Developing The Birmingham Post forum

Out of my post about naming newspapers in a Web 2.0 world another interesting debate has start to develop.So, I have decided to turn it into a post.

The Birmingham Post forum, which launched in February along with the companion website, is looking a little sorry for itself and perhaps needs a little TLC.

It’s a topic I’ve been mulling over since Alison Gow’s post on the subject.

At the moment, there are links at the bottom of our stories linking to our forum:

Link to Birmingham Post Forums

When the forum link is clicked, this takes you to a registration page. If you have registered then you have to go on to another login page.

Some have commented that this is a labourious way to enter a forum and that they feel many people will just give up.

This is not necessarily true however, I note that The Stirrer forum requires registration and yet that seems relatively active.

So, I would like to make it easier for people to use the forum. Thought it might be nice to involve people in how it might work.

Obviously there are no promises as I have very little understanding of what we are technically capable of doing, but I do promise to make enquiries and make any improvements that I can.

Job interview – the presentation

When I decided to post about my impending job interview, I would not have guessed I would get the response that I did. I have received some fantastic feedback. I am lucky indeed.

So, to continue the thread, this is a version of the presentation I’m going to give today (edited to remove commercially sensitive info and stuff that might get me sacked).

Yes, I know it’s a pretty cruddy Powerpoint… perhaps I should have added presentation skills to my training list.

The interview is not until 15:30 GMT, so if I’ve mucked up please let me know – I might still have time to change it! :)

From dino to digi in five days!

I have a job interview on Monday.

It is at The Birmingham Post and the job title is “Development Editor”. It would be overseeing innovation and the development of new platforms for the newspaper.

I wasn’t going to say anything about it, as by telling the world I run the risk of potentially having that toe-curling moment when I have to tell everyone that I didn’t get the job.

But, when I saw the presentation I had to make, I thought it was worth sharing. I have already chatted about it to a few friends, so why not go the whole hog and put it up online?!

I have to outline a training course that would convert traditional print journalists into “fully-equipped and knowledgeable multi-media, multi-platform journalists” in just five days.

Not much then.

Despite my initial reaction being “it’s impossible”, trying to devise such a course is actually a great way to get the brain cells into gear. The last few months I have been immersing myself in all that is new and shiny on the web and, as a result, my way of thinking about the future of journalism has changed.

But do I have the ability to take a step back from that and assess where the industry is at the moment and what skills print journalists will need to have a share in that future? If I can, can I describe that transition in logical steps – as you would have to in a training course.

I hope the answer is yes.

What occurs to me is that the biggest battle is not the training in the use of tools such as Twitter, but the understanding of why you might want, or need, to use them.

It is a horrid thing when someone is told that the skills they have perfected over many years are no longer enough to survive in their industry and that the market and the competition has changed.

I guess the only way to acceptance is understanding, so my training course would start with at least a day investigating trends in the UK newspaper market and the rise in online competition. Perhaps a bit on insight into the best journalism on blogs too – which might open up the issue of the importance of conversation.

All too often the Internet comes across as the bad guy – the place where people read our stories for free and don’t have the decency to buy a paper. So, I think, there has to be a day dedicated to making sure journalists also know how much the web can benefit them in their jobs – that RSS Feeds, searches, alerts, etc. are all ways to make tracking down stories easier.

Then, and only then, would I get down to the business at looking at producing multi-platform content – experimenting with the best ways of communicating a particular message online.

It would be great to do a breaking news story exercise at the beginning and the end of the course to see if thinking had changed.

As you can see, I haven’t fully formed a training course yet but will be spending my weekend pondering! I’ll let you know how it goes…

The price of going public

A few months ago I shot a video on a borrowed N95 mobile outlining the reasons why I thought newspaper journalists were going to have to be more public and transparent on the web.

Media was becoming increasingly personality driven as users decide which sources to trust and which to reject, I argued. People want to know who is behind the news and what they stand for.

It was the first time I had put myself “out there” and, I have to admit, it wasn’t altogether a comfortable experience. I had always said I was happy being a newspaper journalist because it gave me the luxury of standing behind the photographer’s camera. Not anymore.

But, by becoming more visible, I met a wealth of interesting individuals on platforms such as Seesmic and Bambuser who have talked, debated and helped me learn so much more about what the web can offer. Going public didn’t seem so scary after all.

So when my editor Marc Reeves asked if he could put me forward as a potential panellist for The Big Debate I agreed. Three months ago I wouldn’t have dared but, I reasoned, how much worse could it be than doing a Seesmic post?!

Of course, it was far more nerve-wracking, but I was very glad to be given the opportunity to do it. There were a number of firsts and innovations that took place at The Big Debate that I am very proud of and will post about later.

But it also demonstrated the flipside of going public.

