalists is simple: we can lament the “death of journalism” as the things we once knew become a legacy, or we can feel reinvigorated by the possibility of what’s just around the corner.
Endnotes: I’m much indebted to the work of C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell and Clay Shirky for their fantastic Post-Industrial Journalism, which I read midway through preparing these ideas and finished feeling like I’d have to throw everything out and start again. Also thanks to Theresa Malone at the Guardian for letting me bounce some of these ideas off her, as well as offering me feedback and even reading the damned thing of her own volition (unlike my long-suffering partner Maddy who was forced to listen to me read it out).
Here are some things I saw in Paris on a recent trip. I really enjoyed the weekend and found it a beautiful and fascinating place, and these are some of the moments which stood out to me as different or unexpected. Positive or negative, they’ll stay with me as memories.
On the Metro, taking line 12 through Jules Joffrin station, looking out of the window to see two homeless people lying at the far end of the station. A man and a woman, they were both surrounded by a huge array of equipment: blankets, sleeping bags, boxes, bags, containers. The man was asleep surrounded by his things and looked like he’d been there for a long time (days, weeks, more). The woman drank from a fizzy drink can and maintained eye contact with me the entire time we passed through the station.
The Eiffel tower, lit up “like a vajazzle”, after the laser light show was done at the end of the night. Why on earth did Paris’s rulers decide turning one of the world’s most famous structures into a giant disco ball was a good idea?
Sitting in an almost apologetically bad fast food place opposite Gare du Nord, exhausted after a day of carrying a heavy bag around Montmarte and still with two hours to kill before the train. Laughing at the succession of people trying to enter the restaurant via sealed-shut emergency exit door, until one man stood swaying like a zombie in front of it, eyes blank. He then appeared in front of our table minutes later, young and unblinking, simply holding his hand out wordlessly for money. He shuffled away and was gone like our appetites.
Young, attractive Parisians in a tucked-away wine bar in the 1st arrondissement, eating expensive cheese carelessly from the end of sharp knives. The perspiring waitress taking our wine order in terms of how many Euros we wanted to spend. A mid-thirties Frenchwoman gently mocking me in English when I pretended to understand her friendly aside and she overheard my “dunno” when Maddy asked me what she’d said. Drunk on good wine we didn’t know the name of.
Casually throwing ourselves into the Metro with the cocksure confidence of Londoners abroad only to find ourselves struggling to locate the exit (any exit) in Chatelet station, as we circle around the warren-like tunnels following multiple conflicting signs marked Sortie.
Turning off the buzzing Rue de Rivoli, like a French Oxford Street, into a silent court with enormous wooden doors, to find our Airbnb accommodation peaceful, quiet and wonderful.
Snarling “non!” with rapidly-increasing annoyance at persistent and aggressive trinket sellers surrounding the park below Sacré Coeur, whose stalking and surrounding forced us to unwillingly ascend the hundreds of steep concrete steps to the summit, rather than linger amid their desperate salesmanship as we decided how best to reach the top in comfort.
Pacing around Saint-Germain on a Friday night looking for a bar that wasn’t a restaurant, stumbling upon the perfect candidate, only to hear loud Brits abroad braying from the outdoor seating and reminding us guiltily of our hypocrisy. Finding somewhere much better instead.
Noting the succession of scam artists surrounding the Eiffel tower playing variations on the three cups game, with each “winner” receiving their €200 note with blank-faced “delight”. Each player was by sheer co-incidence the same ethnicity as the ruddy-faced eastern European gamesmaster so bravely grinning despite his losses.
Nipping into a mini supermarket to buy coffee to find it stocking a better selection of cheeses than many British fromageries.
Watching six dozen tourists fight one another for elbow space so they could take photos of the Mona Lisa behind bulletproof glass and two security guards. For the first time in my life, I see people turning their backs to great artworks to take self-shots of themselves with a classic in the background.
Going for breakfast in the café from Amelie and despite our attempts at being subtle fans on a homage, feeling our cover completely blown by the multiple Japanese couples each performing a full-scale photoshoot complete with professional-grade SLRs all over the venue.