Is this useful? An account of how I started blogging and how it changed my journalism

I’ve just been going through my Google Docs and came across this draft post I wrote back in March last year about how I got into blogging.

I didn’t publish it at the time, thinking some of the things I was saying about The Birmingham Post wouldn’t go down too well considering the upheaval the newspaper was going through.

As you can see, it isn’t finished – and I certainly had no idea that in a year I’d be working for The Times – but I thought I’d post up what was there because it is a record of how I got into blogging and might be of some use to someone.

Let me know if it is and whether you think I should try and bring it up to date!

You know what you should do?” said Stef to me on the night of The Media Guardian Awards as we sat mulling over the night’s award-winning, stage-invading, surreality:

“Write a post explaining how things have changed since you started your blog.”

It’s one of those suggestions that makes your heart sink to your boots. Yes, I agreed, it would be a good exercise. But then so much has changed since September 2007 that I’m not sure I’m able to put it all into words.

But, having had a break for Easter, I feel re-enthused enough to give it a go:

The easiest way to sum it up is this: In August 2007, I was fed up with the state of UK newspapers and seriously considering my employment options. In March 2008, I am still fed up with the state of UK newspapers but now firmly committed to the industry.

So, what has changed?

I have always loved the internet and have been an active member of forums and chat rooms since I was a teenager. But, in all that time, I never considered that I deserved a corner of the web to call my own. I contributed to other people’s websites, but that was as far as I thought I would ever get.

I think that attitude came from the same stable as my dislike for writing newspaper opinion pieces. I’m happiest when I’m learning from and with others: bouncing ideas around.

A column doesn’t do this. It takes a stance, argues its case, ends the conversation. I think there is a confidence bordering on arrogance that you must have to write columns. I just didn’t have it.

My lack of confidence also extended to being unsure I had anything of value to say at all, because I didn’t think I held any strong opinions.

Then, some time in the spring of 2007, along came Birmingham blogger Pete Ashton. Really, Pete had been there all along, building Birmingham’s blogging community but I hadn’t really paid attention until I was directed to his Created in Birmingham blog by a member of AWM after following up a story for The Birmingham Post’s Media & Marketing page.

At first I ignored it as a rather amateurish publication. But soon I was intrigued.

At the time I saw it as a different model for distributing certain types of news and information. What stood out for me at the time (and I hope Marc, my editor, will forgive me for saying this) was as far as “What’s On”-style coverage of the specific creative sector in Birmingham was concerned, CiB kicked The Birmingham Post’s butt. It would take me much longer to understand how important it was in serving its community and giving it a voice.

So I followed CiB for a few months, found out what I could about its author and sent an email asking to have a chat. Pete, catching the whiff of mainstream journalism, promptly ignored me.

It took until Birmingham’s Creative City Awards in September for me to convince Pete to meet me. I had badgered Marc to take a table at the event and, as a result, I got to choose which guests to invite. Pete was the wildcard – I didn’t think he’d accept. But I was delighted when he did.

Luckily, we got on. Actually, as time has passed I think we’ve realised we’re doing similar things, just coming at them from completely different angles.

It was Pete – who many Birmingham blog scene know as an ardent recruiter of bloggers – who told me to write a blog. He had to tell me twice, because at first I said I wasn’t interested.

Although, I didn’t really know what I was doing with the thing, with hindsight I can see from the second post on I started exploring the idea of increasing audience interaction.

I swore Pete to secrecy and asked him not to tell anyone what I was doing.

I also kept it from The Birmingham Post. Not because I had plans to use it as a bitching platform, but because I was genuinely nervous about revealing more of my personality publicly. I thought I’d be a rubbish blogger.

But I didn’t understand that by linking to other people’s blogs, they would know of my existence anyway. So it wasn’t long before I got a few comments…and people were friendly.

The third post was another voyage of discovery. I outpoured about Birmingham and its support of the creative sector. As well as comments, this time Pete broke his silence and blogged about what I had said. Then things started to roll: suddenly people I didn’t know were getting in touch saying that they had read my blog. Then the Head of Communications at Birmingham City Council called to arrange a meeting to discuss my post.

The last one was particularly strange and got me thinking about the power of blogging. I could have written exactly the same thing in The Birmingham Post, which has tens of thousands more readers than my blog, but would I have got that response from the council? I am pretty sure I would not.

It was when I announced a change to my reporting role, that Marc found out about the blog. I’ll be honest, he didn’t find out from me (I hadn’t dared to tell him), but from a colleague of mine who had mentioned it to him.

I remember being told Marc knew and waiting nervously to find out what he was going to do about it. He didn’t do anything. In fact, I believe he walked past my desk and said: “like the blog”. I don’t think to this day he knows how relieved I was to hear that!

But still, the blog had an audience, and suddenly I didn’t really know what I was supposed to write about. Coming from journalism training that teaches you that there is a form and structure to the way you write, a empty blog page was a bit of a nightmare. There was no convention to cling to. It was entirely up to me what I wrote.

