Monday, 20 April 2009

Yet another 'why journalists should use Twitter' post

Twitter, is an integral part of my job as a journalist. So it was something of a surprise to learn this week there are still some journalism colleges that don't show its potential benefits to their students.

I was talking to some J-students this week about how newspapers and journalists can use Twitter when one of them told me it wasn't on the syllabus she was studying, as it was perceived to have no value.

"Why?"I asked her."And who else on your course is using it?" Turned out, she was one of only a few tweeting, and her college did not see Twitter as adding value to a journalist's toolkit.
This baffled me. I assumed most journalists - hell, most people (apart from Oprah and look how she's caught up) - had heard of or tried this micro-blog lark. I assumed that J-students across the country were being taught it, experimenting with different ways of using Twitter and finding out how to being conversations, crowdsource and engage with audiences online.

Er, no.

Why, when there is so much competition not only to get a job in journalism but to simply get the story and be first, or just to be the one people engage with, would a lecturer would not give their students access to as many useful tools as possible?
So, while the Twitter canon is extensive enough without me adding to it, I thought I'd lay out why I think journalists should use Twitter. Just in case my J-student needs some extra ammo...

1. Twitter makes you build a network. There are no shortcuts; you have to think about who to follow, what you can discover from them, who they follow and why. You have to initiate conversations, engage with total strangers, put in some effort and maybe head up get some blind alleys, before you start seeing results. If you're a journalism student, I'd say that's a pretty fair introduction to your first few weeks in the 'real' job.

2. Breaking news gets tweeted, often, and with links and, increasingly, with photos. Twitter is not always first with the news, and I wouldn't take all tweets as gospel, but it gives journalists who use it a very useful edge on those that don't, as well as access to people at the centre of the maelstrom. Plus there's a certain satisfaction in telling your newsdesk about a big breaking story they don't know...

3. Sometimes its hard to know who you're writing for - it's not your newsdesk, or your editor, but these might be the loudest views you get to hear when you start out in a newsroom. Then there are mosaic groups selected by your marketing department, your print readers, your online audience, the casual reader to consider. Using Twitter you get to talk to a cross-section of all of them, find out what's important to them. Do that and, along with your other external networks, it will give you an idea of what's relevant to your readers, rather than what the office thinks is important.

4. By engaging with people you learn - whether it's individuals, communities or simply geography, Twitter helps you gain knowledge.
Find out what what blogs and websites people you who inspire you enjoy have or simply read, who they admire/loathe and what they view as emerging trends. What is important to them; it's like having a personal shopper to help you pick out what suits you best.

5. You get to engage complete strangers on Twitter, in an informal and open way. You have to get to the point in 140 characters or less, and that means people tend get to the point. It's often easier for me to send someone a DM than an email and it just feels more like natural conversation. Twitter can enhance reputations (#followfriday), gives you access to some experts in their field, or question politicians (and see what other people are asking them). And, should you care, you get to see where all the Showbiz reporters on the nationals are nicking their 'exclusives' from, well in advance.

6. Using Twitter to crowdsource often means you can seek opinions on issues, even if you aren't near a computer. I used it during a product development meeting this week:

...and got 10 replies in less than two minutes. Really useful.

7. Journalists who get stuck in the office with only each other and press officers to speak to can sometimes get isolated from reality. But online conversations - blog comments, forums, tweets - are great levellers. If you've built up a good relationship with your local network, they're probably going to come to you with tricky questions occasionally (Why has your paper gone up 5p? Why didn't you cover x-story?) and these are on a public timeline. You can't ignore them - if you do, you're not engaging with your network - and others will be watching for your answer so you have to draw on untapped wells of tact and diplomacy. Believe me, it's a good skill to acquire.

So that's my take on the subject. Three J-students have asked me this week why Twitter is important to newspapers and, although I'd say the real question is 'why is Twitter important to journalists' I think it's a shame their colleges aren't helping them find the answers too.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

Newspapers facing Armageddon. Or possibly Deep Impact...

So now I know the worst; the newspaper industry is indeed doomed, broken beyond repair on the rock that is the internet.
And I can say this with confidence because greater minds than mine have pronounced its fate... for Ben Affleck has predicted the imminent death of newspapers.
He has a new film to promote, State of Play, and, while doing the media glad-handing that goes with such a project, told Hitflix:

"I think this is the last movie that will be set in a newspaper. I don't know how this movie will be perceived, but I do believe that people will look back and say, 'Oh yeah, that was the movie that came out right around the time the Internet destroyed newspapers,"

I'd be interested to see if he expands his theory when he's talking to inkies - the above quote was made to online journalists, according to Hitflix - and I also think he's maybe taking a little too much on his shoulders here.
After all, predicting no one else will make a film similar to the one you're starring in is a risky business. Ben should know - who would have thought two films about asteroids hitting the Earth would show up in one summer? Yet in 1998 there was Deep Impact, and two months later along came Armageddon, featuring the matchless acting talent of... Ben Affleck.

