“I was asking the right questions. It was the questions that were important and because I wasn’t absolutely certain, people were more likely to debate and answer. I don’t ever feel like I have the answer to things.”
So said Joanna Geary, Web Development Editor for The Times, when she came to speak to the journalism postgrads at Cardiff University last week. Joanna previously worked on the Birmingham Post, and as it happens, @bhampostjoanna was one of the first people I followed on Twitter. I remember finding it really exciting that some regional papers were actually taking social media seriously, rather than being stuck in the technological dark ages.
Joanna also told us about how she set up her own blog, and it was reassuring to know that despite taking an interest in the web, she didn’t go into the project knowing how it would turn out. Like most of us experimenting with online tools, she just gave it a go.
But one of the biggest issues that her lecture raised for me was the network of community bloggers Joanna set up at the Birmingham Post. She convinced about 35 bloggers from across Birmingham to be part of an experiment in social media, to blog for the Birmingham Post website. The contributors came from various backgrounds, from a university professor to an automotive expert to a student fashion designer.
This is an exciting venture and one which, particularly at the time, pushed the boundaries of what could be done when bringing social media and journalism together. This was no doubt a boost to the paper’s engagement with its community, attracting a new and different audience online from those who would traditionally read the print version. In fact, in many ways, this did what local and regional newspapers should be doing: providing a platform for debate among members of its community.
So it’s all good then? Well, not quite. I’m entirely in favour of experimentation and there is definitely a place for this kind of activity. But I think we should also consider whether there are any potential downsides. As Joanna said, sometimes it’s asking the questions that’s important, even if you don’t have the answers. I certainly don’t have the solutions (and given the amount of soul-searching out there in the industry, it seems no one does), but I’ll have a go at a few questions.
Is it right for newspapers to ask for content without paying people? Even on a blog, if your writing is driving traffic to a company’s website and therefore holding up its advertising revenues, shouldn’t you receive some kind of reward?
Is it sustainable? Joanna told us there was quite a high dropout rate among bloggers, mainly because they weren’t being paid, and the paper didn’t have the resources to keep recruiting potential bloggers. If blog content isn’t updated regularly, tech-savvy readers will simply go elsewhere.
Did it work? Joanna told us they ended up with a small but very committed community engaging online.
I have to admit I wasn’t convinced at first by the idea of a network of bloggers, largely because I sometimes get the feeling that newspaper companies are focusing on this kind of content at the expense of investing in journalists who are covering stories bloggers wouldn’t.
But the more I think about it, the more I like it. It’s a good opportunity to hear fresh voices and fresh perspectives, and anything that improves our ability to engage with readers can only be a good thing.
I suspect that Joanna’s next challenge, helping to figure out how to implement paywalls at The Times, might be a harder nut to crack.