Monthly Archives: October 2011

The ExLeedsMedia Twitter List

The Parky building. Not named after the chat show host.

This week I’m starting a run of sessions teaching various online skills to broadcast journalism students at the University of Leeds. One example of how much journalism has changed since I did the very same course a decade ago is that back then we were taught very little about the internet. Tablets were, I’m afraid to say, something you took the morning after a few midweek pints of cheap beer in the Old Bar.

As I’ve already explained in a previous post, I believe it’s important for today’s student journalists to be on Twitter. But just having a Twitter account isn’t nearly enough. I’m keen to help the students get the best out of it for themselves and for their journalism. To that end, I’ve begun to curate a list of Leeds alumni who now work in the media. You can find the list here: http://twitter.com/#!/rlwjones/exleedsmedia

There are two main reasons for doing this. The first one is that many of the traditional graduate-level media positions which were still relatively widely available back when I left Leeds, such as jobs in commercial or BBC local radio, have either gone or are going. Student journalists need to think about their future careers earlier, to help give themselves more options when graduation time comes. I hope that looking at the successful careers many Leeds graduates are enjoying in various parts of the media will help and, yes, maybe even inspire them.

The second point is rather more prosaic. ‘It’s not what you know, it’s who you know’ is such a dreadful cliché it should be a candidate for John Rentoul’s banned list. But there’s no doubt a contact here or there can be extremely valuable. If a student sees a Leeds graduate tweeting about doing a job they’d like to do, there’s no reason why they couldn’t get in touch and ask for a bit of advice, a bit of work experience, or whatever. Less social network, more social networking, if you like.

That link to the list again: http://twitter.com/#!/rlwjones/exleedsmedia

If you know of anyone you should be added, then tweet me @rlwjones. They don’t have to have done the broadcast journalism degree, the list is for anyone who went to Leeds and is now in some part of the media.

(Thanks to @rowanc and @hr_smith for their help in suggesting people!)

Introduction To Hyperlocal

I gave my first lecture of the term today. It was an Introduction to Hyperlocal session for second and third year Digital Journalism students at University Campus Oldham.

It was a presentation followed by a discussion, and for the lecture part of the class I made use of the very whizzy Prezi for the first time. I was impressed by how easy it was to build an admittedly basic presentation on Prezi, although  I was merely converting slides which I’d already created in PowerPoint, so perhaps that made things easier too.

Anyway, here’s the presentation: http://prezi.com/8tpfgdpznect/introduction-to-hyperlocal-october-2011/

It was aimed at students who may have little or no knowledge of the hyperlocal sector, so most of the content will be familiar to anyone who already follows it.

As well as talking about Saddleworth News and the hyperlocal scene more generally, I also threw in a bit about Jeremy Hunt and his much-discussed plans for local TV. If those stations ever come into being, I imagine it’ll be students like the ones I taught today who may make up much of the workforce.

A Quick Introduction To Twitter For Student Journalists

This is the Twitter sign-up screen. Do it! Do it now!

A lot of people are talking about Twitter these days. Indeed, some broadcasters are so excited about Twitter, they sometimes seem to discuss little else. So you could be forgiven for being a bit put off.

But if you are interested in the news and in becoming a journalist, you have to be on Twitter. That’s not to say it will be quite as useful in the future as it is now. No doubt something of a scale we can’t grasp yet will come along and supersede Twitter. But right now, in 2011, Twitter is essential for student journalists. This blogpost offers a brief explanation as to why.

What Twitter is

Two common ways of describing Twitter are that it is a “social networking” or “microblogging” tool. I don’t think either of these is particularly helpful as far as journalists are concerned. Although you can certainly use it to stay in touch with your friends, or for issuing brief thoughts about some topic or other, neither function begins to explain the impact Twitter is having on journalism.

Instead, think of Twitter as an information-sharing service. It allows people from all over the world to give information updates, and for these updates to be shared with other people almost straight away. So, not only do we have a lot more information, but that information is available everywhere very quickly.

