Blogging for your audience

Our recent lecture on blogging from Adam Tinworth, Head of Blogging, Communities and Social Media at Reed Business Information, gave me some interesting perspectives on how to approach blogging.

We covered the ways in which blogging is different (and, some would argue, better) than traditional print publishing: it’s all about what’s interesting, without the boundaries or word limits of a newspaper or magazine, and it’s a conversation with many participants, not just one-way.

But the comment that really stuck out for me was this:

“We do not create communities. We merely provide services for communities that already exist”

The potential to tap into communities that exist on the net is phenomenal, and this is surely one of the biggest possible benefits of the web. It gives us a chance to get to know our readers, whether through forums, blogs, or direct communication via Twitter.

This can only help improve journalism, because we can better understand what our readers want to know and also get ideas from them on what stories they want covered.

We also talked about setting up niche blogs, especially of a local patch, which finally gave me the impetus to get going on setting up a new blog about my local beat, Cathays in Cardiff.

It’s a bit of a work in progress at the moment, but it should be a really exciting project to try and stay on top of what’s going on in the area, and hopefully tap into some of those local communities we talked about. I’ll let you know how I get on…

UPDATE: I’ve just come across this really useful list of tips for newspaper reporters who blog by American journalist Ian Hill, which is well worth taking a look at to avoid some of the pitfalls.

Work smart, not hard – how to get the best from the net

I’ve been playing around with online journalism tools like Addict-o-matic and Twittergrader this evening and it’s reminded me of just how much fun (and useful) multimedia tools can be, as long as you know how to use them.

I’ve followed pretty much the same arc as most people when it comes to using social media for journalism. I got really interested in all this about a year ago, and would religiously read blogs and updates from people like Paul Bradshaw and Jeff Jarvis. I signed up to Twitter before the mainstream buzz really started, and got myself a blog as well. I hadn’t started my journalism course yet but I knew it was what I wanted to do, so these were a great way of keeping in touch with what was happening in journalism.

But then it was the usual story: I got busy at work and suddenly I didn’t seem to have the time to keep up with the online world, so I neglected all those tools I had really enjoyed using. Now, I’m trying to get back into it and really make the most of all the possibilities for engagement that exist on the web. This has been helped along by a really engaging lecture from Dr Claire Wardle, former Cardiff University lecturer and now a trainer at the BBC College of Journalism.

I’ve just used TweepML to follow a whole stream of interesting journalists on Twitter and one in Australia has already sent me a link to an article. This just shows the value of Twitter – how else would I have seen this different perspective on the issues we’re facing here?

And I’m also using BBC reporter Nick Bourne’s blog for advice on setting up RSS feeds for search terms. I’ve set some up for Cathays, the patch in Cardiff that I’ll be reporting and blogging on over the next year, so I can keep track of what people are saying online.

And then there are the ones, like Twitterfall and Twitscoop, that are just plain fun. Ok, so they have their proper journalistic uses if you want to track the progress of a story or find out what everyone’s talking about. But I most enjoyed them when I was watching Question Time with Nick Griffin last Thursday. I was tweeting what I thought of the show but best of all, I could see what others thought of it too, and so engage with the programme on a whole different level.

Much of the debate surrounding the future of journalism seems to assume that using tools like these is going to replace the need for traditional journalistic methods. It won’t. But what it will do is help us stay on top of the many conversations that are taking place on our patch. Keeping track of what’s being said on Twitter is just as valid journalistically as going to a town hall meeting – it’s a way of finding out what issues matter to your readers, what their views are, and engaging with them to make sure you’re addressing their concerns.

So as long as we know how to get the best out of social media tools, use them efficiently and combine them with traditional reporting skills, surely they can only make journalism better?

The Guardian, the gag and Guido: a case study in collaboration

Last week’s media storm over the super-injunction which prevented the Guardian from reporting an MP’s question in Parliament is a superb case study in the potential for interaction between traditional and social media.

In case you were stuck on a desert island somewhere and missed the wall-to-wall coverage (in which case you probably just checked Twitter on your phone anyway), the Guardian was prevented from reporting a Parliamentary question and a leaked report regarding the multinational oil company Trafigura and allegations of toxic waste leakage in the Ivory Coast.

Trafigura engaged specialist libel lawyers Carter-Ruck, who managed to get a super-injunction which not only prevented the Guardian from revealing the contents of the report (the Minton report, now available on Wikileaks), but also stopped them from reporting the fact that they had been stopped from reporting it.

