Posts Tagged 'journalism training'

The NUJ and online media

Adam Tinworth’s two posts on the National Union of Journalists and their attitude to blogs and social media in general makes for rather depressing reading.

I’m well aware that this is just one discussion on one blog and isn’t necessarily representative of the whole organisation, but it’s illuminating on the (one) mindset of NUJ.

It all started when Adam’s colleague Martin Couzins wrote an impassioned plea for better online training from the NUJ on his personal blog.

The chair of the NUJ’s Professional Training Committee, Chris Wheal then responded in the comments, starting with the opening of “Try to be more constructive.” Not exactly a great start to addressing the question, although, in fairness he did offer a list of what was available.

Adam then picked up on this despairing that the response was rude and not overly helpful, and followed up a day later noting he’d had traffic to his blog from an NUJ internal email entitled “Effing blogs”.

What’s followed in the comments in both blog posts is uncomfortable to watch as it shows some very basic (wrong) assumptions on the behalf of Wheal and an attitude to blogging that, at worst, has the potential to alienate digital journalists the country over (please note: that says at worst.  And potential).

I don’t want this to seem like I’m picking on Wheal [1] but while he comes accross as web-savvy, his comments in both pieces just don’t seem to grasp how social media (God, sorry) operates.

Now, it’s certainly the case that there’s a massive grey area in the whole blogging / journalism arena. There are many blogging journalists and many journalists who blog (there is a difference), as well as many bloggers who do journalism and bloggers who just blog.

It can sometimes get a little tricky to sort out which shows how difficult it is to define what constitutes journalism in a Web 2.0 world, which, in turn is probably one huge problem the NUJ face. I don’t envy them trying to sort that definition out, as it often escapes those of us who work in the online medium on a daily basis.

But, if you’re really insisting on a straight definition (if such a thing is possible) then a blog (usually a group blog) that’s set up with the intention of making money through articles and opinion that resemble traditional journalism, kind of comes under the first.

That’s a completely imperfect definition, I know. It’s the best I can do on a Friday evening. It was rewritten half a dozen times before I gave up.

But then plenty of journalists blog on a personal level in their spare time. Adam’s One Man And His Blog is clearly a personal blog musing on the industry and other things he finds interesting, just as this blog is a personal blog. What I do elsewhere, mostly at Soccerlens, I classify as journalism.

Does that rough definition make sense? It’s the best I can give.

The reason for going into this somewhat lengthy and winding discussion on what classifies as journalism on a blog, his because Chris (and apologies if I’ve misinterpreted what he’s written as this is how it reads to me) seems to think all blogs should be lumped into the principles of journalism while at the same time utterly dismissing the notion that blogs have journalistic worth.

Now, there’s undoubtedly a point to be made on the standards on blogs. If blogging wants to be taken seriously as journalism then it should certainly hold it up to the same standards as offline journalism [2].

But, by and large, I think the best blogs do that. Why are, say, like likes of Shiny Media or Techcrunch any different from Roy Greenslade blogging at the Guardian, or a non-professional blogging for a local newspaper site on a community issue? Or Ben Goldacre who writes for the Guardian and blogs on the same topic and is VERY passionate about journalistic standards.

Or how about my writing for When Saturday Comes and Soccerlens. They’re on the same issues (slightly different audience) but one is print and one is online. Does the fact that you can’t hold a copy of Soccerlens in your hand make my articles have less worth?

But, by the same token, if you’re clearly writing personal thoughts on a personal blog, should you contact the subject of your thoughts (often personal posts are written on a whim in a spare moment) as Chris indicates?

I’ll leave that one hanging, if I may.

But, no, what has really got the digital journalism and bloggers fired up is not just the rather dismissive and condescending attitude in the comments (sorry Chris, that really is how it comes across) but this following comment:

“The NUJ fails to maintain standards in blogs because bloggers themselves rejoice in having lower standards.”

Ouch.

And Chris had earlier complained about huge generalisations in Adam’s post as well.

I honestly think that any points or arguments Chris made about encouraging bloggers to contact the NUJ have been undermined in that one sentence.

