Sunday, 31 May 2009

How open are your lines of communication?

And yea, it is written that when four or more editorial execs are gathered together to forward plan the coverage of an impending Happening, one among them will, at some point, spake thusly: "We should do a liveblog".
And everyone else nods while secretly wishing they had suggested it, and the suggestee gains immense Multimedia Kudos and envy points.

Of course, 'we should do a liveblog' is just one of the options when playing Multimedia Newsroom Bingo. Other popular phrases include "Can we make a Dipity timeline", "What about a SurveyMonkey" (it's always 'a' SurveyMonkey - I love that) , "We could do some (ie. any) video" and that old favourite, "Get some comments off the forum" (ie. is there a workie who can translate all that textspeak into English?).

To be fair, I'm as happy to talk to the talk as the next meeting-attendee but there are times when it seems these meeting-friendly web 2.0 phrases disguise a deeper issue.
Because at the end of the day Dipity, liveblogs, surveys et al still come down to newsrooms trying to control what the story is. It's not quite one-way traffic but a contraflow is most definitely in operation and we're the ones in charge of the signals.
What we are really saying is this:
"Want to know the background to this story? Here's our Dipity timeline" (featuring our rss feeds and images)
"Want to take part and get involved? Join our liveblog" (and we'll pre-moderate comments, determine and set the polls and decide when it opens and closes)

Such an approach is massively counter-productive. Yes you might have a Googlemap on your website but will you allow your readers to contribute to it? If not, why not? Suppose you did allow anyone to edit and it backfired - would you risk such a venture again? Or is it a case of once bitten, twice shy?
And another starter for 10: Do you select the 'anyone can edit this' option when using Dipity? If you do, then you're creating an opportunity for collaboration. If not, why not?

These are, I think, important questions we newspaper-types need to ask ourselves not just once but repeatedly. Otherwise, even when we tell ourselves we're trying new ways to communicate, ultimately we're still dictating how news is presented and served up.
We may not necessarily control what happens to it next on other sites but on our own, it's pretty much ours to dictate.

But, look, the tradition model (write content, publish content in paper, sell shedload of newspapers), is gone. The current model of write content, upload some content, publish all content in print, is built on compromise and uncertainty. So where do we go from here? I don't have the answer but I think it might look something like:

Ask people/publish
Expand on what people tell us...
PUBLISH WHAT IS KNOWN allowing anyone to keep asking/adding to content
Conclude findings in print...
... and keep asking and listening because what you end up with may be completely different to the idea you started with

For me what makes a website sticky are the developments in a topic I care about. I go back to take part, see what others are saying, how things have changed, to comment and expand. I don't go back to watch a video of someone talking about a plan for a new housing estate.
I would dearly love to see the traditional newspaper website format replaced with something more akin to wikis and blogs. To have open-ended news gathering and reporting (where we don't close down the comment option after a week whether people have finished talking about it or not), and to have newsrooms embrace an approach where collaboration and partnerships are seen as opportunities.

Joanna Geary's latest blog post struck a chord with me when she said "I began to realise that it was only journalists who thought they always had to finish the stories by themselves".
Too many times we try to finish a story, we present it as a neat package with a beginning, middle and end, and present it to the reader with a flourish. We follow up of course, and we may start a forum thread, or publish readers letters - increasingly reporters blog about their stories too, once they have written them.

But it's not enough. I'd love reporters to spend a week where none of their stories were featured in the newspaper - they would only be able to get their information out online, via a blog, Twitter, Flickr, YouTube, a wiki - hell, they could even arrange a meeting at a local cafe and talk to people - anything but the printed page. I think it would be an eye-opener for everyone involved.
The way we currently operate - and I mean our wetware, not a company's hardware - inhibits our ability to share information and our thinking. That, in turn, inhibits our ability to grow audience, reach, reputation and, by extension, revenue. We're bright people; we can be better than this.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

The end may be nigh but you don't have to keep telling me...

Chris Brogan is an online social media star who has given me much to think about over the past 18 months or so that I've followed him on Twitter, and subscribed to his blog.
If you don't, I recommend it - it's here. And his latest post is so good I couldn't resist sharing a few (there are many more on this blog) of the points here:

* Stories are points in time, but won’t end at publication. (Edits, updates, extensions are next.)

* Curators and editors rule, and creators aren’t necessarily on staff.

* Media cannot stick to one form. Text, photos, video, music, audio, animation, etc are a flow.

* Everything must have collaborative opportunities. If I write about a restaurant, you should have wikified access to add to the article directly.

* Advertising cannot be the primary method of revenue.

Good isn't it? Makes me think and - more importantly- fires me up to want to achieve things. Which is why his blog remains in my feed reader at a time when I'm having something of a cull.
I was reviewing it recently when I realised that every third feed was talking, in varying tones ranging from glee to sad resignation about the death of the newspaper industry. And it also dawned on me that I could join in on the chorus of what was being written because I'd read it elsewhere, several times before.

Well you know what? I'm over it. In fact, I have a new rule: If you want to hand-wring about the state of the news industry on my time, you also need to have some interesting ideas about the future.
Because if you don't - if you want to blog, tweet or podcast away about doomy, gloomy End of Days-type scenarios, then frankly I'm not interested any more. You see, you're not giving me anything new to think about - you're retreading old ground and you're boring me.

So I've had a clear out of my feeds, ditching some long-followed blogs that I noticed were repeating the same tired old messages six different ways. I'm very interested in what people have to say about the future of news - whether they think the newspaper industry has a future or not - but I'm just not engaged by people wanting to drone on about, for example, the Journalists bad, Bloggers good debate.

