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.

Journalists don’t know their own business

“The most surprising thing about journalists is how little they know about the businesses or industry in which they work,” said an NUJ staff member who happened to be sitting opposite me at lunch.

It made me want to scream.

I prompted the comment by admitting I wasn’t au fait with all of Trinity Mirror’s digital acquisitions in the last three years.

I am all too painfully aware of my ignorance in this area and it is something I’m working hard to change.

A lack of business knowledge is, I think, one of the greatest threats to local and regional journalists, especially in this tough economic climate.

After all, if we don’t understand how our market is created, nor how we best make money out of it, then I would argue we know little about serving it properly

Despite having been told in the past that my arts and journalistic background may offer me a “creative” or “unusual” take on the fortunes of the industry, I don’t really buy it. You don’t understand anything unless you understand how the money works.

Continue reading

NUJ Multimedia Commission

The report is out! But, I must confess, I haven’t read it yet.

At the moment I’m trapped between writing up my trip to Geneva, preparing two weeks of media & marketing stories, completing the registration for a postgraduate course and preparing to go to Hong Kong on Sunday (I know! I will tell all soon!).

However, Paul Bradshaw picks up on some interesting bits of the NUJ report. Press Gazette also covers it and so does the Guardian. There is a lot I want to say, but I want to hold out until I’ve read the whole report (something for the plane perhaps?!).

Also, I’ve been really interested in the creative director for Birmingham debate that has taken place of late and will have more to say on that very soon. I read the posts by Stef and Paul with interest. There have been a few developments and I’ll fill you in on these soon too.

Sorry for the poor post!

More Blog Angst

So, there I was: ploughing through my Google Reader in an attempt to find something to blog about.

I found something on Martin Stabe’s site about the NUJ possibly admitting their first full-time blogger.

“Ah-ha!” thought I, “something that would work as a blog post”.

Then I realised what I was doing.

It’s all gotten the wrong way around. The thing is this whole blogging marlarkey was meant to be a repository for the thoughts I was having during my day-to-day life. It was NEVER supposed to be a hungry monster that I had to feed with new material.

I think the problem has arisen because (through uncontrolled events) this blog appeared on the radar of Post & Mail bigwigs rather early on. Too early on, to be honest (sorry, to those I know may be reading this).

I had hoped to keep it relatively quiet for a few weeks, maybe months, to find my feet with it. Perhaps that was a bit naive really.

And, to be honest, it is great how supportive and enthusiastic everyone has been and how happy they are about letting me get on and do my own thing.

BUT, of course, knowing that these people are reading the blog has sort of messed up my perception of it.

It’s gotten even more complicated since I blogged about the NUJ and started appearing on their radar. Don’t get me wrong, the debate has been fun – I’ve always longed to have the opportunity to thrash out my views in this way.

But the result is that it’s changed the way I approach the whole blogging thing. I realised the “let’s blog about the NUJ story”, was me doing what I’ve been trained to do – writing specifically for those people I think are reading.

That’s turned my blogging into out-and-out publishing and I don’t like that at all.

There are things I like – the Any Qs and Answers for example. But I don’t want to feel bad or guilty about blogging about fireworks, my cold or something someone said on the bus. They may be the last thing other people want to read about, but then this wasn’t really done for anyone else.

I’ve liked the fact that I feel part of a community of people online, but I’m starting to wonder if maybe I should have blogged anonymously. I don’t really know, maybe I’m just trying to have my cake and eat it.

After 50 days of blogging, I’m back feeling angsty about the whole thing. :(

Talking to Donnacha

It may be noticeable that, since I commented on Greenslade’s departure from the NUJ last month, this blog has lurched into a discussion on the future journalism and online content.

To my surprise, there has also been an exchange of comments between myself and NUJ multimedia commission member Donnacha DeLong – the chap who sparked off the debate in the first place by writing an article entitled Web 2.0 is Rubbish.

I’m dead chuffed he has taken the time and effort to post – so I thought I’d link to the conversation here.

Bedtime reading for the NUJ…

…and for any journlist who wants to get to grips with the future of journalism.

I’ve been following Paul Bradshaw‘s recent posts about blogging and investigative journalism with great interest. Currently there are five – all draft sections of a chapter for a new Investigative Journalism book.

I think they give a fascinating picture of just what can be achieved online – not just for investigative journalism, but perhaps other forms of reporting too:

  1. Blogging and Journalism 
    Explores the relationship of blogging to journalism.
  2. The Amateur-Professional Debate
    Questions whether the subjectivity of blogs is really corrosive to the search for “truth”. 
  3. Sourcing Material
    How online material can make readers part of the investigative process and help to “fine tune” stories.
  4. Publishing
    How online work can provide greater transparency and a wider distribution.
  5. Fundraising 
    How blogs have provided alternative funding streams for investigiative jourmalism. 

In his fifth draft, Paul also puts forward examples of interesting economic models for this style of journalism.