It was the post Blogisfear where I expressed that and, with the help of those that commented, particularly Nick Booth, I began to realise that it was only journalists who thought they always had to finish the stories by themselves. On blogs there was collaboration, often a story would remain open-ended. I started to think about why that wasn’t being applied in the same way to news.

I became engrossed in the concept of “Web 2.0” – that there were millions of people out there thinking, creating content and collaborating. I had no more ownership over content or news than they did and, in fact, it was my responsibility, as supposedly employed to be “the eyes and ears of the people” to consult them about what I was doing.

I decided to start asking people to put forward questions for people I was interviewing. This had varying degrees of success and was something I enjoyed (it’s died out a bit now as I don’t interview people all that often now).

Pete told me this was known as “crowd-sourcing” and had a wide range of potential applications for newspapers. I can not stress enough how helpful it was to have someone that I could call to have coffee with and pick their brains on how the web “worked”. I started to look at journalism in a new way through Pete’s explanations of blogging.

It was also Pete, I think, who was the first person to teach me the concept of blogging as a conversation.

I first joined the UK journalism “conversation” the day I wrote about Roy Greenslade leaving the NUJ. His decision was a fantastic catalyst for me to write about what I had been discovering for myself about the future of journalism. Some of the things I write about make me smile now (they were nearly there, but not quite), but I had some great feedback from people in the industry.

One commentor was Craig McGinty, who introduced me to the idea of papers developing online communty. It’s funny. Looking back at Craig’s comment, I remember at the time thinking that it was unlikely that any newspaper would employs a person with “the responsibility to help local groups and organisations set up blog-driven sites.” Now, after launching 35 bloggers on The Birmingham Post website, that idea seems perfectly reasonable!

The NUJ debate also showed me how blogging can take you into the heart of a community as, within a few posts, I was debating in the comments section of my blog with Donnacha Delong – the journalist that had sparked the whole debate in the first place with an article in The Journalist.

By the time Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Sly Bailey turned up at our offices, to explain why The Birmingham Post & Mail was no longer for sale, I was being watched by a number of management-types in the company… which was a little unnerving to say the least.

So much so, that I actually stopped posting for a bit, worried that I was starting to act like a monkey performing tricks to try and impress an audience.

It’s something that has continued to be on my mind when I write. I still want this to be a home for half-baked ideas and chats with colleagues, but you can not forget that what you say can make people pretty darn cross… as I was to discover a bit later into my blogging experiment.

10 thoughts on “Is this useful? An account of how I started blogging and how it changed my journalism

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  3. Amazing insights and clarity Joanna

    And mirroring my experiences so closely, as a regional journo and long-time ardent fan of online comms and contemporary news distribution.

    I came from a place of deep frustration with the traditional publishing behemoths (my place of gradual disintegration was Northcliffe News, but that’s another story) to seeing a bright new world for savvy journos evolving online. For some of us.

    It’s a great post, and I admire your candour and content: it’s clear that your attitude will win you out in the ongoing battle between the old-school media managers and the developing new breed of us out there, learning, open and keen to explore new content delivery online. Bravo!

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  5. Joanna, it was really good to hear you at NLab yesterday. I’ve spent the morning so far reading blogs, and in answer to your question “is this useful?” then, yes, definitely. I feel after listening to what you said yesterday that I could actually blog – previously I’ve felt that no-one would be interested in anything I had to say, and that my opinions did not have value. I also in some way don’t want people I know in ‘real life’ seeing what I put online in case they thought I was an idiot. But you’ve given me some inspiration, and I may actually get out there!

  6. Hi Chris,

    Thanks so much for you message and I’m really glad that you feel inspired to try blogging for yourself!

    Remember, the key is that it’s ok if you don’t have an opinion – sometimes the most interesting posts can be where you are exploring an issue and asking questions.

    Best of luck with the blogging project!

    j.

  7. This is a great post Jo – and it’s really enlightening and frank to hear your journey and growth from an internal perspective (and most unusual for a new journalist!) – I think these ‘kvetches’ of the ‘what will my professional peers think’ is one of the main barriers people have to creating opinion based professional blogs – in all industries. But the greatest fear is silence – no response – and you’ve certainly proved your approach can get you – and others in your community – noticed and make change.

  8. Joanne

    This is a really interesting post. Thanks for sharing your experience of starting a blog. I started my own blog earlier this year. I’m currently studying for my NCTJ part time, but I wanted to start writing on a regular basis.

    Starting my blog has been one of the best things I’ve done. I’m constantly hearing about how journalists need to see themselves as ‘brands’ and having an online presence is essential.

    I think that starting my blog has improved my writing skills, but I’ve also learned so much about social media, digital marketing techiniques, web design etc.

    I would say to anyone thinking about starting a blog, to do it as soon as possible. There are so many skills that you end up learning without realising it.

    Rodney

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