New Year Revolutions

I don’t go a bundle on end-of-year navel gazing, and I’m not one for New Year resolutions but there are a few resolutions I wouldn’t mind others trying out for 2009…

1. Industry commentators. Resolution: To sound a little less pompous and gleeful when writing about job cuts/profit falls/closures. To stop constantly harping on about why newspapers must fail, and start writing about what they would do to reinvent a still-profitable industry.

2. Newspaper advertising teams. Resolution: Spend a little time considering what you are offering as part of digital packages. Offering a blog to every client prepared to put their hand in their pocket for a solus is not always the best option.

3. Newsroom types. Resolution: Learn the need to CommuniCATEConversation, Accountability, Transparency, Engagement. By creating communities and being open and involved with them, by making our brands relevant and real to people, rather than remote names, and by seeking information rather than seeking to impart wisdom, we can grow.

4. Journalists. Resolution: Consider why you became a journalist and then ask yourself the question ‘How can I best tell this story in a way that informs, entertains and challenges readers?’ Sometimes, only 800 words will do; but there are so many more ways to share what you’ve found out now. Experiment, seek reader advice and welcome feedback, share your experiences with colleagues. And have fun… Otherwise, what’s the point?

5. Readers. Resolution: Bear with us during this time of interrupted service. Please. Because we care, we are trying, and we are actually better at what we do that a lot of you give us credit for. Because when we get it right we do it so well, and because we announced your birth, your 18th, your wedding, your children’s safe arrival… need I go on?

Like I said, I don’t do resolutions. But I do make promises to myself from time to time and, since it’s just us here, I’ll tell you what I’ve promised myself.
In 2009 I will: Laugh more; See more daylight; Listen properly to others when they tell me things; Be willing to accept some ideas just fail.
And I will, above all, continue to love newspapers and be grateful that, 20 years ago, some editor was rash enough to agree to give me a job.

Reader, I banned him…

Sam Shepherd recently wrote a thought-provoking blog post on how the issue of readers’ robust (but accurate and valid) views on online article.
After all, the age of engagement and interactivity means a reporter can get fairly instant feedback, good and bad, on an article once it appears online, either via comments or forums.

But sometimes the feedback is neither constructive, useful or even fair, and we don’t necessarily like to acknowledge the fact that an invitation to interact can – for some people – be interpreted as giving them carte blanche to have a go.
Interaction is not invitation to post trollish, petty or vindictive behaviour and allowing it to go unchallenged means we are not considering the impact it might have on other members of our online community.

Sometimes forum members are rude or offensive, and then get offended when this is pointed out to them. I don’t think there’s much hope when you’re dealing with someone like that; when a forumite starts calling you a Nazi for editing swearing out of their comment, you’re probably beyond the realms of a rational argument.

I recently sent a message to a forum member whose post was basically constructed around the argument: “I’m not racist but…” (and I’m sure you can fill in the rest of the sentence). I sent him a private message saying it was racist, it was not acceptable on our forum and if he persisted an interim ban would be winging its way to him. I never heard back and he hasn’t posted since. You know what? That suits me just fine.

At one point during the Sean Mercer trial, the Coveritlive software had a bit of a hiccup and the liveblog couldn’t be updated for a couple of hours – and as a result we also couldn’t post a message to say we were having problems. We had a couple of followers posting comments asking what was happening, and then one that said: “This is useless; if you can’t do it properly, don’t bother doing it at all”.

Now, I tried to put myself in that poster’s position: s/he was engrossed in the real-time reporting of an important trial when, suddenly and without explanation, the river of content dried up.
So I suppose I can see why their comment was full of annoyance, frustration and disappointment but I still think they were rude and thoughtless.
We were three weeks into a trial that had been constantly and consistently liveblogged; it must have been patently obvious that there was a technical problem. After that problem was fixed we posted an explanation and apology on the blog. Did we hear back from the poster? Did we hell.

There’s a balance to be struck between interaction – robust conversation, lively debate, responsibility and ownership – and allowing mischief-makers to dominate a conversation. Newspapers want people to engage and interact with us but shouldn’t become so wrapped up in it that insults, hostility or rudeness go unchallenged – whether it’s directed at a staff member, the newspaper or another forum user.