If would be nice to see the NUJ debating how such issues could be better exploited by professional journalists and, perhaps, provide us with a bit of training to boot.

Here’s hoping.

NUJ is wrong (2)

Another blog post from Greenslade on the NUJ’s attitude towards Web 2.0. Again, I find myself agreeing with him.

He describes the frustrations of X, a journalist on a regional weekly.

I predict that X will, in the near future, find that he cannot square the circle at his paper. Despite his continuing sympathies for colleagues, and his lingering desire to remain faithful to the NUJ, he will realise that the demands of a paper gradually moving from print to screen are inimical to those of a union that, despite its pro-digital rhetoric, is committed only to preserving outdated demarcation lines, defying the need for flexibility and struggling to fend off staff cuts that, in fairness, will be necessary.

Also Suw and Kevin from Strange Attractor provide a fantastic response to some of the anti-Web 2.0 polemic that seems to be appearing out of the NUJ. Their post critiques one of the stories that sparked Greenslade’s decision to leave the union – an article by Donnacha DeLong entitled Web 2.0 Is Rubbish . It originally appeared in the NUJ’s magazine The Journalist.  Suw and Kevin conclude:

Both of us embraced the internet because of the opportunities it presents. It’s the world’s greatest story-telling medium, bringing together the strengths of text, audio, video and interaction. The internet as a communications tool can help journalists tap sources like never before, making their stories richer and more balanced. Why wouldn’t journalists take advantage of the internet?

Yes, the job is changing, and we as journalists need to change with it. The internet may be posing a threat to the business model that support journalism, and it’s understandable that this causes anxiety. But misrepresenting the reality of that change won’t make it go away.

I couldn’t agree more.

NUJ is wrong

I’m still ferverish and grumpy so if this turns into a rant you’ll know why!

The Guardian columnist and former Daily Mirror editor Roy Greenslade is leaving the National Union of Journalists because he disagrees with its stance on Web 2.0*.

His reasons for doing so, outlined in his blog, are interesting and I have to say that, on the whole, I agree with him.

Greenslade basically takes the NUJ to task for trying to protect traditional newspaper jobs in a world that is rapidly moving online.

I cannot, in conscience, go on supporting this crucial plank of NUJ policy when it is so obvious that online media outlets will require fewer staff. We are surely moving towards a situation in which relatively small “core” staffs will process material from freelances and/or citizen journalists, bloggers, whatever (and there are many who think this business of “processing” will itself gradually disappear too in an era of what we might call an unmediated media).

But that’s only part of the problem. It is also clear that media outlets will never generate the kind of income enjoyed by printed newspapers: circulation revenue will vanish and advertising revenue will be much smaller than today. There just won’t be the money to afford a large staff.

The NUJ argues that it sees Web 2.0 as an opportunity, but that it does not want large corporate media groups to use this as a cost-saving opportunity to cut jobs, thereby lowering journalistic standards.

But frankly most large corporations in any industry will seize upon an opportunity to save money.

If you’re a chief executive it’s all about the shareholder value: look at Heinz, Peugeot and Lil-lets moving out of the West Midlands. Protests by unions made little difference to their decisions to close factories in the region and cut jobs.

Until journalistic standards start to directly effect revenue (which comes mainly from advertising), then what economic reason is there to retain journalists? Especially if you are finding it increasingly hard to attract advertising.

So yes, I imagine Web 2.0 will  change the face of journalism within large media organisations. I think small teams aggregating and checking the facts of blog posts and forums may well be something we see in the future.

But does that signal the death of a trade?

I don’t think so. I suspect that journalism will diversify and take on new forms, rather than follow the old structures of the past.

The established brands will remain in this cut down form, but advertising is a devious and capricious bedfellow. Some of it will follow its target audience online to specialist news sites run by smaller, leaner, news teams. Some journalism will probably move into the third-sector and operate not-for-profit.

I think there will be an increase in mercenary journalism, where interested parties pay to have a story written and published. I also imagine we will lose some of our best talent to the comfort and security of PR – but this was already happening prior to Web 2.0.

As for other possible models for journalism of the future, I do not have the foresight nor the intelligence to dream them up. This is where I think the NUJ should really be picking up the mantle.

I have had only one exprience of an NUJ debate on new media, at a breakfast meeting during the annual conference in Birmingham. The general theme was regressive and fearful – a lot of old hacks worried about how it may effect their jobs.

I do sympathise to some extent, but only, I think, as far as any person with no prospect of a final salary pension can. Mostly I found it alienating.

For me Web 2.0 is an exciting prospect for journalists to intermingle with readers in a way never seen before. It’s an opportunity to use our collective knowledge to produce more in-depth and searching articles.

All this blabbing on about current journalism being a skill that must be preserved and pickled in aspic is annoying and a waste of time.

I want to be excited by the future of my industry, not fearful and I want my union to help shape it, not bury its head in the sand and hope it never comes.

*thanks bounder