Given that Twitter is used not only by journalists, but also by people and organisations in positions of power who make news, as well as by members of the public who may be caught up in events, a lot of the information updates on Twitter will be interesting as news. “News travels fast” is an old saying, but it has never travelled as fast as this.

Why you need to be on Twitter

The main reason why it’s important for student journalists to use Twitter is that, well, lots of people in the media do. If you want to be part of that world, then you’d better start acting like it. Learning how to use Twitter and to get the best out of it for your journalism will add to the traditional skills you’ll be taught on your course, giving you an advantage over those who haven’t bothered.

Then there’s the whole question of journalism’s uncertain future. Although this is discussed in academic papers, chances are you’ll have too much other reading to do to spend much time sifting through those. Instead, the debate about the huge changes to our trade takes place every day on Twitter, as links to articles and blogposts are shared and discussed, praised and criticised.

The days when you could graduate from a good journalism course and be likely to get an entry-level position in, say, local radio, have long gone, along with many of those jobs. I believe it’s up to all of us who want to have careers in journalism to use new media to try things out, experiment with new ways of working, and to talk about what’s successful and what isn’t. Right now, Twitter is the best forum for the latter. Besides, that well-known journalist you end up debating with on Twitter is the sort of contact you’d never have been able to make in the old days. You need to get involved.

Hootsuite

The best way to use Twitter

You sign up for a Twitter account by visiting www.twitter.com and following the instructions (it’s free). You can post your tweets of up to 140 characters directly from twitter.com if you want, but it’s much better to use a third-party client. These interact with Twitter so you can see and send tweets in a more user-friendly way.

Tweetdeck is arguably the most popular and best-known. But because it is app-based, you have to download the software to start using it. Fine for your laptop or smartphone, but you won’t be able to do this if you’re using a shared computer, such as a terminal in a university cluster. So, I recommend the web-based Hootsuite instead.

The best people to follow on Twitter

In order to see updates posted by others on Twitter, you need to subscribe by ‘following’ them. As soon as you’ve clicked ‘follow’ on that person’s account, their tweets will start to appear in your feed.

In order to help you get started, I’ve created a handy list of some notable journalists on Twitter. You can find it by clicking here. If you become a follower of the list, you will be able to import it into one of the columns on your Hootsuite dashboard. However, you’ll need to follow each of the accounts individually if you want to see their updates in your Home column.

You can send a tweet to someone by mentioning their username. When someone does this to you, the tweet will appear in your Mentions column. All of the tweets are publicly visible, although ones which mention a user at the start will not appear in the feeds of others, unless that person is following both the sender and recipient.

If you want to share a tweet sent by anyone with those people who follow you, then you ‘retweet’ it. You’d usually do this if you think something is interesting or funny, and this is the technique by which news travels fast on Twitter. An interesting update from a newsmaker or a breaking piece of information from a news company is often retweeted hundreds or even thousands of times within minutes, meaning that information is quickly available to huge numbers of people.

You’ll also notice tweets featuring ‘hashtags’ which are keywords relating to particular topics, preceded by the # symbol. Click on the hashtag, and you’ll be able to see every public tweet sent using it. A bit like a search engine that works in real time.

You can also send direct messages, which can’t be seen by others and are basically the same as private messages on Facebook, by putting a ‘d’ at the start of your tweet. But, as Chris Huhne recently discovered, be careful that you do.

Other things Twitter is useful for

The third-party clients such as Hootsuite are able to connect to other social media accounts you may have, such as your Facebook or LinkedIn profiles, which certainly makes it easier to keep on top of everything.

Twitter’s not just there for the serious things in life either. Twitter is fun. In fact, it’s particularly worth reading during X Factor and such, for an often-hilarious running commentary on events. And, unlike Facebook, your Aunt Jemima isn’t on there. So you can swear as much as you want.

There are also lots of new tools which have been developed for journalists, such as Storify, Audioboo and Dipity. You can log in to these and many more using your Twitter username, so that’s nice and easy.

But this blogpost is really just the most basic of introductions. There are lots of more detailed guides out there, such as this one from Mashable, which is well worth a look.