Confused? Don’t be. There’s a pretty good summary of events on the Guardian’s website, along with a breakdown of the super-injunction (follow the link to the annotated copy of it if you want to get technical).

One of the most interesting aspects of the case is the way Twitter users and bloggers seized on the information they gleaned from the story published on the Guardian website at 8.31pm on Monday 12th October, and from Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger’s tweet at 4.05pm that day:

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It didn’t take long for Twitter users and political blogger Guido Fawkes to identify the question, by Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Paul Farrelly, and the company to which it referred.

In the pre-Twitter world (yes, it did exist), this might still have come out, but it would have taken a lot longer and the whole process would have been shrouded in mystery. This was a perfect example of interested people taking little nuggets of information freely available and piecing them together to report what the Guardian couldn’t. Quite a feat.

Clearly social media has a fantastic amount of power – just see the reaction to Jan Moir’s article on Stephen Gately if you still need convincing. But what struck me about the Trafigura affair was the way old and new media collaborated to produce a fantastic story.

Even better than that, it’s been pretty widely recognised that collaboration was the key to the story’s success. The Guardian couldn’t have reported what bloggers did for fear of being hauled before the High Court. But at the same time, bloggers and the Twitterati didn’t have access to the leaked Minton report and, to my knowledge, wouldn’t have known there was anything to tell had it not been for the Guardian’s article. Throw Newsnight and Private Eye into the equation, which were both involved in different aspects of the coverage, and I think that’s a pretty fantastic example of collaboration.

For good journalism to survive, we need all types of media to work together instead of being antagonistic. There’s no going back to journalists acting as gatekeepers controlling the flow of information (and why would you want to go back to that anyway?). But I think this case also shows the value of established news organisations with a strong reputation and big enough resources to pursue this kind of story.

There are plenty of cynics predicting the demise of newspapers and extolling the virtues of social media and crowdsourcing. But given what we’ve seen over the past week, wouldn’t it be better for quality journalism if both types were to co-exist and, dare I say it, continue to collaborate?

Web 2.0 (a.k.a. the way forward)

I wanted to share this video from my Online Journalism lecture today, because it’s a great demonstration of how to get thinking about different ways of using the web. It’s by Michael Wesch, Assistant Professor of Cultural Anthropology at Kansas State University and this is his blog.

Until fairly recently, most newspapers saw the web as somewhere to upload articles that had already appeared in print… and not much else. So what we got was essentially the print product on a screen.

Now, that’s all changing. There is a much greater realisation (though it’s by no means universal) of the additional possibilities offered by the web. This ranges from multimedia journalism – using video, audio, interactive and any other tools that are simply not available on paper – to mashups, user-generated content, collaboration and anything else you can think of.

This video sets out potential uses for the web, and some traditional concepts that we’ll need to rethink. Those are some of the main issues discussed on this blog, but for now, sit back, watch, and be inspired.

The Internet Manifesto

I’ve been reading this internet manifesto published by a group of German journalists on 7 September 2009, as part of my postgraduate diploma in journalism. It makes a number of good points, though as you’ll see, I’m not completely convinced.

First of all, the good stuff:

“The media must adapt their work methods to today’s technological reality instead of ignoring or challenging it.”

Spot on. There is a lot of soul-searching going on in the media industry at the moment and an awful lot of talk about the decline of traditional sources of news. But navel-gazing doesn’t save newspapers. Waking up to reality – that the internet is here to stay so make the most of it – just might.

“Links are connections. We know each other through links. Those who do not use them exclude themselves from social discourse.”

This gets to the very essence of networked journalism. Online news doesn’t stop at the end of the article. In theory, you could go from one news source to the next and explore many more sides of an issue than would be possible in print, and every article is richer for the fact that it links to the next.

Links also mean people. One of the very best things about the internet is the ability to converse with people you’d never normally meet in day-to-day life. Journalism works best when it’s open and honest with its readers, and inviting them to have their say is the best way of fostering that spirit.

Not so convincing

“Web-based platforms like social networks, Wikipedia or YouTube have become a part of everyday life for the majority of people in the western world. They are as accessible as the telephone or television.”

