Thursday, 30 October 2008

Things I would like to see in every newsroom, some essential tools for the multimedia journalist ... oh, and err some toys I would like to play with

#5: Compact mobile PCs

Immediacy is - or at least should be - the byword for the multimedia newsroom. News as it happens and where it happens.

To do this, the news team must be given the tools to enable them to report from the scene of news stories. With this in mind, I've had the chance to try out two portable machines which do allow reporters to do just that.

First up was the Asus Eee PC.

What a great little machine. It's an office which can fit in your purse (if you're that way inclined). While it's small, it has all the basic functionality that a reporter needs. Using a dongle, you can connect to the web to send back reports from the field (or beach - see the pic above of one of my colleagues filing copy from Southport beach), while there's enough ports and sockets, as well as card readers to ensure you can connect your camera and send them back to base, or even upload directly to the web.
The keyboard is compact, but well designed and fairly easy to use - after you get used to it. The only problem I had with it was the low resolution screen which means that some websites can't be displayed in full, requiring horizontal scrolling. But this is a very minor grumble for a machine which is perfect in design and almost perfect in execution.

Second up was the Samsung Q1.

Another nifty little machine, which can come as a standalone touchscreen webtablet style screen which has a split qwerty keyboard for left and right thumb typing, or as a neat foldaway package with USB keyboard which looks just like a purse (again, if you are that way inclined). With this devise you can install a 3G sim card and have the office in the palm of your hand. And like the Eee PC, the Q1 has enough sockets and slots to satisfy all your device needs.

While the touchscreen takes some getting used to and the thumb keyboard is next to impossible to master, the USB keyboard is easier to use than the Asus.

Having used both machines, it's difficult to choose one from the other. Both have downsides, both have plus points. But from the perspective of mobile reporting, both machines are perfect to pick up and go.

On Saturday I had a reporter using the Q1 from the darkest depths of Buxton to liveblog a football match. The results were fantastic, providing better 3G connection than a regular laptop and 3G card.

While reporters don't need to be set up to take on Nasa from the front seat of the company car, they do need to be equipped to capture, process and deliver media in all its format, and both these machines allow them to do just that.

Wednesday, 29 October 2008

Blogging pays: Focusing in on cash rewards

I awoke this morning to find a letter on my door mat. It was from Ford, and inside was a cheque for £216.

... and it's all thanks to a blog.

It began when the cluster clocks on my Ford Focus failed. All of my display clocks went haywire and I was left driving without a speedo.

The repair bill was over £300. I mentioned it to a colleague who authors the very amusing Driving Passion motoring blog. He then wrote a short entry (Ford Focus Appeal) asking his readers if anyone else had experienced similar problems.

To date 55 people have responded. The problem was wider than Ford were letting on.

But amongst those responders was a researcher for BBC's Watchdog programme who had had a whiff of the case and came across Steve's blog. Following the subsequent broadcast, a previously uncooperative Ford announced they were willing to pay for any repairs, minus £99.

Meanwhile I had already paid over £300 for the repair work. So in went my repair bill and this morning back came my cheque from Ford.

Ford forced into a u-turn, thanks to a blog. Result.

I owe you drink Steve.

Monday, 27 October 2008

Bloggers asking questions that matter - how dare they!

I've just been on a wander through the blogosphere looking at blogs which don't have the honour of having a place in my Google Reader.

What I discovered was bloggers actively (and sometimes viciously) discussing what we do ... and how we do it.

The overwhelming consensus is that not only are we doing it wrong, but we are doing it badly.

These bloggers think regional and local newspapers and websites fail to get to the crux of the stories and issues that effect them, and they also think that mainstream media are far too easily bending to pressure.

There's nothing new in these accusations, but now these complaints are reaching an audience of their own - thanks to the blogosphere. What would once have been a grumble down the pub, is now reaching people, and gathering weight.

Some of the accusations I have picked up on:
  • Reporters are not asking the relevant questions
  • Newspapers are in the pockets of local authorities
  • Newspapers are in the pockets of the main sports clubs
  • At my local paper, journalism has been replaced by churnalism
Yikes ... and this is just a few of the many.

So what do we do? Ignore them and hope they go away? Turn the other cheek? Or do we invite them in to listen to their concerns?

The latter.

There was one time when newspapers could file complaints of this sort in the bin, but now these complaints have a platform of their own.

And to be fair, perhaps some of their points are fair.

For instance is the relationship between sports clubs and media outlets too cosy? I'll stick my neck out and say yes.

