After decades of not going to Sheffield, 2014 was the year I found myself there on several occasions – incidentally, what a fine city it is, once you manage to negotiate the frankly rubbish rail links that run from west to east.
My most recent trip was at the invitation of Sheffield University journalism professor Peter Cole, who asked me to give a guest lecture on how the industry is changing, in my opinion, and what it means for students. Specifically, the brief was to give an insight into my innovation role, what skills I looked for when recruiting, the digital transformation of the newsroom and my own experience, along with new ways to tell stories.
Here’s what I talked about, some of it is taken verbatim from my notes, some paraphrased for shortness but the gist is the same:
Past behaviours inform future ones
Many titles in the regional press have been working in online spaces for a long time, in digital terms. Way back in the sepia-tinted days of 2008 there was innovative, experimental work being done around live content, social media and the use of digital tools. It wasn’t perhaps the most structured approach but it did mean there was a lot of trying, learning and success (and some failing, but that was ok too).
In the years since then, the onslaught of unchecked code being shoehorned into a CMS (whether it could handle it or not) has calmed somewhat, but I think that digital Goldrush was important. It helped us understand how the new world worked, what audiences wanted from it, where mainstream media could fit into it, and the possibilities of building things that told stories in new ways. It also helped us understand that not everything would work, and those failures should be learned from. Regional newsrooms are inventive, partly because of their historic need to be that way. I think it can make us braver about pushing into new digital territories in the future.
Innovations team work
I don’t post much of what the innovations team does, partly because I do struggle to find time/connectivity to post a lot, partly because, y’know, confidentiality, and partly because I don’t want people confusing my personal views and the views and opinions of my employer. But I should do because I’m really proud of what 2014 brought, in terms of innovation.
We worked with drones (Side edit: Here’s a 2015 prediction: We’ll see arrests and calls for tighter legislation around drones. I was talking to an Establishment Source recently and it is a definite Hot Button as far as law-botherers are concerned) and turned longform storytelling into a commercial opportunity; we went live in the Manchester Evening News newsroom; and the Google Glass project we’re running has turned me from something of a skeptic into an advocate for the role of wearables in journalism. Next in the pipeline is more video work, and tapping into the Internet of Things to foster culture change and audience engagement.
What I find most interesting about the innovations team work, however, is that it’s much more successful when we involve others. Whether it’s teaming up with external third parties, or combining with skills from the data unit or social media colleagues, the end result is richer for collaboration. Journalism is as much about human networks as it ever was.
When I started job hunting you needed an NCTJ qualification, perseverance and a degree of luck to break into journalism. These days, I guess the skills I’d expect to see used by a journalist would be a daunting list, and probably considered unreasonable to those whose newsroom experience ended somewhere in the mid-90s (looking at you, Hold the Front Page commentators). However, these are skills you use a lot. Some of them you’ll call on every day, without thinking, and your job would be much, much more difficult without them.
And to students who think it sounds like too much is being required, I’d ask them to imagine trying to acquire these skills when you’re already working in a newsroom – bringing in stories, covering meetings, building contacts. And then trying to learn advanced Tweetdeck, or Excel spreadsheet wrangling. Learn it before you have to learn it, would be my advice, because learning on the job is hard. I know, because I had to do it.
There’s no ‘one size fits all’ journalist skill set any more. If you want to be a court reporter or a city editor, you’ll need to know Law and the pillar NCTJ skills or similar. But you will also need to be a skilled mobile journalist, adept in using a smartphone to shoot video, take photos, record audio, live tweet, and/or live stream.
As our audience becomes more device-orientated, we need to be there with them, providing the news – and our analytics show us that social platforms and live content are what brings us large audiences who are loyal and who share what we do.
So these are some of the skills and knowledge I look for if I’m interviewing candidates: An awareness and ability of and in audience engagement/social media; mobile and live journalism; multimedia; interactives; data visualisation; analytics; Search Engine Optimisation.
If you’re a senior journalist with an NCTJ or equivalent qualification, who wants to specialise in hard news reporting, you also need to demonstrate social media skills, multimedia abilities – video, audio, photos, for example – mobile journalism skills such as live tweeting or liveblogging breaking news and real-time events, data journalism, FOI familiarity, SEO knowledge. Knowledge of digital tools such as Storify, timeline and mapping software, basic coding knowledge, detailed knowledge of social search and verification processes will give you an edge.