How many blogs actively make a point of celebrating the fact they’re, well, a bit shit? One of the joys of blogs and the internet in general is that it’s far easier to call out bad writing and journalism than ever before.

But let’s put blogs to one side for the moment and go back to the NUJ and the future of journalism itself, starting with a quick detour on my own quick history and thoughts on the organisation.

I’m not a member. This isn’t out of any conviction or protest on my part. I was a student member when I was at university in Cardiff. The Cardiff branch were excellent at keeping in touch and keeping me informed even though I never got in touch with them. That was comforting.

When I left Cardiff and moved from student to full-time journalist, I had a quick go at upgrading my details and signing but didn’t get anywhere.

A couple of emails went unanswered and I couldn’t get hold of anybody on the phone and it wasn’t high on my list of priorities, and I forgot about it. I’ve thought about joining over the years, but again, it’s always slipped by the wayside. No bitterness, just absent mindedness on my part coupled with no real pressing need to join.

I certainly wouldn’t go as far as Dave Lee, who, a few weeks ago, asked what the point of joining was. If anything, I think Dave’s given them too much of a harsh ride, although he has several valid points as well.

If I were freelance, I think joining the NUJ would be top of the list of my priorities, as I know they’re excellent in supporting that area of the profession.

The NUJ also offers excellent legal protection and help, from what I’ve read (thankfully I’ve never needed this) and if you’re a journalist facing redundancy, I’d imagine their support is second-to-none. They’re also very good at protesting against job cuts.

However, as Dave points out, it can sometime feel with the NUJ that the protests against job cuts fail to take into account the rapidly-changing nature of an industry that is all-too-often desperately short of money and facing an uncertain future.

It’s all too easy to say job cuts = bad. But, and this comes back to the point I think Martin was making that originally sparked this little brouhaha, while protesting about job cuts is one thing, giving efficient practical training and advice to help make journalists more employable in a digital age is quite another.

This isn’t to say that the NUJ is necessarily behind the times. After all, with a membership that vast, there’s plenty of online evangelists [3]. They had a very good article on Twitter in the Journalist magazine about nine months ago, showing they were very much awake to the potential of the microblogging site as a newsgathering tool. General Secretary Jeremy Dear has a blog, which is a good thing.

Again, in fairness to Chris – and without ever having been on the courses listed – from his list on Martin’s blog there looks like a good basic level of online training.

But, again, Chris’ comments on Adam’s blog combined with the Effing blogs email combined with the NUJ really don’t having a great reputation in the online and social media community really doesn’t help things.

Adam is (or perhaps soon to be was) a member of the NUJ and is a different generation from me, who could see the usefulness but never got around to joining, and we’re both different generations to Dave, who can’t see the point and hasn’t joined.

Ok, now three out of God knows how many isn’t representative. I know that. But it highlights a couple of issues, I think.

Dave and I have both grown up in an era where unions aren’t as influential or prevalent than they used to be [4]. We’re not expected to join a union. Indeed, of all the people who I trained with, I don’t think that many joined the NUJ.

Now, to bring in Adam, we’re all working in a digital age and environment (although, in my case, my day job is now in PR). The NEXT generation of journalists will have grown up not only without unions but immersed in that online environment.

They will blog, Twitter, podcast [5], vodcast and whatever else comes along between now and then. They will work for web-only publications, some of whom probably haven’t even been conceived at this point in time.

And if you’ve got their professional representative body taking a dismissive attitude to blogging on Adam’s blog and throughout the web (and this will all show up in Google when they search for the NUJ) then it’s hardly going to encourage them to join.

Putting my PR hat on, I could easily tell Chris that one of the quickest and most surefire ways to damage your brand online is to lash out in blogs comments, especially on blogs of respected people in their field, like Adam (who is well-known and highly regarded in his field).

No matter how wronged you feel your organisation has been, getting angry doesn’t help the cause. If there are any perceived errors, politely point them out. Offer to help with any of their gripes (which Chris did try to do at various points).

Above all, don’t get drawn into a slanging match. Your brand will be better off for it. If you feel the blog is that influential and the matter is that important, then you can always drop the author a polite but firm email and ask for corrections.