If a newspaper doesn't play ball, then it doesn't get access. So can a local paper, which depends on football for sales, really rattle the cage and risk losing the exclusive cosy fireside chats with the ball-kicking star? Or can it really question the latest press release from the club's spin machine?

Yes, and yes. As journalists we have an obligation to ask 'the' questions and we have an obligation to demand 'the' answers. That's what we are there for, and that's why readers return to us time and again. To fail to do this, is to sacrifice our readership.

Our readership is out there talking about what we do, and it's time the newspaper/media industry listened.

Suffice it to say, these blogs now have pride of place in my Google Reader.

Saturday, 25 October 2008

Why we must turn every newsroom into an A.F.Z.

For those who don't know what A.F.Z.s are: Acronym Free Zones.

Ok, it's a bad joke, but so is using acronyms for every single element of multimedia.

Reason: there will always be people in the room who haven't got a clue what you are talking about and will simply switch off.

Not the way to win hearts and minds on the march into the new media frontier.

People use acronyms to prove they are in the know - well done.

Now let's get over your ego and move on with those who speak English.

Code is no way to communicate to an already sceptical team.

So leave the acronyms at your computer screen and cut out the B.S.

Monday, 20 October 2008

Will the most important audience please stand up

With print titles and websites, newspapers are now juggling audiences. Add to that paid-for print audience, as well as free print audiences.

So many audiences - so many needs.

But which audience is the most desirable? Which audience does a news company want to attract the most?

Which audience's needs supersedes the others?

It's a question which every editor must now ask themselves every single day. Should a story be released immediately online or held back for the print title? Should the latest expose be used in the free title, or held back for the paid-for?

A daily struggle ... for many.

The way I see it, it comes down to another question: Which audience is the most valued?

My answer is they all are. So why risk breaking a trusted relationship with one audience in favour of satisfying another?

That is what an editor does each and every time they decide to squirrel away a story in the hopes they can capture a few more sales. Our audience isn't naive. They know stories don't break conveniently to suit our deadlines. By hoarding stories, we treat our online audience with contempt and damage our relationship with the very people who will allow us to continue in this business.

An audience is an audience. They need to be listened to. They want news now, not next Thursday. Listen to them, or they'll go elsewhere (there's no poverty of choice) and you won't have to worry about which audience is the most important, because you won't have one.

Saturday, 18 October 2008

Things I would like to see in every newsroom, some essential tools for the multimedia journalist ... oh, and err some toys I would like to play with

# 4: Multimedia phones

How do you make the most of your reporters?

Step one is to arm them with multimedia phones and turn them into a 24-7 army of multimedia journalists.

These pieces of kit are being used by most people out on the street (aka citizen journalists) so why aren't our reporters kitted up with the relevant tools for the job?

A good phone will have the capability to:
  • take good quality photos (print quality)
  • capture good quality video with even better quality audio (there's no use having Spielberg-esque visuals if you can't hear what is being said)
  • record good quality audio
  • have quick and reliable web access
.. oh yeah, and also make telephone calls.

There's much debate about which phone is best for the job, with many in the industry proclaiming the Nokia N95 as the journalist's tool of choice - and that's not even taking into account the newly launch N96.

But I have a confession to make. I use the Sony Ericsson K850i. It does everything the N95 does, but having played with both I found the image and audio quality on the K850i to be better. But that's just me.

How can media companies afford not to invest? Just think, journalists on the scene, filing copy, photos, video and audio - as it happens.

The future in your pocket.

Sunday, 12 October 2008

Let reporters report - not re-write

Here's a radical one.

I attended the Digital Editors' Network in UCLan last week where I was lucky enough to hear a presentation from Jane Singer creatively titled 'Barbarians at the Gate ... or Liberators in Disguise?'.

During the presentation, one of the questions which Jane asks is why do media companies bother to re-write press releases? Why not, she suggests, just put the press release up online as soon as it lands for all to see?

Audible gasp.

Just make sure you label the press release as having come from where it has come from. That way, you can free up talented journalists to do what they do best - report ... instead of re-write.


I've been mulling the idea over in my head since the presentation, and mentioned it to a number of people in the various offices I work in. Without fail, they have all come back with the same response: "Jane Singer hasn't seen the crap we receive."

But the thing is ... she has.