Someone who either watched the debate at the ICC or online decided that they did not like me. Not just that they didn’t like my arguments on the future of regional newspapers, but that they didn’t like me. So much so that they intimated in a comment on my blog that I must have done something rather unsavoury to get myself on the panel. The full comment, which was originally on my ‘about’ page, and the responses to it have been put into a seperate post.

That was pretty upsetting. The odd thing was that, when I read the first line, I was glad to see someone had been critical of what I said. I can learn from criticism.

But, when I realised it was turning into a personal attack, it became something altogether different. It felt threatening and misogynistic. After all, how many men have been accused of sleeping their way onto a panel? It was also a rather unhappy thing to learn that the IP address was local.

Now I know enough about flamers to have expected this to happen at some point. The web allows people to hide behind relative anonymity and, as a recent debate on women and the Internet suggests, it could have been far nastier. But it still knocked me a bit and led me to wonder: how many regional newspaper journalists are prepared for dealing with such comments online?

There are two issues at stake here:

1. The emotional response:

I can easily imagine journalists who are not used to online debate feeling very threatened. How would you prepare someone to deal with this and put it into context? It would be a great shame and loss if such a comment made them withdraw from online conversations altogether.

As an aside, I wonder if the current reluctance shown by some journalists to engage with readers online is, in part, a response to some of the comments that can be found in the old-style, poorly moderated, regional newspaper Internet forums where flamers are rife.

2. The public response.

How easy is it for someone who has been attacked to hit back in a similar way? Very: an individual that is hurt, angry and feels unfairly targeted is going to want to bite back with an equally nasty comment. I’ve seen it happen time and time again on blogs.

But, by hitting back, the conversation is only dragged further down into the depths of ignorance, anger and spite – hardly the qualities that are desirable in a journalist. Whilst it might be a perfectly understandable response to a nasty comment, I’m not sure it would be seen as acceptable.

As commenting is such an easy thing to do and can be done in seconds – without prior moderation by news editors or subs – it would seem necessary to develop some sort of strategy or format for journalists to use in dealing with personal comments.

I stress that there is also need for journalists to be able to distinguish between attacks on their points of view and attacks on their person. We must be able to accept strong, vociferous criticism of our ideas and show that we are capable of responding reasonably and intelligently. I think it’s easy for people to mix the two up.

All of the concerns above suggest to me that, as regional newspaper organisations push their journalists into a more public online arena, a little bit of guidance and support is needed to help them deal with the negative side of transparency.

One thing that has emerged from this is that I am lucky to be part of a strong online community (as can be seen by comments here and on Twitter) that will be very vocal if they see something unacceptable or offensive. I am thankful for that.

The Birmingham Post’s Twittevolution

I’m wondering if this is the first time a UK newspaper – or indeed any UK business – has decided and debated a policy entirely online and on a public platform? Please let me know!

It started with a tweet. This one:

First tweet

And then the whole thing snowballed, with my editor, Marc Reeves, publicly stating that he wanted The Birmingham Post to be the first UK newsroom fully signed up to Twitter:

first reactions

Of course, such a statement wasn’t going to be ignored by those with an interest in online journalism: namely Paul Bradshaw from Birmingham City University and author of the Online Journalism Blog and Martin Stabe from the Press Gazette. There were two other tweets that I couldn’t find. One was Paul Bradshaw saying: “@marcreeves, can I quote you on that?” and another was a response from Marc: “@paulbradshaw gulp. go on then”:

follow up reactions

So… from one tweet from me, The Birmingham Post has developed a policy to be the first UK newspaper to have all its journalists sign up to Twitter and decided to embark on a training programme for its journalists.

Then… after a little while… the policy was signed off by Editorial Director of Trinity Mirror’s regionals, Neil Benson (who, it appears, was also having a spot of bother with his iPhone):

Neil Benson's reaction

From tweet to twittevolution. All in a day’s work off sick!!

The first few steps…

The blogs are starting to get a few comments: Roshan Doug, James Treadwell, Stef Lewandowski and Terry Grimley have recieved good-quality responses. Terry’s is longer than his actual post, which is both unbelievable and wonderful. I’ve always had a feeling that Terry would make a good blogger… he has said he plans to respond to comments soon.

I’m so nervous…it feels so scary to have to wait to see what works and what doesn’t.

I’ve already realised that we might have been slightly guilty of letting form get in the way of content, with some very good blog posts ending up in some very odd blog sections. It’s nothing that can’t be changed with a bit of aggregator wizardry… but it’s a lesson learnt.

I just hope our bloggers keep up the good posts!

As an aside, I’m still looking to cover a few more areas in the blogs, namely: music, sport and politics.

It has been pointed out to me more than once that there’s not a strong right-of-centre voice amongst our current team. I might disagree, but still… there’s certainly room for more controversy…

Blogs on the brain

I have been bad! Twelve whole days without a single post!

