Digital publishing in a cultural world

The following are notes for a talk at the Auckland NDF barcamp, 10 July 2013


When Bruce asked me to come and be the guest today, we were pretty vague about what I should do. In the end we agreed I should talk about the things that are on my mind at the moment. That’s mainly about publishing – that’s what I do – but it’s also about working with collecting organisations and looking for ways the cultural sector can be working together.

So a bit about me and the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. I manage the ministry’s Web Team. I’m also on the NDF board and am involved in organising their conferences. I’m not a collections person – 1 year at NLNZ – but working life mainly spent in publishing.

MCH does a broad range of work in the cultural sector. It provides policy advice on arts, culture, heritage, sport and broadcasting to government, It monitors and oversees funding to agencies like radio NZ, NZ On Air, Te Papa and others. It manages significant heritage sites and oversees the Protected Objects Act and national emblems. It’s also a major publisher of both printed and digital publications.

I’m involved in the digital publications, notably sites like Te Ara and NZ History – our big two sites – attracting 600 to 700k visits a month. We also run smaller community based sites like Vietnam Oral History Project and the 28 Maori Battalion sites, and have recently helped release the WW100 website that’s part of a project working across the sector to encourage collaboration around the 100th anniversary commemorations of WW1.

MCH as a collection user

Like me, MCH doesn’t have a background in collecting, it isn’t primarily a collecting institution. We write stories and produce a lot of text content, but we illustrate those stories with images and media from collecting institutions. Try this on Google Image Search: “ auckland city libraries

We’re probably one of the country’s biggest collection users – Te Ara has 25 to 30000 resources, most from collecting institutions; NZ History has maybe 4 or 5000. As a user we’re interested in openness and ease of access and re-use – the more open collections become the easier our job is for sourcing content. But we’re mindful that it’s not as easy for collecting institutions though, but maybe we’ll talk more on that later in the day.

Multi channel publishing

As well as the websites, we’ve been experimenting in the last few years with multi channel publishing. Creating different formats of the same content in different places.

  • Roadside Stories is a good example: audio plus images, create video, publish in places like iTunes, YouTube, as an app.
  • ebooks are a new example – taking existing content and repackaging it into a new format so people can experience in a different way.

In some ways it’s picking up on COPE strategies, the idea that you create content once and publish everywhere. It’s a good idea – better systems, less duplication, updating and accuracy across all the places your content goes.

Finding the right channel for users

I find myself questioning the ‘Everywhere’ in COPE and what everywhere really means for different institutions. The web has opened up a huge number of channels to reach your users, or potential users, or at least that’s what we think.

In a fairly short period of time we’ve gone from bricks and mortar – or books in MCH’s case – to developing our own websites and on to social media and now apps. It’s caused its own chaos for many institutions who are trying to run multiple social media accounts on countless websites. At MCH we have about 20 uncoordinated accounts on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, iTunes, LinkedIn, and more I can’t remember.

So a question for us all: Are we doing it because we genuinely have users or potential users on all those websites, or is it just because we can or feel we should?

Finding the right format for your content

Something else I’ve thought of recently is the importance of finding the right format for your content.

For Roadside Stories our most successful channel has been YouTube – 120,000 views in 18 months or so. Not bad but far less than our websites, so perhaps not great. I think it’s symptomatic of a failure in that format for us.

Back to what we do really well – tell stories and write text. Without a lot of resource that doesn’t easily translate to moving images for YouTube. Other than our oral history work, creating video and audio content is a whole world that we don’t know a lot about or have the time to develop.

ebooks on the other hand suit our content far more easily and readily. We’ve got the text and with a some illustrations we can produce ebooks ad infinitum. So far they’ve proved popular with minimal promotion – about 1000 downloads in a month of content that’s already freely available.

So I’m interested in this idea of how we find the right channels and formats for our content. Others are doing it – Radio NZ has lots of audio, so they produce podcasts; National Library’s used Flickr’s cultural commons for sharing out of copyright images.

Maybe we can come back to that later in the day and talk about identifying relevant channels and formats for collecting institutions?

Building a system v just doing it

Another concern I have with COPE is organisational capacity. MCH is pretty poor at managing its content. I hope that will change, but in the meantime if we want to follow a multi channel publishing strategy it has to be on a just do it philosophy. We won’t do anything if we wait for the big system.

I don’t think that matters too much. We need to keep the many formats in mind as and when we start to develop a new system, but for now they let us experiment and explore the technology and get a better understanding of the outputs we need a system to support.

Digital content strategy

With that in mind I’m starting to push the idea that we need a comprehensive digital content strategy. Currently our websites are siloed – Te Ara has a content strategy, as does NZ History. We even have a print publishing content strategy and one for the oral history programme.

We need to look at all content and see it as a collection rather than siloed websites. Seeing our content as an asset that needs management as a whole. More than that, it’s a taxpayer funded asset and it’s incumbent on us to manage that asset on behalf of taxpayers. In that sense we’re no different to publicly funded collecting institutions in that we’re stewards of something that doesn’t belong to us.

We’re also trying to think beyond websites – that’s where Roadside Stories and ebooks fit; yes you can view is on our websites but you can also see it other places – you don’t need to come to us. At the moment they’re kind of content tasters – little tastes of our content that promote our brand and the bigger pool of content we have.

But that’s still website centric – here’s what we have, how about you come and visit our sites to see more.

One of the big questions for us, and going back to the idea that this content is an asset – what if we stopped thinking about websites at all and started thinking about a database of content that gets used and distributed by other people – on websites, apps, databases, ebooks, whatever other people want to create? What are the threats in doing that versus the benefits?

