Thursday, 19 February 2009

Year of the Blog (Part II)

I've started new chapter in my life as a journalist but I'm not alone in this - the collective newsrooms of the Liverpool Daily Post, Liverpool Echo, and the Merseyside weeklies are travelling the same road as me.
We've become (or, more accurately, are becoming) a single news-gathering operation, working together in what is being called the multi-media hub. It's hard work and confusing at times. It means I have a new job - Executive Editor, digital, for the Post & Echo - and so I guess it's an opportune moment to look back at the second half of my blogging year.

September 2008
One of the busiest months of the year, on reflection.
Comparing how the traditional news-gathering and story-telling methods were being enhanced, and in some cases supplanted, by Web 2.0 tools provoked plenty of debate. A lot of people I respect hugely said some kind things about the post, which was a relief as there were plenty of people I annoyed too.
I guess it would be a boring old world if we all agreed... but I am right, you know.
The Post & Echo liveblogged the visit of La Princess, the giant mechanical spider, in Liverpool with reporters tweeting and live-streaming, and Dipity's TimeTube, using using Flickr and YouTube tags, provided a great addition to the live blog.
I bought a Flip, had a rant about how deadlines constrain journalism, and considered the 13 Web online tools I find essential for my job, from Ask500people.com to YouTube.
What I learned: We are being given new tools to tell our stories and reach new audiences - use them and they will help you be a better journalist, connect more with your readers, find more stories and make your editor happy (if you don't want that, why are you in the job?); a Flip is a fun bit of kit that delivers great results and is confidence-building for journalists starting out making their own videos; when you enjoy your blogging it shows - and much of the pleasure that comes from blogging is down to the great conversations that spring up in the comments.

October 2008
A bit of blog washout really - work took over my life. I was leading the (rather sad) project to take the Daily Post from a 6-day publication to a 5-day one; and editing the paper most of the time as the merged news operation project began in earnest.
A blog post by Vicky Anderson about Steve Coogan's hopeless Echo Arena show led me to conclude:
1. Most of our online readers are from our circulation area - contrary to popular belief (in this case, they attended the show then turned to the blog to express their dismay at its quality)
2. Interacting through blogs can feel more natural to readers than forums
3. A blog post with relevancy is valuable to users
4. Blogs can create content for reverse publishing
The post started a great debate on whether reporters could/should write all their stories as blog posts online. For the record, I think they should.
I learned a valuable marketing lesson from Darren Farley, who made himself a brand without going near his local newspaper, using a mobile phone and YouTube. The blog post turned into an SEO phenomenon almost as big as Darren himself. Well, not quite. He really is a phenomenon.
What I learned: When we talk about engaging our audience, we have to remember what we mean - Transparency, Interaction and Conversation (this can be confusing for a journalist trained to protect sources and guard information, but it is vital); no matter how positive we try to be, the evolution of newspapers involves hard decisions and heartache; anyone who thinks their paper is the only brand that matters - and it's depressing how many people in the industry think that - should spend 2 minutes surfing YouTube.

November 2008
In November the LDP's Flickr book was conceived - one of the most taxing and rewarding projects I've been involved in. It was a celebration of Liverpool's Capital of Culture Year, using staff images and photographs from the Daily Post's Flickr group. I believe other TM newspapers are asking their Flickr groups if want to do the same.
In other news, I ran my blog through Typealyzer and discovered I was a Mechanic. This means, apparently, that I'm independent and problem-solving, good at responding to challenges that arise spontaneous and avoid inter-personal conflicts. Yay me!
Erm... not quite. Typealyzer then said I was in the wrong job, and should consider a career as a racing driver.
What I learned: My advice to anybody attempting a book project involving multiple contributors is plan, share the plan with everyone involved, rip it up and put together a fresh plan taking into account the views and comments that come back, and then Put It In Writing and stick to it. Rigidly. Because the Flickr book was a bit ad hoc (or "grew organically", if you're a senior manager, there wasn't much time to plan and we ended up doing twice as much work as we might have. But it still looked awesome.
Oh yes, and according to a bit of code I'm in the wrong job. I've not really learned my lesson there.


December 2008
I was lucky enough to get a place on an Andy Dickinson training course at the Birmingham Post & Mail's new Fort Dunlop offices. Andy's course was head-spinningly good and very entertaining; I sat on the train back to Merseyside bursting with ideas, one of which was to use information from Whatdotheyknow.com , credit the site and tell people how they could use it too.
The decision caused some debate in the newsroom because it does go against what we journalists do (not reveal sources, gatekeep information, control copy) but we linked to the website, and the site kindly linked back to us. Everyone won - including the reader.
I got perplexed by blog spam (my current favourite is one which has the words wow! nice gold subliminally inserted through the comment) and outlined my thoughts on when to ban readers who abuse forums.
The blog was becoming less of a practical testing station and more of an ideas-crucible.
What I learned: Share knowledge at every opportunity. Andy shared his with me, I shared it with journalist Ben Schofield, he used the site, investigated, asked questions and filed a story that made the front page, then shared the knowledge of how he built the story with readers, so they could use it too. Sharing information, knowledge - or, crucially, lack of knowledge can increase a journalist's power and ability to do their job. Incidentally, that's why Twitter is such a fantastic tool for reporters.

January 2009
Talking of Twitter, it was undergoing a sea-change in January. The arrival of 'slebs' meant it was becoming more mainstream, and I noticed many of the people I followed were moving from avatars or photos that didn't show their faces to portrait headshots.
And I started to feel a bit uneasy about whether I was preaching transparency while hiding behind my little devil. I asked Twitter and Ask500people.com, and as a result of the responses stuck with the devil. I also noticed Plurk was was on a decline, which saddens me still as I love it, and got back on the Twitter subject to ask why people were protecting their updates and what did they think they were protecting, exactly. Work was overwhelmingly busy with the newsroom merger and I managed just five posts. Shameful!
What I learned: Twittering slebs hold no fascination for me (Stephen Fry & Neil Gaiman excepted); having an avatar doesn't mean you're hiding something, and my odd little online representative can actually make it easier to pick me out of a busy Twitter stream; Ask500people really is a great medium for conversations and engagement; anyone protecting their Twitter update is doing it because, generally, they don't understand how Twitter works. Finally, when people ask me to explain how Twitter works I've found it's more important to show them my network, and then explain why Twitter works.

February 2009
Happy birthday blog! Where did the year go? In 12 months my whole outlook on journalism has been turned on its head and I've had more fun that at any other time in my career (although getting a job in a massage parlour runs a close second).
In the time I've been a blogger I've learned just how supportive the blogging community can be, shifted (I think) more towards using the blog as a medium to explore ideas and ask questions, found the comments people post tend to be more worthwhile than anything I write, and - ironically - felt more connected with the real world than I have at any other time as a journalist.
For that I can thank a whole host of people, some I seldom meet face-to-face, but I talk to them most days and count them as valued friends.
A networked journalist is, I believe, a better journalist but it's more than just how it affects my job; my network is hugely important to me, every day it surprises, challenges and stimulates me, supports me, and helps me be more relevant.
My new jobs started today; what will the next 12 months bring? I don't know - the current debate is whether people will pay for content, last week it was Do We Need Subs? and within the week it will have moved on to something else.
For what it's worth, I believe we have to keep telling our stories, share more of our knowledge, make our newspapers and websites communities instead of silos, be relevant, be accountable, demonstrate interaction instead of talking about it, both online and in print, and do what we should do best - serve our local area to the best of our ability, ask questions for them and listen to them when they come to us. We sometimes get things wrong but overall we're pretty good at what we do and we care. Personally, I think that's half the battle.
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