Really? For the majority of people? My last post was about social media growing among women and over-35s, but they’re still a definite minority. There is a significant proportion of the population which either doesn’t own a computer, or doesn’t use it as their main source of news. The whole point of online journalism is finding new ways to communicate, but that’s no good if you leave the rest of your readership behind.

“The Internet debunks homogenous bulk goods. Only those who are outstanding, credible and exceptional will gain a steady following in the long run.”

In many ways, this is true. It’s easy to go to another page if you’re not convinced by what you’re reading. But I think this also highlights the value of established news organisations. It takes time to establish someone’s credibility, especially if they are blogging under a pseudonym or aren’t up front about their own vested interests.

How does this work in reality?

Alison Gow, executive editor, digital, of the Liverpool Echo and Liverpool Daily Post, has a slightly more realistic perspective on how this affects real journalists in a working newsroom.

Many journalists don’t take full advantage of the web, for a whole multitude of reasons. Gow outlines some of them: lack of time, lack of technical knowledge, lack of commitment to the website. But journalists who fail to embrace the opportunities offered by the web fail themselves and their readers. They miss out on the chance to be truly creative – to invent new ways of telling stories. Readers lose out too, because they are given the story in isolation without essential links and context, and without the many dimensions that multimedia can offer.

Gow sums it up:

“Online journalism shouldn’t be a chore, it should be exciting, different, interesting, and fun. If you’re working as a multimedia journalist you have the opportunity to be a real pioneer in the art of online storytelling, audience engagement, and new ways of sourcing, sharing and developing information. That has to be worth being a part of.”

The industry is undergoing such radical change that there has never been a better time to adapt and improve our story-telling techniques, to engage in conversation, and take advantage of the myriad opportunities of multimedia and the net. These tools can help us do our job better – we should and we must make the most of them.

Social media goes mainstream

I was interested to read this article in The Times yesterday, which said that social networking sites are no longer the preserve of geeky teenage boys. Instead, the article argued, women now form more than half the audience of many social networking sites, the fastest growing demographic of which is those aged over 35.

It’s great to see social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook going mainstream, but I think this has less to do with celebrity users like Sarah Brown (though they probably help), and more to do with people realising that there is actually a tangible benefit from using them.

With any new technology, there’s always an initial period of hesitancy before it is adopted by mainstream users. It seems obvious now, but in 2005 I remember wondering what on earth Facebook was and what was the point of signing up. Now, it’s the main way I keep in touch with friends from school, university and places I’ve worked – friends with whom I would otherwise have lost touch.

The reason why women and over-35s are cottoning on to social media is because it’s no longer just a fad that teenagers are into. They have found a reason for using it, whether it’s networking for their jobs or keeping in touch with friends, and a way of fitting it into their daily lives.

Instead of being put off by technology, increasingly tech-savvy users are realising these tools can be a useful way of making contacts or saving time, or just transferring networks that might once have been face-to-face online, because it can be a quicker and easier way to interact.

This is a really positive development for media organisations because if this trend continues, it will mean journalists can expand their online offering and converse with more and more of their readers across a whole range of platforms.

Newspapers need new talent if they want to survive

As always, I opened up my copy of Media Guardian this morning, looking forward to compounding the usual Monday morning blues with more news about the death of the newspaper industry. Right on cue, emblazoned across the front page, was Jon Slattery’s article on the closure of yet another journalism training scheme, namely the multimedia scheme at Press Association.

The picture looks pretty bleak, especially for this year’s crop of journalism graduates, and I can’t deny that I’m a bit worried for my own future. But I’m equally worried about what the lack of a fresh injection of talent will mean for newspapers, especially the regional and local press. I know it would be impossible to justify taking on trainees while making hundreds of redundancies, but how can newspapers possibly expect to survive in the 21st century if they stop hiring people with new and innovative ideas?

Surely a large part of their decline thus far has been because many of them have failed to move with the times, whether by developing an online brand that is distinct from the print offering instead of just a copy-and-paste version of their print articles, or by updating their content to reflect the changing priorities of the local community.

For example, just last week I saw an article in my local newspaper which revolved entirely around a YouTube video, but the online version had the full web address in the text instead of a proper link (I’m not naming the newspaper responsible as I have a work experience placement there in a few months). Ok, so all I had to do was copy and paste the address, but wouldn’t it have been better to feature the video in the body of the article, or at the very least include a link?

I know we’re in a recession and I know newspapers are struggling, but if media organisations lose sight of the need for new talent, they truly will be in terminal decline.