Flickr group widget

Can’t think why I haven’t done a widget of the Daily Post’s Flickr group before but I had two minutes spare and so I made one up quickly.
And it did, literally, take two minutes. It’s one of the easiest ways of sharing content and it also brightens up my iGoogle. Good old Widgetbox
I think this is a brilliant way of serving up the images; be interesting to see if the group members like it too

Testing BubblePLY on video news stories

When I was a young reporter on a paper Down South a colleague once revealed, in hushed tones, that: “Our IT system puts the ‘IT’ in shit”.
Not necessarily fair, but very funny… and sometimes trying to work with new web apps on internal system set-ups designed to be suspicious can lead to exasperations.
This week a colleague spent a frustratingly long amount of time trying to upload a video interview done of a Flip by a reporter, only to find out…
a) the software wasn’t loaded on her machine
and
b) she couldn’t load it because of various IT lockdowns…

So, knowing I’d somehow managed to load the Flip software, she asked me to give it a try.
I managed to upload it, send it to my Youtube channel where it was converted to the necessary FLV file, and she was then able to put it on our website.
Convoluted and time-consuming but it worked… and it meant I also had a spare news video on my YouTube channel to play around. So I thought I’d have a go with a site I’ve been eyeing for a while without having time to do anything with it- BubblePly.

BublePLY has recently been tweaked to allow live links, full control over fonts and more use of images, and you can use your own, or just put a video url in the search facility and layer the data on top of it. The original doesn’t change but you can embed the new version, or link to it, as you want.
Having (very quickly) tried it out I found it pretty straightforward to use:

Then I tried it on a Qik film I’d live-streamed earlier this year and copied to YouTube, and while the film quality isn’t a patch on the Flip video, I prefer it:

This is probably one of the most user-friendly tools I’ve come across, and it’s very effective. It was simply a case of copying a link, adding some texts and links, and then copying the code to embed. I like this – it’s an effective, fast and easy way of telling a story, and sharing it quickly.
There’s only one downside – BubblePLY doesn’t work on my office computer!

Spam irritations

Why would someone think the comment section of a blog about journalism is the best place to flog energy-saving lightbulbs?
I was tidying up this site the other day when I noticed a few extra comments on posts – and there they were – a whole bunch of spammy comments exhorting people to try a different kind of illumination in their homes.
I deleted some but lost interest after a while – which means the spammer has won I guess, but life is too damn short sometimes – and so they are still peppered around the archives.
I guess it could be worse – I know that some bloggers fight a major battle against spam comments every day – but it’s still a bit weird. I mean, who reads a spam comment and thinks: “But that’s so true! I do need to consider a new home lighting system/lose 10lbs of stomach fat/win a million dollars by posting my bank details…” etc etc?
Still, if I leave the key in my door, in a metaphorical Web 2.0-ish way, I guess some people are going to come in and mess around with the furniture. So long as they don’t actually break anything, I can live with it.

Achieving a more transparent newsroom

Sometimes it’s easy to forget how far away the ethos of Web 2.0 is from traditional journalism.
As a trainee I learned I had to always protect my sources of information; there’s an unwritten rule that a journalist should generally imply the story on the front page has been obtained purely through painstaking, journalistic endeavour.

This is why, I think, some journalists feel what they do is a public service (rendering unto the reader Enlightenment?) We assume it’s our job to know, to be first, and we can be deeply suspicious of alternative sources of information (just ask any journalist their view of the local rival paper and you’ll see what I mean).

So the Web 2.0 idea of sharing knowledge, linking, exchanging information and ideas, can be a hard concept to grasp. In your average newsroom, knowing more than your colleague can increase your influence, both internally and externally – so why would anyone cede some of their power by going public with sources, especially websites, that others could then use?

The Daily Post’s front page today was found on whatdotheyknow.com – a Freedom of Information website which UCLAN’s Andy Dickinson has been highlighting in his training courses with Trinity Mirror.

In the case of the ‘bullying’ story, a member of the public had submitted an FOI question which was duly responded to. The reporter then sought various comments on the information provided, and wrote up the story.
Then he credited the website where he found it, and the original person who had submitted the question. The panel, in print and online, reads:

How the figures were revealed
THE figures were released after a member of the public made a Freedom of Information request. Stephen Gradwick used democracy website http://www.whatdotheyknow.com to submit the enquiry. The original request, all letters and emails and the council’s response can be found at http://bit.ly/14Xm6

I know some of our colleagues have been confused by our decision to do this. Why would we blatently tell people that it wasn’t 100% ours? why would we admit that we found and used information someone else (gasp – not a journalist!) had set in train?

Well, we did it because it was in everyone’s interest to say where it had come from.
We found the information sitting on a public website. Any of our readers could have used it; how many were aware of its existance is another matter.
I think it’s fair to say that, as a result of us crediting the origin of the story, those who were unaware of this site’s existance before now knows:
a) S/he can use it to obtain information
b) It works
c) Their question may get picked up and highlighted by the Daily Post

In short, everyone’s a winner. Except for Liverpool council in this case, who probably wish whatdotheykow.com’s parent site, mysociety.org had never thought of the whole FOI-made-easy idea…