Monthly Archives: September 2013

What I’m Reading: Connected: The Power Of Modern Community

Well worth £1.99.

Well worth £1.99.

I was very kindly sent a review copy of the new ebook from Guardian Shorts about online communities. Called Connected: The Power of Modern Community, it’s by the Guardian’s Hannah Waldram, Ed Walker of Trinity Mirror, and the Cardiff-based publisher and journalist Marc Thomas. And having read it over coffee in Huddersfield this lunchtime, here are some brief thoughts about it.

Cardiff’s a bit of a recurring theme here, because Hannah and Ed both worked there on Guardian Cardiff and Your Cardiff respectively. And the book kicks off with a great story from the city, about how a remarkable trove of old pictures was found and then shared both online and off, culminating in exhibitions and the tracing of the original photographer.

The blend of online and offline features throughout the book. In the conclusion, there’s a list of ten principles for managing an online community, the first of which is ‘get offline’. This excellent advice might seem counter-intuitive, but the rise of Meetup among other similar services has helped take a lot of the hassle out of organising real world events.

A group I’ve joined this year, the Manchester Whisky Club, which runs tastings in a Northern Quarter pub and in members’ homes using Twitter, is a classic example of how those tools and others including Blogger and Paypal can all be harnessed to create a lively community. Even though the main aim is to get drunk and talk about whisky, rather than do something worthy like save the local swimming baths.

The book also touches on Reddit, Mumsnet and some good examples of current hyperlocal news activity in London such as the Brixton Bugle and the evergreen london-se1.co.uk.

You can get the book here. It’s well worth £1.99 of your money.

What I’m Reading: Fire In The Night, Nieman’s Riptide, And More

Image

The Piper Alpha memorial in Aberdeen. (picture: Lizzie/Wikipedia)

If you grew up in Aberdeen you remember Piper Alpha. I was six at the time, in July 1988, and I vividly recall hearing the rescue helicopters flying directly over my house from the airport out to sea. They returned with just 61 survivors; 167 men were killed.

In the 25 years since, the tragedy has perhaps not been revisited by the media as often as others from that time, such as Hillsborough and Lockerbie. But there was an excellent documentary, Fire In the Night, shown on BBC2 earlier this year. And as a result I’ve read the source material for the film, a book by Scotsman journalist Stephen McGinty. It’s thorough but highly readable, with the descriptions of the chaos on board the platform as the fire took hold particularly devastating. Recommended.

Also recommended is Nieman Lab’s oral history of the impact of digital technologies on journalism, Riptide. It’s been criticised for being too simplistic and lacking a suitable variety of voices, but it’s still a useful guide to some of the key developments and experiments in the news business over the past three decades. And this video of a 1981 news report on an early digital experiment in San Francisco is ace.

Elsewhere, Damian Radcliffe published another useful assessment of the UK’s hyperlocal scene at the BBC College of Journalism, an abridged version of his chapter in the new edition of What Do We Mean By Local?. This guide from the BBC’s Marc Settle to using Apple’s new iOS7 is also worth a read.

A couple of sport-related articles which I’ve enjoyed lately: Andy Bull in the Guardian on cricketer Scott Boswell’s battle with the yips, and some interesting speculation from the New Yorker on whether playing American football might have contributed to Jack Kerouac’s early death.

The always-good This American Life radio show had another cracker earlier this month, too. Michael Lewis (of Moneyball fame) tells the remarkable story of how Bosnian immigrant Emir Kamenica got into school and then college in the US. Listen to the whole thing: the podcast is here.

First Seven Tips For Writing News Stories

A good first sentence. (via GQ.com)

A good first sentence. (via GQ.com)

There are lots of different kinds of journalism writing, from news to features to reviews to obituaries to sportswriting to many, many others. People spend a career developing their skills in each area, so you can’t really learn it all in one go.

You’ve got plenty of time to develop your own style. But it’s good to master the basics first, and these are some tips to get you started with writing simple news stories. The kind you see online and in newspapers all over the world every day.

1. Get to the point

Put the most important piece of news in the first sentence. And try to include the Who, What, Where, When and Why of the story as early as you can. This isn’t an essay, so you don’t need any kind of introduction before you get to the interesting stuff.

2. Include the sources of any opinions

Take care to attribute statements you include in your article to whoever made them. For example, ‘The decision not to send the criminal to jail was a disgrace, according to the victim’s family‘. Otherwise it just looks like you’re putting your own opinions in. Save those for comment articles and columns, not news stories.

3. Your story doesn’t need a ‘conclusion’.

Student journalists often feel they need to include a sentence or two at the end of an article, summing things up like the conclusion to an essay. Don’t. If you’ve already gone over all the important details, there’s no need to re-state them at the end. News stories generally just finish, usually with a quote from somebody.

4. Write in short sentences.

Short sentences make articles easier to read. Writing like this is sometimes tricker than it looks, especially if you’re used to writing essays. The best tip I can give you would be to try to avoid using commas unless you really have to.

5. Use two short words instead of one long one.

If you’re looking at an article and you don’t understand a word, it’s a pretty big turn-off. So give your readers some help. You might know what ‘facilitate’ means, but ‘make easier’ is much better.

6. Don’t mix up your tenses

It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but generally newspaper and online news articles are written in the past (or future) tense, while broadcast scripts for radio and TV are in the present tense. Changing between the past and present tense in the same article can be off-putting, so try to stick to one.

7. Avoid using journalism clichés

There are hundreds of words and phrases used every day by journalists that are actually quite strange if you think about it. Sometimes these can be useful ways of explaining complicated things, like “test tube baby”. But more often you get scientists as “boffins” or an unhappy footballer making “a come-and-get-me-plea” while a celebrity is spotted “quaffing” Champagne. There are simple words in plain English for these things, so please use them instead.

The picture of Hemingway that appeared with the first edition of For Whom The Bell Tolls.

The picture of Hemingway that appeared with the first edition of For Whom The Bell Tolls.

Some further reading. In 1946, George Orwell offered a list of six rules for good writing (at the bottom of this essay) and they still stand up well today.

On the point about short sentences, a survey some years ago found that journalists’ favourite novel was For Whom The Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway. Hemingway was himself a journalist-turned-author, and it showed in how he used short sentences and rarely included commas. Give it a read.

And on journalism clichés, it’s worth looking at John Rentoul’s The Banned List (online and in book form) as well as Rob Hutton’s Romps, Tots and Boffins, which you can get a free sample of for Kindle here.