I love the openness and transparency of blog comments, both as a PR and whenever I turn my hand to journalism again. I can correct and acknowledge mistakes, enter into debate and learn things I didn’t know. What’s not to like?

The fact that the NUJ’s Chair of their Professional Training Committee doesn’t seem to understand blogs and comments – one of the most basic aspects of social media that has been around for ages – does not bode well for the organisation’s future. And it does not encourage me, or, I suspect others that work in an online or digital environment, to want to join the organisation. God alone knows what it says to young, digitally aware journalists of the future.

This is a personal view. It’s not written as a professional article (although if it were an opinion piece for a media industry publication, the sentiment would be the same).

But if anybody – and that includes Chris and anybody from the NUJ – wants to disagree with me, correct me, or add something to the discussion I’ve not thought of, then I’d love to see the comments used for this purpose. Because that’s what they’re their for, regardless of who I am or what I do.

[1] Who, again, does seem to have a good grasp of the tools available on the net. He’s already a better man than me if he can use Yahoo Pipes to their full extent – something I’ve never really tried, and something I know I should try.

[2] Offline journalism is, in itself, a ridiculous notion, as very few ‘old’ media don’t have a web presence. And those who don’t probably won’t be around for much longer if they don’t.

[3] Yuck, sorry, hideous terminology there.

[4] Not saying if this is a good or a bad thing, but certainly Thatcher and Murdoch did their best to get to this state of play.

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Note to aspiring media people: learn the workings behind t’interweb

Charles Arthur’s one piece of advice to aspiring journalists: learn to code. To which I’d say “Oh, God. Yes. Do.”

Ok, there are probably other pieces of advice that are equally as useful. But in the current climate, it’s as good a place to start as any.

There are many reasons why this makes sense. Like it or not, the media is increasingly looking for jack-of-all trades. Like it or not, there won’t be as many journalists around to do the work required of them. If you can work across as many platforms as possible (I’d also advise journalists to learn TV production techniques as well) then you have an advantage.

With journalism increasingly online (vague description, but as the media still hasn’t quite worked out where it’s going, it’ll do), it helps to have a knowledge of what goes on behind the scenes [1]. It’s not vital, it just helps.

Secondly, and this will sound a little woolly, assuming you company’s website is easy enough to tinker around with, it’ll enable you to do some seriously cool journalism-related stuff very quickly, without having to get somebody from IT to help.

Charles uses maps mashups as a good example. There’ll undoubtedly be blogs or other sites producing these; people will find them useful, they’ll search for them. It makes sense to have them available as quickly as possible.

Most importantly, Charles talks about how coding can save you enormous amount of time on assorted amount of journalism jobs – subbing, formatting, pulling in data, and the like. This comment neatly explains why setting up assorted coded bits and pieces can be so useful. Anything that saves time without cutting quality in the media these days is beyond useful.

I’d expand what Charles says to anybody in the media. With a work hat on (PR) I’m often asked about assorted bits and bobs that are web-centric and would be very cool indeed if we’re able to pull them off. Sometimes we do, and sometimes we don’t.

And it’s at these times I wish I knew more about coding and had made an effort  to learn when I had more free time.

I can understand HTML, if not exactly to the extent that I’m confident enough to build stuff with it. I have a VERY basic understanding of CSS. And, er, that’s about it. A lot of what Charles is talking about on there has gone over my head, I’m afraid.

Yet this has given me enough freedom to tinker about and makes some neat and useful tweaks when needed. If I knew more, I’d happily sit away coding to produce cool bits and pieces.

Even if coding isn’t something you’re going to use on a regular basis, it’s still a piece of knowledge that could be (and is becoming increasingly) useful.

The downside: you’re regularly cited as an authority on anything technical. And try as I might, fixing a photocopier using any other method than kicking it, is, sadly, beyond me.

[1] So many print journalists I know have a fairly in-depth knowledge of their production process, which I find fascinating. And radio journalists have to get up to speed on basic broadcast engineering pretty quickly – because that desk or playout system will always fail at 5am in the morning and NEVER when the IT department have a quiet moment.

Adapting to web 2.0 for traditional media brands

Today’s post will loosely pull together three very good pieces on Web 2.0 and the media and draw some probably spurious conclusions that will be nowhere near as good as those in the original posts. Probably.