Filling the gaps

But back to managing that asset… With Te Ara, we attempt to be comprehensive across all subjects but at a relatively easy to understand level. It’s medium content. NZ History on the other hand is more selective in what it covers and goes deep. They’re very complementary – people can chose the view the level of content that suits them.

But they’re separate websites so people can’t really make that choice, and we can’t properly manage the content across the two sites – we can’t identify gaps in coverage, we can’t easily ensure they don’t contradict each other, and we can’t easily update content on the same topic that appears on both sites. Nor can we see any content overlaps.

That’s probably our biggest challenges – how to bring them together, at least at a management level if not a user interaction level as well.

Why are we doing it?

We have to constantly ask why we’re doing this. Why does the government invest money in publishing? There’s clear demand from users, and as our stats follow to a large extent the school year, we’re clearly important to education users. But could a commercial publisher do the same job? Probably not, is our view – there’s a market failure at that level that requires government intervention. But intervention for what?

The Ministry’s mantra is that it works “to enrich the lives of all New Zealanders by supporting our dynamic culture and preserving our heritage.” For us that means answering as many questions as we can that users ask about our culture and history. We need to be about answering questions that people ask.

There’s something else here about how we answer questions in a digital world that is increasingly looking for fast answers. Most people don’t ask us; they ask Google. If we’re lucky Google sends them to us, which increasingly it does – currently provides about two-thirds of our traffic.

We’re also contending with rising mobile traffic – people on small screens wanting short information. Responsive design for mobile is on everyone’s minds, but I wonder if what we need is responsive content, tailored to provide the short pithy content that works well on mobile, in search results, in a tweet or facebook post.

We have a lot of that content already, but we don’t have the mechanism to mark it up and share it easily. If we did, again, it would provide those little tastes of our content that might lead users back to a fuller experience of the deeper content we’ve got.

Digital first

I put together a paper recently at MCH about a digital publishing strategy. It talked about that idea of making our content more responsive. Unfortunately I coined the terms ‘nuggets’ to describe the very short content, which was quickly turned into McNuggets. But that aside, it’s one of the areas we need to include in a content development plan. Short stuff that grabs users on Google or in their mobile devices and brings them through to us.

The major idea I pushed is that we need to be digital first. Our digital publishing is what reaches our largest audience and helps us answer more questions than any other format. To my mind it’s a no brainer that we prioritise digital over any other output, but it didn’t sit so well with the many historians at the Ministry who write history books.

It did provoke a good discussion of what’s happening in publishing at the moment as print publishers struggle to grasp what it meant.

For the writers they see the output as a driver of research and that typically means conceptualising their work as a book. A book gives edges and form to the way they conduct their research. The publishing process itself helps makes decisions – a new pitch for a book includes an outline of the book’s argument, it’s parts and chapters, all of which help the researcher structure their research.

So there’s a tension there. It’s a tension that isn’t helped yet by the web and its early attempts at long form reading. People will read short and medium length articles but I think there’s still resistance to reading something more like a chapter from a book, let alone a whole book.

People still want to read. In a survey we ran earlier this year, most of our users asked for more in-depth articles and text content over other types of content.

We seeing some interesting attempts at long form reading on the web. The NY Times Snowfall feature and the This Land interactive, and the Guardian’s interactive Firestorm are good examples. What Snowfall gets right is the priority it gives to reading over other content. Visual and audio content is provided, but it’s quietly placed.

Does digital matter?

I was going to ask at some point whether digital matters? It’s a topic that comes up at NDF regularly – what’s the line between the work that institutions do in the digital and physical space. It’s a probably a question that more relevant to those of you working in physical organisations. Is it to increase visitors? increase knowledge? other?

For us it’s definitely about increasing knowledge and as I’ve said, to my mind, digital offers us the biggest reach to do that. But this is where I flip-flop as there’ll always be something about print, not just the fact that hundreds of years of book publishing has honed the rules of readability and comprehension, but also the love people have of the book as object.

There’s always going to be a role for books as object, but increasingly they’ll be objects of desire, or even fetish. Digital will feed that – it’s the content that succeeds digitally that can stand the investment of print. Or that’s my view, a commercial publisher may well disagree.

But I want to find out how we break out of seeing the book as the driver of in-depth research and find a mechanism where deep research can be inspired by web. It feels like we’re just on the cusp of working out what that mechanism is.

Digital ecosystem

I was going to talk about open collections at this point, but I think that’s potentially a topic that warrants its own session later. I don’t have a collection so I’m not the best person to talk about it.

But a segue from that, I talked at last year’s NDF in my opening remarks about how we’re all part of a digital ecosystem. Together we form a huge collection of interlinked content and items that are all better for being part of a whole. It’s kind of where the LODLAM proponents are heading – if we link all our data it becomes that much more useful.

I don’t fully understand the hows of LOD but I want to jump to a conversation about a distributed national encyclopedia. What would or could that look like?

We’ve got all this content, and it’s content that provides context to your collection items. And there are new websites popping up all the time doing similar work. Typically though we only use one collection item to illustrate the story; why not be able to all the calabashes that Te Papa holds when someone’s reading about calabashes on Te Ara. And if they’re looking at Te Papa’s calabashes why not provide the context and information about calabashes from Te Ara?

Why do I need to go to Te Ara to read about natural history, NZ History to read about war, NZ On Screen or Audioculture to learn about popular culture, or Digital NZ to view collection items?

Why aren’t we all just contributing to one thing? If that ecosystem was brought together and we all found our niche and started contributing all our content into one system, wouldn’t that be serving all our users better than siloed websites?


So that’s I guess my pitch. There’s a big move toward open collections, and the LODLAM types are on our heels. how do we make sense of that, make it work for the sector, and mostly, make it work for all our users?