Would it surprise you that I can blame my lack of blogging entirely on… well… blogging?

Over the last two weeks I have been immersed in the creation and organisation of http://blogs.birminghampost.net. It has been a fantastic thing to get stuck into – if not a little hair-raising given the time schedule!

The brief has been to create a blog section for The Post that links into the sectors that we hope to cover. But, within that brief, there was quite a bit of flexibility. Would we just have staff writers? Would we ask for volunteers from outside of The Post? Would we have one blogger per sector, or more?

I had one big aim for the blogs – to get a bigger blogging presence in the West Midlands. My attention has been drawn to the BBC Manchester Blogs Project (thanks Craig and Francois), which includes guest bloggers (some who blog already, some who do not).

It’s an interesting and innovative approach and I like the way it draws people in and allows them to test the water. But, when some only post once and do not have their own blog, it seems to limit the conversation that can build up.

I also looked at some of the approaches that other newspapers have taken to blogging.

Many seem to have labelled blogs as online columns, choosing one or two people to be their “voices of authority”and sticking to them. It has always been an approach that has annoyed me, there’s something quite dictatorial about it.

Newspaper blogs that take this approach also often end up covering rather predictable topics which are probably more interesting to journalists than their readers: an editor spouting forth his wisdom in a “I know better than you” kind of way, a grumpy old man talking about how things aren’t as good as the old days… of course, I’m generalising here, but I think it’s a pattern others might recognise.

Another approach newspapers seem to take to blogs is to open them up to all their staff as an ultra-niche publishing platform for their interests. While many hobby blogs can be great, you can often end up with a collection of blogs that have nothing to do with anything else that appears on the newspaper’s website

So, I’ve been spending the last two weeks putting together a plan and doing a spot of recruiting both inside and outside of the paper. I wanted us to have a mix of experienced bloggers and complete beginners and I wanted them to be covering issues that loosely made sense within the context of The Post. Those who are completely new to the platform will be given help and guidance when and where they want it.

The response has been great… actually better than great. We have a mix of young and old from journalism, business, academia and the creative and cultural sectors. We’ve even had to start a waiting list!

I am under no illusions, however, that everyone who launches a blog with us will stick with it. Blogging is not for everyone, but I’d rather people had a go to see what worked for them. Because we want to keep things flexible for our first wave of Post bloggers, we’ve (hopefully) designed the blogs in a way that factors this in. If they post once or twice and never again, so be it, although I will be working very hard to get them as hooked as I am!

I hope too it’s something that can grow and change as it develops. If we have a demand for niche hobby bloggers, then we can cater for that, or if our site gains a substantial following for a particular topic, we can deal with that too.

Obviously I’ll be relying on you all to tell me what you think when we launch!

Mobile phone woe

I ran out of time to post anything more from my time in Preston, but I doubt it will be the last time I refer to it as it has had quite an impact. At the moment I think I’m suffering from brain burn. I can’t remember the last time I used the old grey matter so intensely for so long.

One thing that came out is that I am in serious need of upgrading my mobile package. Playing with the Nokia N95 made me realise I need to find out how mobile Internet is working and how that might effect people who use The Post website (and how I might do my job as a journalist).

I don’t get a work mobile and my current personal mobile is talk and text only. I will have to change it but the thing is, I’m on a really good tariff. I signed up to it with BT Genie back in the day when I was a student and BT was experimenting with selling online. Because I never moved O2 keeps me on it to stop me going elsewhere.

It includes:

  • £10 a month contract
  • 50 free off-peak minutes every day (1400 a month).
  • unlimited free texts a month

Good, huh? If I try not to use it for work calls during the day too much then it’s a very good package. So, relunctant to lose the contract I phoned O2 today to see what they could offer me. I have two options.

Option 1: Internet bolt-on

  • 2MB a month for £3
  • 4MB a month for £5
  • Unlimited access for £25

Option 2: Change of package to Online 35:

  • £35 a month contract
  • 600 free mins a month
  • 1000 free texts a month
  • Unlimited internet access for £7.50 a month extra

I think it’s probably going to end up with me taking the bolt on, but boosting my outgoing on a mobile from at least £10 to at least £30 is still a pain in the arse. The other thing is that it would not allow we the handset upgrade. If I wanted an 8GB N95, for example, I would have the pleasure of paying £249.

So, is there a better contract out there?

Tweeting my stories

Well now I have my shiny new laptop sitting next to me all day (review to come), I thought I’d start playing around with the fun stuff.

I’m going to start tweeting about what I’m working on. When I know what the main story is I’m going to work on each day, I’ll tweet about it. That way it might allow folks who can and want to shed light on the topic to do so.

Will it work? No idea! I haven’t got many followers at the moment. But I’ve already started with today’s job: a story on energy.