Firstly, Paul Bradshaw’s extended piece on how local news is changing[1], which nicely sums up the challenges facing all media, but especially local media. There’s an especially pertinent point when he mentions Google’s Super Tuesday election mashup with Twitter and YouTube.

News, and news innovations, are no longer the sole preserve of traditional media companies and anybody going into the traditional end of the media, be it print or broadcast, needs to recognise the landscape has changed. The online startups and established brands may not always get their experiments right but it’ll only take one of them to hit upon an easy and popular idea and the whole industry could be playing catch up.

It doesn’t hurt to experiment with mapping, mashups, wikis, widgets, vodcasts, podcasts and, yes, even online video content and bulletins. The important part is remember not to do them for the sake of being able to do them, but thinking about how this will resonate with regular users of the website as well as drawing in new users and strengthening the brand online.

Getting it right isn’t an easy science and not every experiment will work. But in any media, be a national magazine or broadcaster, or a local paper or radio station, it’s vital to have somebody on board who is naturally interested in keeping track of Web 2.0 developments, like the Google/Twitter/YouTube mashup, and going: “Hey. We could adapt this for our readership.”

All of which brings me nicely to Roy Greenslade’s response to Bradshaw’s post, who also emphasises the need for investment and experimentation. His conclusions are spot on:

“Journalism is being reborn online and it requires total dedication.

It’s the failure of owners to recognise this fact that is holding back development. I applaud all the regional groups that have spent money on new kit. I am less willing to cheer them for viewing investment in kit as a substitute for investment in human beings. In this transitory stage, with papers being published on separate platforms, more staff are required.

If we want reporters to be innovative, to push the boundaries by finding new ways of engaging online audiences, then they must be given the time and space to experiment. Unless owners catch on, they may find people drifting off to non-newspaper websites.”

Finally, a slight tangent [2] from teacher Will Patterson aka J. Arthur McNumpty on teaching blogging in schools, but one that I’ll misappropriate towards journalistic endeavours.

Patterson’s main points – that blogging is a difficult thing to teach and there’s a danger of turning it into a chore; a weekly exercise – could just as easily be applied to teaching blogging to journalists or journalists-in-training.

There’s no question that journalism courses or training should include a significant element on utilising online journalism but it shouldn’t be taught as a series of tick boxes.

Most places I’ve worked, I’ve been an evangelist for blogging, encouraging colleagues to get online and get blogging. Similarly, during my postgraduate training we were required to set up a blog and update it at least every week.

The same problem quickly became apparent in both my evangelising and on the course. You got those who, for want of a better word, ‘got’ blogging and started posting on a regular basis. You got those who didn’t see the point and ended up posting nothing at all. And you got those who kind of understood that it was something they needed to know about but weren’t quite sure what to do with it, so ended up posting in a very formal structure, ticking all the boxes that were required but not saying anything very much and, ultimately and through no real fault of their own, not creating particularly interesting content. Many probably got fed up and joined the not bothered category.

Conclusion: You can take a journalist to a keyboard but you can’t make them blog.

I’m not going to pull out some wonder-solution to teaching blogging, or at least understanding blogging, because I’m not entirely sure how I’d go about it myself. Blogging’s partly about finding your own voice and in formalised settings its not always easy to do this.

The only way that immediately springs to mind, is a bit of coaxing towards storytelling behind the story by tapping into the enthusiasm for what the would-be-blogger was originally employed to do – journalism.

Some of the best posts I’ve seen have been from infrequent bloggers who’ve been out to a story or event and want to share what they’ve been to or seen, but are restricted by space in their traditional outlet. Hence turning to blogging to add depth and context to the story from a personal perspective – a little like an online version of From Our Own Correspondent.

If you’ve got somebody who’s genuinely excited by an aspect of their work, then employers should give them the online means to do this – it works much better than the formal: “This is a blog and this is how to blog.” It’s still probably nowhere near the best way to push media people into the Web 2.0 world, but it’s as good a starting point as any.

[1] A shorter version can be found at journalism.co.uk

[2] Via this week’s Britblog Roundup.


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