24 Hours With Hal Crawford
Originally published Mumbrella, February 5, 2016
Everything is the same as itself and different from every other thing. There is no typical day.
EARLY MORNING: Today is my middle daughter’s first day of school. She’s going into kindergarten. I’m sitting downstairs in my suit, among the gardening tools, at the little desk I found on the street years ago.
The computer was on when I got down here, the sites I was looking at last night still loaded. ninemsn, SMH, Stuff.co.nz, ABC news, Medium.
Like any online editor, the first moment of the day is devoted to scanning all the other sites to see what is missing from my sites. Like, ‘what have we screwed up this time?’ It’s the years of fear. What has happened? Is it important? Is it true? Scanning sites continues through the day. There are 10-12 I look at regularly. I’m not much of an app person – I prefer HTML.
Last night Murray lost to Djokovic for the fourth time in Melbourne. We covered it, chapter and verse, in Wide World of Sports. Now it’s all but disappeared from the homepage. Just this postage stamp-sized piece about Murray heading to the airport. It’s not enough. Would someone please think of the audience?
I compose an SMS, think better of it, and write an email. One difficulty of online news is getting the flow right. Up fast, but around how long?
MORNING: I get a call. My managing editor, Emma, has dialled me into news conference. We talk about the video number, the Voracle (for Video Oracle). This is the number of times people are hitting ‘play’ on videos on our sites every 15 minutes. Normally, at this hour, we want the Voracle to be 15,000.
‘Matt [Henry, network editor] says 13,000 and rising, but he would,’ says Emma.
The editors start running through the stories, news first, followed by sport, entertainment and lifestyle. After each editor’s pitch, the room considers. Often videos are watched on the big screen. The video stories that aren’t interesting, funny or unusual enough get spiked. It can be brutal.
I hear indistinct voices.
‘I can’t personally explain it, but we need to follow it up.’
‘I don’t think we need any gun gronks.’
‘There’s a bridge with its own Facebook page.’
THE SCHOOL RUN: I fold up the computer, still on the call, and get in the car.
‘There must be a piece in people who make bad comebacks. Why do they do it?’
‘You know how you lose 90% of heat through your head? It’s bullshit. They have done thermal imaging.’
Emma guides the conference with a series of questions, judgments and suggestions. She knows how to pitch a story better than anyone. She knows the ninemsn audience intimately. It’s not like knowing a person. The audience is a super-intelligence beset by primitive impulses.
The call ends. I am sitting outside the primary school, watching children with backpacks as big as themselves walk in the gates for the first time in their lives. I say goodbye to my daughter. I notice some mothers getting teary, and I understand. Then I wonder if there’s a story in it.
THE COMMUTE: I drive to the train station and check my mail. The Voracle is over 21,000, which for 9:00am is good. Someone fixed something. We are on track to get over a million streams for the day.
The train is where the thinking happens. You could throw out the rest of the day, but not the train. The curse of patchy phone coverage is the blessing of disconnection, if only for a few minutes.
I re-read a summary of Netflix’s talent management policy. They let people set their own leave. They don’t have an expenses policy. This is ostentatious HR. It’s all so bloody … free. Would it work at Nine Entertainment Company? We will discuss tomorrow at Blue School, an ideas forum I set up that works as a kind of ‘management course: lite’.
This balance – between action and ideas, the needs of the moment and the long-term interests of your business – is the one of the key issues of the online publishing game.
I have seen ‘big idea’ regimes rise and fall with barely a site launch to their names. Analysis paralysis. On the other hand, you will fail just churning out stories all day without looking up. And go mad while you’re at it.
THE OFFICE: When I arrive in the newsroom the story of the bridge with its own Facebook page has started a video rally of epic proportions. The bridge is just a little too low and ‘opens trucks like cans of tuna’, and this is satisfying to watch. Voracles are on the rise. The guys have waded out into the ocean of dross and found the diamonds yet again.
I walk around the newsroom talking to the producers and editors. There is a buzz, and I love it. Instead of doing everything I meant to be doing – traffic budgets for FY17, design approvals, Commercial Partners revenue – I talk stories. Mick Fanning has split up with his wife. Trump is still building up steam.
LUNCH: Lunch today is up the hill and down some dodgy looking stairs at a place called Contrabando. Talking to Brian Florido from Pedestrian.TV, the youth culture site, I learn about how he sells what he sells. I’m interested, because Pedestrian is constantly sold out and they need more traffic. In a market awash with ad impressions, this is luxury issue.
I get back to the newsroom in time for the 2:00pm conference, which is a lot like the 8:00am conference but more concise. The good news is that the traffic gods are still smiling on us and video is going nuts. The spiked videos include a drummer falling out a window (‘too normal’) a dog saving its dog friend from traffic by pulling its tail (‘seen it before’) and a basketful of baby skunks doing nothing in particular (‘it stinks’).
AFTERNOON: The troops depart and Mi9 CIO Kelly Ferguson walks in. ‘It smells in here,’ she says. ‘Man smell.’ I apologise for smelling like a man. We talk site launches. Then I talk on the phone to Henri Paget, the 9 News digital EP, and we discuss ways to do more video work more effectively.
It’s not about the volume of content, it’s about getting the right content. Then I talk to a contact at Google about the upcoming AMP product, basically a mobile article platform that loads super-quick. They want to make sure we are all good for launch. I talk and talk and talk.
BUDGETS AND BARNEYS: Finally, reluctantly, I shut up. I get down to the main work of the day – determining the FY17 traffic budget. Might as well slaughter a goat and read its entrails. I fire up the Excel model we have built that considers trends such as mobile growth, known site launches, events and seasonality. The model spits out page views and video streams by site and platform for every month. When I don’t like what it spits out, I get in there and tinker.
I have just rolled up my sleeves when a team member walks into my office, mad as hell. Anyone who manages anyone knows this would be a false account of a day’s work if at some point ‘people’ didn’t come into it. I listen.
Two more meetings in the afternoon and then back on the train.
EVENING: No exercise today. No movement, or contemplation. Just some Contrabando popcorn prawns and cider washing around in the system. I spend the train ride home reading sites and writing this piece. The children are in bed when I get in the door but I can’t resist going in and there they are – all wide awake. My oldest daughter asks me what I did at work.
‘We made some stories.’
‘What stories did you make?’
I have to think for a while. The amnesia is part of online news.
‘There’s a bridge that opens trucks like cans of tuna.’