I’ll see you on there. I’m @rlwjones, by the way.

Thirteen Lessons I’ve Learned From Running A Hyperlocal Site

I set up Saddleworth News in February 2010.

I thought it would be a good way to keep myself involved in journalism while I stayed at home as a full-time dad to my young daughter, and I hoped it would become a source of information which would be read and valued by people in the local community. I’m not sure if I’m in a position to say whether the site achieved the latter, but I’ve certainly enjoyed writing it.

I’m now in the process of handing control of the site to digital journalism students at University Campus Oldham, part of the University of Huddersfield, which has put me in a reflective mood about the past couple of years. I’ve learned a lot about journalism, the internet, social media, and much else besides.

So I thought I’d share some of those lessons in a blogpost. Before I forget them all.

1. We need to lower our threshold of what we think news is

An old quote from an old American newspaper editor has it that “News is anything which makes a reader go ‘gee whiz!'” While it’s unlikely that anyone has actually said ‘gee whiz’ for several decades, even if they did I’m certain it would rarely be in response to a story about a missing cat. Which I suppose is why you don’t often see missing cat reports in the media.

But for every snarky journalist who mocks the idea of running an appeal for information on Tiddles from Tiddletown, there’ll be other people in that specific locality who are genuinely interested. And that is what makes it news.

Jasper the cat was found after an appeal on Saddleworth News. So there.

2. It’s not worth trying to be comprehensive

If you’re running a hyperlocal site, the chances are it’s not your full-time job. So you won’t have loads of spare time to devote to it. Trying to make it to every council meeting, every football match and every coffee morning is a sure way to tire yourself out, and make you quickly resent what should be an enjoyable thing to do.

If you can’t make a local event because you had something else on, be honest with your readers and say so. Maybe one will be able to supply you with pictures or a report, or you could link to coverage elsewhere online. Focus on doing what you’re able to do and do it well, rather than trying to take on the impossible.

3. Don’t cover the same things the local paper does, unless you can do it better

An easy trap to fall into would be to see a story about your area in a newspaper, and quickly rush around trying to speak to the people quoted in the article so you can put together your own version of it.

This would be pointless. Instead, find a distinctive angle for a piece of your own and link to the original story (always give credit where it’s due). Or, even better, spend the time researching and writing an article on something local that’s not being covered by any other media. That’s the sort of content which will get people to visit your website first.

4. Running a one-sentence quote is a waste of everybody’s time

Take a look at a newspaper article. Any one will do. See those quotes at the end? All those single sentences from councillor so-and-so and spokesman rent-a-gob? Must have taken a bit of time for the reporter to get, but they’re not exactly adding much to the story are they?

Newspaper stories traditionally feature quotes at the end so they can be easily cut down by sub-editors to fit into whatever space is available. It’s a tradition which doesn’t have to apply online. On the internet, you’ve got as much space as you want. So if you interview someone, do them and your readers the courtesy of quoting them properly. Besides, if you’ve gathered the material, you may as well run as much of it as you can.

Journalists getting ready to take down lengthy quotes which will later be cut out by a sub-editor.

5. There’s lots of information out there already

It used to be that you’d have to go to a council office or a library to have a look at, say, the minutes of a meeting or the documents relating to a planning application. But now lots of this official information is freely available online.

Searching through pages of apparently dull scrutiny committee reports can yield wonderful nuggets of information. Imagine my surprise when I discovered a table showing that just one person had turned up to three public meetings as part of a consultation on £2.6m cuts to council children’s services. A bit of patience often leads to a great story.

6. Politics isn’t boring

A lot of people in the media are fond of saying that politics is boring, that nobody really cares. But these people are wrong. It’s not politics that’s boring, it’s them.

If you can’t find at least three stories worth writing from a council meeting of just about any description, then you’re not looking hard enough. Even if your local councillors give the impression of being boring, they spend large amounts of time talking about issues and making decisions that affect everyone who lives in your area. Try writing about it, and see the reaction you get.

7. Serious reporting leads to serious access

I wondered when I started Saddleworth News about whether I’d be taken seriously by people in authority, especially as I had to take a baby around with me every time I went out to cover a story. I shouldn’t have worried.