Now, the paywall/subscription/free issue, now, I am interested in, and I change my mind about where I stand with almost every post I read. I'm also enjoying opions on the wary circling of the BBC and the major media companies, and UGC is another area I find exciting - there are so many talented people out there and we should be partnering up with them and attempting to share information and knowledge, not ignoring them.

Too often, I suspect eyes roll in newsrooms when a tweet is cited as a potential news source. As Chris Brogan says in his post "Collaboration rules. Why should I pick the next cover? Why should my picture of the car crash be the best?"

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

So where does the buck stop?

It's not often I hear something that shocks me but it happened this week: I was told that a member of a southern weekly newspaper's digital team is facing a contempt charge for uploading a court case to the website.
The background, as I understand it, is that the juvenille defendant could, allegedly, be identified from the information contained in the website-published story. So, at the urgings of local police, the CPS has brought a charge against the individual who uploaded it to the newspaper's online site and thereby effectively 'published' it.

I don't know many details of the case but it seems to me that the implications of this are far-reaching and very worrying.
From what I know of newspapers being in contempt (I've worked on two where it got further than the judge issuing a stern 'don't do it again' but, of course, there are numerous cases in the archives of Press Gazette and Hold the Front Page) it is always the editor or publisher of the paper who is in the crosshairs.
That means not the reporter who wrote it, not the news editor who approved/rewrote it, not designer who placed it on the page or the the sub who checked it, and not the revision sub who rechecked it. And certainly not the final link in the chain - the inky who scanned throught the first smudged copy that came off the press to check for pagination errors.

I mentioned this case to an editor friend who was genuinely shocked the CPS had chosen to go after an individual, rather than the publisher or the editor. Because in his view (in most editors' views I would imagine) he is responsible for the contents of his brand's websites just as he are for the print newspaper, or any other editorial publication his newsroom produces. And while he's not in any hurry to go to court for a junior reporter's error, he believes it comes with the territory.

I wonder if this case will actually go ahead. Certainly one newspaper law expert I spoke to thought it likely the prosecution would fall over before it got to court, but even that would be a significant decision. With many papers now either allowing or actively working towards letting reporters publish their work direct to the web, through their blogs or otherwise, it throws up fairly pressing questions about the where and how checks for accuracy and legal issues are performed. It also poses all sorts of responsibility and accountability (and even legal insurance?) issues.

So, while it's interesting to debate the vexed questions of paywalls v pay-per-click, Bloggers v Newspapers, or even whether you really would read your Daily News via a Kindle, perhaps we journalists need to take some time to consider what would happen if this did establish a case law.
Because it's not just the reporters working for major news companies that could be affected - it could have ramifications for the burgeoning independent hyper-local set-ups, news agencies, bloggers et al.
As I say, not often I hear something that shocks me, but this case does. How about you?

Monday, 11 May 2009

Reporter tweets being shot

Talk about making your own headlines! It's true; the deputy business editor of the Post & Echo was caught in crossfire this weekend and - like the news trouper he is - tweeted what was happening to him, from the ambulance.

In a nutshell, (teetotal) Tony McDonough was unfortunate enough to be downing a diet Coke in his local Liverpool pub when armed bikers opened fire on the doorway in a “ride by” shooting. Some of the pellets hit him in the face, and he ended up needing an ambulance ride and hospital treatment.

But, in his own words:

He was taken to hospital for treatment, and his updates then continued:


How dramatic is that? Tony isn't the most active Twitter user so I asked him why he'd decided to tweet the drama, rather than texting or ringing friends.

"I just wanted to tell people" he said. "I wanted to say what was happening - I sort of forgot I don't have many people following me!"

There's a lot of information in his tweets - from his own condition... an update on the incident and some background:

His final tweet describes his plan to turn in for the night, having had well enough excitement. If you want to read the news story (and he was today's Echo splash) it's here.

This, for me, is one of the best examples of why Twitter can work for journalists. People are hardwired to want to share stories; at times of crisis we all want to tell someone, and I guess a number of people in the pub that night texted or phoned friends to share the news.

Journalists want to get news out too, and they want to get it out fast and first to as wide an audience as possible (probably so we can then say "I was first").
Tony, as a Twitter user, knew he had a good way to reach multiple people and used it. He also is one of those in the office who really 'gets' liveblogging, and I suspect the two are linked - after all, liveblogging is all about urgency, communication and sharing information.
Oh, and of course, he also has the perfect response next time someone says all Twitter is about is "people saying what they had for breakfast"...

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

A brief surge of interest FriendFeed

FriendFeed is back on the radar, although not necessarily mine. I've had an account since it launched and never really been able to sustain the enthusiasm. The other problem is that it's intermittently blocked on my work internet, so simply logging on can be a small triumph.

Anyway, recently the site has had an overhaul - or, more accurately, it is attempting to become Jaiku - and since more people are wandering over to Friendfeed, I thought I ought to give it another go.

I've got a bunch of new subscribers, and I've subscribed right back at 'em, and I've even sorted them into little groups (Personal or Professional - look, I never said it was an extensive sorting operation).
As I was pottering away in my FriendFeed stream some new photos from the Daily Post Flickr group popped up in my stream, reminding me that I probably ought to create a Liverpool Echo Friendfeed (the Echo Flickr group is starting to flourish now; it's amazing what a difference just being visible on the group page makes) so I suppose FriendFeed has proved useful already.

I can't say how long I'm going to keep using it though; I guess I'll give it a week of being one of my web tabs (as long as the work webmasters let me anyway) and see if it makes a difference in how I follow links, tweets, images and Shared items on people's Reader. But then, if it hasn't grabbed my attention, I'll forget about it again.

Sometimes, I can be quite antisocial with social media...