Tag Archives: social media

A lesson in social media experimentation

“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.

The golden age of journalism is now

When I tell people I’m training to be a journalist, most tell me I must be mad. They say newspapers are dying and there’s no future left in journalism.

Well I think they’re wrong.

Our recent lecture by BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones gave me a different perspective on the ongoing and occasionally overblown debate about the decline of newspapers (see @themediaisdying on Twitter for a flavour of the argument).
He argued that the whole notion of a golden age of journalism is pretty badly exaggerated. We might have grown up with images of a cynical hack turning up at the scene armed only with a notebook, a Trilby and his razor-sharp wits, but we all know that’s a bit of a myth. You only have to read Michael Frayn’s satire of Fleet Street, Towards the End of the Morning, to see how ridiculous these stereotypes can be.

Some aspects of news production probably are worse than they were 20 years ago, with fewer staff under pressure to produce news for multiple platforms. But the positive developments more than outweigh this.

Improvements in technology mean that we, as print journalists, have far more creative ways to tell a story than just the old black-on-white newsprint. We can use audio, video, interactive tools or maps. We can cover events as they unfold with live blogging, as in this minute-by-minute live coverage of the recent Labour leadership challenge. And we can engage with our readers on a whole new level by linking out to sources, and using blogs and Twitter.

Rory Cellan-Jones, photo courtesy of matlock on Flickr

Mr Cellan-Jones also pointed out that his blog allows him to cover many more stories than he would be able to on traditional TV news bulletin, with its strict time limits and demand for an immediate news hook. His blog allows him to show readers and viewers that he is on top of the little stories as well as the big ones, and gives dedicated technophiles a place they can go for regularly updated content.

The same is true of newspapers: there are no limits to publishing online, so journalists can follow up many different aspects of a story, whereas there might only be room for the main points in the print edition. This just shows how the web version can complement the print story. The content on the web will probably only get a tiny proportion of the readers of the print version, but it adds so much value for those who are really interested and want to know more.

Kicking it old school

So far, so good for new media. But do we have anything in common with that Trilby-hatted hack?

The answer is a resounding yes. As much as I love social media and am really excited by its potential uses in journalism, I’m a firm believer in the traditional journalistic techniques. Nothing can replace knowing your patch, cultivating sources, and being able to conduct a good interview and take it down in shorthand.

So I think Mr Cellan-Jones’ advice to us holds true. He said:

“Have a good grip of the old basics of journalism. I think those career skills are still valid. I think a lot of the essentials that have been around for 20 or 25 years still apply.”

But it’s perfectly possible to draw these different sets of skills together, to combine traditional methods with the new opportunities offered by the web. This coverage of Tony Blair at the Chilcot inquiry just shows how much more can be offered on the web for those who want more than just the print story. Mr Cellan-Jones concluded with some upbeat thoughts for us too:

“It is a lot more fun… It is a lot easier to do stuff than when I started. You have an instant playground out there where you can try it out and make mistakes.”

So what are we waiting for? Let’s get out there and do it.

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:

Alan_Rusbridger_Tweet_img_assist_custom

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?