If you wanted to specialise in data journalism, the ability to use tools such as Excel, data visualisation tools and ability to source and extract data is essential, but I’d say you also need social media skills (not least because there are a lot of data experts on social who are very generous with their knowledge) to source and promote your work. Then there’s SEO knowledge, plus enough coding knowledge to be able to articulate to a developer what you want to achieve.
Audience engagement roles are vital in today’s newsrooms. We rely on the ability to use analytics such as Omniture, Chartbeat, and social metrics such as Facebook Insights and Twitter Analytics, to gauge what matters to audiences and apply journalistic knowledge to developing and shaping content. Understanding the spikes that exist through the day – from the 6.30am traffic, travel and headlines, to the evening social conversation and long reads can be the difference between snaring readers and keeping them, and missing them completely.
These skills apply across all departments in editorial – not just news – and anyone preparing for an interview these days had also be up-to-speed on their IPSO, copyright laws, defamation and contempt in comments, and rights-of-use of UGC on social platforms, because they will probably crop up in any interview.
Like I said, it’s a long list but when you’re up against perhaps 200 applications, showing use of social and live journalism, data journalism, mobile journalism, and some awareness of SEO/analytics could be the edge you need.
Journalists have learned a lot, quickly, in recent years about new way to tell stories and reach audiences. We’ve also learned what our audiences expect from us, because they tell us – very publicly across social media when we let them down. Social media skills are essential – it’s a publishing platform, a breaking news tool and a conversation engine, and expertise in this field can lead to an accelerated career path, just as it has allowed to growth of new business opportunities and media publishers.
There’s a lot said about the diminishing of the regional press, and it’s true some titles have disappeared, some have gone weekly or become purely digital, and probably all newsrooms have smaller staff numbers, than when I started 20 years ago. That said, I once worked at daily titles where the opinion column had its own journalist, who did nothing but that every day – I couldn’t then, and still can’t, imagine a working day so stultifying dull.
While traditional roles have reduced, new ones have been created and with them new opportunities. The route of reporter, specialist, news desk or subs desk, and then perhaps management is only one way to progress now – the newsroom conference table looks nothing like it used to- some don’t have conference tables at all.
In six short years, the newsroom as I knew it has changed out of all recognition, both culturally and physically. I suspect in six years time it will look different again.
Attending the Society of Editors* conference on November 10 and 11 meant a trip back to my old stamping ground of Southampton. I spent several years there in the ’90s with the Southern Daily Echo (editor Ian Murray completed his term as SoE president this month) and it was good to go back – not least to see how much the city has prospered since my last visit.
The conference had some excellent sessions – I particularly enjoyed the Full Steam Ahead panel, the Continuous Development panel on training, and the New Threats to the Media debate, with a special nod to Matthias Spielkamp, of iRights.info for his insightful view of journalists’ needs to protect processes, not just sources. The links above go to the SoE summaries of each debate but the Daily Echo also undertook a commitment of covering the conference live. Respect.
I was invited to take part in a panel on Emerging Opportunities for Journalism with my fellow panellists being Kathryn Geels, of innovation charity Nesta, and Peter Jukes, whose account of crowdfunding to live tweet the hacking trial was fascinating. At the end of the session it did feel a little as though digital journalism was still viewed as the freeloading cousin of the more solvent print product by some, although I don’t think it’s hard to find value in engaging audiences, getting social media right, and concentrating on dwell times and user needs rather than page views.
I have a bit more room to explain my ideas on this blog and, obviously, I work in regional legacy media so my view is slanted towards that segment of the industry. However, everything I talked about at the SoE is already being done by other companies – some are recognisably in the content creation business, others perhaps not so much – and they are making money. These are emerged opportunities but parts of the mainstream have’t cottoned on to that yet. So, these were the themes I chose to talk about:
1. Data and the roles of journalist/developer: Twenty years ago, I would go on a job with a photographer and between us we would tell the story using our own choice of media, which were blended to enhance reader experience. A posh way of saying, I did words, the toggie did pix, and the end result was a content package that was greater than the sum of its parts. In Trinity Mirror we have the data unit, where facts, figures and whole paragraphs of exposition are enhanced by developer coding skills to create entirely new pieces of content. Like the WWI search widget, for example. A standalone story, with data and visuals, that through existing brought in new stories as readers explored the data, discovered new things, and shared them. Of course, you can be your own developer, just as you can be your own photographers. I just think that the dynamic will see developers and reporters working closely in mainstream newsrooms in the future, just as we have always done with photographers and sub editors.