Monday, 6 April 2009

Goodbye Press Gazette

Sad news today as Willmington announced the closure of Press Gazette.
I loved UKPG, as it was, and remember scanning it when the NCE results were published to see my name. Hell, I even remember when it had pages of real jobs in it; that makes me feel very old.

Even though it was experiencing tough times, I thought Press Gazette would struggle through and I'm sad to see it go under as it's been a part of my reporting life.
When I started earning a daily hack's salary (I thought it was a princely sum, too) I became a subscriber. I loved Dog to bits, the letters page was always excellent, and the industry news was relevant to me.

Then Piers Morgan bought it and it seemed to fill up with trivia, London-centric gossip or features with his mates; Press Gazette became something that, when it dropped on the doormat, I had little inclination to read.
Press Gazette staffers Martin Stabe and Patrick Smith had also worked hard and successfully at engaging Press Gazette's readers and when they left for bigger, better things, I just lost interest in it completely.
Alongside that - and I just know I'm going to be dubbed humorless for this - I was really uncomfortable with the whole the Grey Cardigan 'Crystal Tits' joke. There are way too few women holding senior posts in this business and, even though the column was fiction, I found it unpleasant and snide.

My growing disenchantment, the dwindling jobs pages, and a growing tendency to read it online, eventually led to a cancelled subscription. Then it stopped becoming relevant online reading, with proving such an excellent site that Press Gazette couldn't compete, for me, in terms of relevant industry news, comments, blogs, links and entertainment. I'm not even sure I follow its Twitter feed any more - and how apathetic do you have to feel towards a news source to say that?

But, sentiment apart, there's another reason I feel I should mourn the passing of Press Gazette. If we, as an industry, can't drum up the interest to support and sustain an established trade magazine and website, what does it say about the future of newspapers? Press Gazette lost advertising, lost readers, lost staff, lost revenue and, eventually, just lost.
It is a decline and fall that I fear will be mirrored by a number of UK regional newspapers in the coming months.

Saturday, 4 April 2009

Newsrooms - who needs 'em?

The 'Newspapers are dead' discussion looks set to drag on (and on) without any real conclusion or particularly illuminating insights but there is a side debate that does interest me: Do we still need newsrooms?
I read the Journalism Iconoclast blog regularly and was intrigued by a post there recently that suggested: Telecommuting can replace the office. Basically, it asks why we still need expensive newsrooms in a networked age.

And it's an interesting question; I confess that I look around my newsroom sometimes, as I sit on our new central hub in the Liverpool Daily Post & Echo HQ, and wonder whether we all need to be physically 'at work' to be at work.
Newspapers have already discovered they don't need to have their HQ in a city centre. It's a thorny subject, but I have no issues with journalists being based in purpose-built, modern unit by a ring road any day; it's not geography that connects us with our audience - it's how we engage with them, and our willingness to do so.

How would a newsroom operate in a virtual world? Theoretically, I don't think it would be particularly tricky; the biggest challenge would be convincing people it could be done.
You could conduct news conferences and meetings via webinars, use Skype to talk to colleagues/contacts for free, log into the system remotely - whether you're a designer working at home or a reporter filing from the town hall - chat to colleagues via Gtalk, hold group discussions in Friendfeed rooms, use Yammer, Ning, Twitter, Seesmic to interact and add that important social element to the working day. Of course you'd need an office base of some description, and there would always be some hardy souls who would have to use it, for real-world meetings, training, appraisals and other mundane workday issues.

But would workers accept it, perhaps even welcome it? There's the argument that says, you get creative people in a room together, add a bit of banter and gallows humour, and you get better newspapers. And then there's the argument that says better newspapers come from being connected to the issues that affect those communities they serve.

Personally, I'm leaning more towards that latter argument as time goes on. I've never done the telecommute thing in earnest (just on odd days - usually thanks to the weather or transport problems) but I know journalists who have, and who found it made them more productive.

So in considering the question, I have to try and separate what I think could be a working future for journalists from the nostalgic glow I have for newsrooms. Because they can be the most bizarre, wonderful places to work - I've seen typewriters thrown through (closed) windows, found reporters sleeping under desks after a night out and witnessed an impromptu whippet race on a lull in an election night. I have also sat and learned from some of the wisest, most tolerant and generous journalists that ever made a shorthand outline.

I would be sad to see newsrooms go the way of the office pub, but I think it's inevitable - and we will see it start happening within the next couple of years, as the economy picks up and property prices begin to recover.
The loss of the newsroom bubble could be the catalyst that really gets journalists using online social media, becoming more like beat bloggers in their respective patches (be that geographical or specialist subject) and engaging with communities.
I don't think anyone would mourn the loss of a newsroom if it meant journalists, and the newspapers that employ them, were more connected, successful, interactive and aware of the issues affecting their readers.

* By the way, if you like the cartoon it's from this site.