The council media team let me and junior into press conferences. I interviewed David Cameron, Nick Clegg and Ed Miliband with her sat on my knee. If you cover issues in a responsible way, you’ll get respect and access to the powerful in return. Regardless of how unusual your personal circumstances might be.

Clegg was forced to defend the controversial rusk tax.

8. You can cover the same story as many times as you like

Editors have lots of excuses that they give to reporters when they don’t want them to cover a particular story. They include ‘I’m bored of that’ and ‘We did that last week/month/year, find something else.’

You don’t have to run your story ideas past an editor. If there’s a small development in an ongoing issue in your area, go ahead and write another article about it. Then another. And another, all the while linking back to your previous coverage. Soon, you’ll have built up a huge archive of material on the topic, adding a context and depth to your reporting that a newspaper can’t hope to match.

9. You don’t need to wait until Thursday to publish the local sport

When I was a wee lad I used to play football for my school team. I would look forward to Thursday’s evening paper, because that was when the column about the previous weekend’s school football was published. It was pretty exciting to have a reporter actually pontificating in print about the way my team had played, even if it was just for a few sentences.

Minor sport often turns up in newspapers in the middle of the week because on Mondays and Fridays the pages are full of the goings-on at the biggest local teams. But you can publish the results as soon as you get them. Clubs, perhaps overlooked by the football-obsessed media, will often be delighted to supply match reports, help you get interviews and all sorts besides. The people who play for those teams will find your coverage just as thrilling as I did back in the day.

10. Twitter is useful, but your readers are on Facebook instead

Look, Twitter! Isn’t it exciting? All those fashionable people on there, retweeting each other. All those other people, talking about Justin Bieber. Ooh, shiny! Not like Facebook, which even your uncle is on nowadays, and you couldn’t reject his friend request because that would be rude, and now you can’t post any photos of anything good. Boring old Facebook.

I found Twitter useful for creating a community of people from the local area who are internet-savvy and keen to help, supplying story ideas and tip-offs about things to investigate. But in terms of clickthroughs to Saddleworth News, the numbers from Facebook have always been far higher. Ordinary people are on Facebook. And your readers are, mostly, ordinary people. In a good way.

Roadworks. A classic hyperlocal concern.

11. It helps to be able to stand up for yourself

When you start publishing material about anything, especially if you’ve set yourself up as a local news source, you’ve got to expect a bit of conflict sooner or later. Whether it’s with someone you’ve written about, or a newspaper which has pinched one of your stories.

Be sure of yourself legally. If you’ve got doubts about something, ask a sympathetic journalist or lawyer for advice (Twitter can be useful for this, too). But if you’re certain you’re in the right, be prepared to get stroppy with whoever you’re in dispute with. If they’re trying it on, they’ll soon back down.

12. Try to avoid seeing councillors in the pub

Journalists and their sources have always got together to talk about things, often over a few drinks. They probably always will. Sometimes they help each other, sometimes they fall out. It’s the way things work.

But the equation changes a bit when you’re reporting on a small community in which you also live. It can be embarrassing to say the least if you’ve written something critical about councillor so-and-so, and then you bump into him in your local on Friday night. And again at the shops on Saturday. My advice isn’t to avoid being critical if you feel it’s necessary, but to stop yourself getting too friendly in the first place.

13. It’s not about the money

I’d describe this as the $64,000 question facing journalism, if I thought anyone was capable of bringing in that kind of cash. Maybe it should be the $6.40 question, which is at least enough to get a couple of pints in. Well, some rancid domestic lager anyway. If you want to make money, become a plumber or something.

I was able to cover my costs on Saddleworth News by selling some ads, a skill that didn’t come very easily to me. You might find selling easier, and good luck to you if you can make a few quid out of your site. But if all you want to do is use your skills to help your local community, then tools like the WordPress on which I’m writing this have made that easier and cheaper than ever. Whichever approach you take, it’s unlikely you’ll be drinking too much hyperlocal-funded bubbly anytime soon.