2. Mobile/wearables: From my notifications column in Tweetdeck, the most tweeted point I made as a panelist was ‘if it doesn’t work on mobile you need to ask yourself why you’re doing it at all’. The opportunities for mobile journalism are enormous – commercial developments aside (and there are so, so many) simply being able to deliver your new content into a platform that your target audience’s is already holding in their hand – (and tell them about it through some judicious notifications use) is a little mind-boggling when you stop and consider it. Apps aside, why would any media company have a news website that wasn’t responsive? It’s surprising how many do. In terms of wearables, we’ve only just reached the foothills; I’ve no time for dismissive ‘Glassholes’ chatter – if we aren’t looking at how the potential opportunities offered by these spaces now, when the audience shift happens (and, as with phones and tablets, it will be at a gallop when it does move) we won’t be there as a familiar brand to greet them. So ‘our’ audience will form new alliances with brands that did get there first. Under the innovations banner, we’ve got a Google Glass project running at the Manchester Evening News in conjunction with UCLan’s John Mills and we are already discovering wearables have advantages over handhelds for telling some stories (like the Manchester Live video linked to in point 5).
3. Socially shareable content: Just a glance at a news website’s real time anaytics shows how important the social audience is to driving traffic. The opportunities for mainstream media to create content – images, text, audio – that has a standalone life on social platforms are obvious and although I wouldn’t say this has been cracked yet I think the native advertising content being created around games and lists is a pointer A bit of a digital air plant; socially shareable standalone content should have a built-in life-support system of editorial and commercial content, and in a social media ecosystem users would interact, consume, and move through on to other points of interest on a website served up through linking and curation.
4. Immersive storytelling: I’ve seen for and against discussions on whether there’s a really life for long form online (here’s a long Twitter debate that’s worth a read). If you ask will people read 400+ words on a mobile device I’d say, on the evidence I’ve observed, you have the wrong question. As ‘how’ people will take in the information and you’re on the right track. Personally I think if they are 400+ worthwhile words, with associated multimedia, engaging graphics, interactive content and clean, easy scrolling, on an engaging subject, then yes, people will. And then there’s the immersive opportunities of long form audio storytelling – as the statistics of TAL’s Serial podcast show, for example.
5. Live and collaborative journalism: This is my favourite point, because it involves drawing people into the journalism you propose, and quite often it becomes a better – and perhaps different – thing because of that. Live invariably means more transparent – the immediate need to convey information to a waiting audience takes out the editing filter, often, and what’s comes across are pure facts or descriptions. It’s exiting and often compelling – readers stay for longer, share more, involve themselves and – particularly in the cases of regional brand liveblogs – living stories become authoritative pieces of work. Collaborative is fun to do because the crowd you work with knows so much. The Manchester Evening News ran Manchester Live for one day but the learnings it took away have been incorporated into the day-to-day fabric of the newsroom. A real case of seizing an emerging opportunity, seeing the value to an audience, and acting on the feedback.
6. Audience analytics and reader trends: None of the above points work without knowing the audience, their behaviour and the user trends. If we don’t know what our audience’s habits are, what devices they use, where, when and what information they are going to want, it’s very hard to deliver the right content. And this is a competitive market – we compete for users’ attention against other media, against their preferred music, their work, their loved ones… getting a slice of their attention is hard, and our best hope is to insert ourselves into their day at the points when they’re likely to have time to want information and entertainment. Layer real time analytics with historic data and social information, and you have a matrix to work from. Personalisation and automation of some content/content delivery are more opportunities that spin out of knowing audiences.
So that was the tone of my contribution. I tried hard to avoid jargon but when you’re talking about ‘wearables’, ‘immersive storytelling’ and ‘analytics’ it is kinda hard not to sound buzzword-y. Hopefully the message didn’t get too mangled by it though.
* A bit of disclosure: I’m a (very new) member of the Board of Directors for the Society of Editors
Bonus content: Since taking part in the panel, I’ve managed to catch Amy Webb’s immense 10 Tech Trends for Journalists slideshow, which is essential viewing in my opinion.