Jane Singer is currently a member of the department of Journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and the Johnston Press Chair in Digital Journalism. And according to her UCLan profile, she was Prodigy's first news manager, in charge of one of the first around-the-clock news products ever to be delivered to Americans' homes through a computer, as well as boasting five years' experience as a reporter and editor at three daily newspapers in the eastern United States.

To be fair to the more talented PR press release writers, some of them used to be where we are. In fact one local authority in my patch has a press office which is made up of all former senior journalists. And what's more, 80% of that team used to work with me! You couldn't get a more talented bunch of writers (and now multimedia producers).

OK, there are varying degrees of quality from authority to authority, and public body to public body, so what do we do, just reproduce the poor quality ones too?

Yes says Jane, then everyone can see what crap is being spouted and by whom.

So while they are freed from having to toil over a badly worded press release, reporters can then question those press releases, question those in power, get to the bottom of the story and do what they are trained to do - cut through the crap and tell people what they need to know.

In his latest blog entry, Paul Bradshaw quotes Philip Meyer, author of the Vanishing Newspaper, whose views on this point seem to tally with Jane Singer's.

Paul quotes Mr Meyer as saying:
The old hunter-gatherer model of journalism is no longer sufficient. Now that information is so plentiful, we don't need new information so much as help in processing what's already available. Just as the development of modern agriculture led to a demand for varieties of processed food, the information age has created a demand for processed information. We need someone to put it into context, give it theoretical framing and suggest ways to act on it.
By letting the press releases appear online, albeit attributed and unprocessed, then we are freeing up reporters to get out and report. They can do what most citizen journalists cannot do and what most bloggers haven't been trained to do. Put into context the events of the day by making sense of things and getting to the core of the story.

So after all that, I'm coming around to Jane Singer's way of thinking on this, although I do still have concerns:
  • If a press release appears unprocessed under one of my mastheads, will the reader be able to separate what is being attributed to someone else and what is being 'reported'?
  • Will my websites be damaged by poorly written press releases?
  • Should we put out someone's messages without questioning them first?

So many questions, and there's countless more. But the more I think about it, the more I find myself singing from the Singer songbook.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Things I would like to see in every newsroom, some essential tools for the multimedia journalist ... oh, and err some toys I would like to play with

# 3: Retractable Papermate Pencil

When it comes to journalistic tools, there are very few as reliable as the retractable Papermate pencil.

It is designed to perfection.

It really is the shorthand writer's best friend. It is slick, well balanced, designed for speed and can only be challenged by one other writing tool - more on that another time.

When you are stuck in court (it's been a while for me, but I've got a good memory), it's the only thing you can rely on.

Cost cutters take note: keep your hands off the Papermate.

Tuesday, 7 October 2008

'Journalists should get out more'

I attended the 10th Journalism Leaders Forum at UCLan in Preston this evening where a distinguished panel discussed the future of the industry.

Joining Forum chairman and founder of the Journalism Leaders Programme Francois Nel was: Vice President of Content and Strategy at Morris Digital Works, Steve Yelvington; Blogs Editor for the Guardian, Kevin Anderson; MD of Newspaper Next, Steve Gray; Johnston Press Chair in Digital Journalism Jane Singer; and Lancashire Evening Post Editorial Director, Simon Reynolds.

So with that, here's some key quotes from the forum:

Steve Gray:
"The web means our readers will be looking for content online that is relevant to their lives. We need to be 'the' utility people turn to."
"Banner advertising, which is now the largest source of digital ad revenue will become the the smallest as we find new ways to post advertising online."
Kevin Anderson:
"There's very few journalists who are good across all media. You must allow journalists to work to their strengths."
Simon Reynolds:
"The biggest challenge for journalists is the mental challenge. Thinking across multi media is difficult."

"News is the biggest driver online. Local news, local sport.
"Reveal and inform and the audience will come."
Steve Gray:
"Journalists need to go back to the people they serve and address the issues that relate to them.
"Get out of the building and speak to the people you want to reach."
Kevin Anderson:
"Newspapers haven't taken advantage of the disruptive technologies digital has introduced."
"The journalists who succeed are the ones who don't wait for training, but get out there and do it."
Jane Singer:
"Newspaper companies could go a long way if the advertising departments looked at the innovations being spearheaded in the newsroom and worked on monetising those innovations."
Steve Gray:
"What are the readers' needs that need to be met?
"What can 'we' do to meet those needs?"
Francois Nel:
"After what we have heard this evening, it is encouraging to discover that there is a commercial viable option for journalism."
Steve Gray:
"If those upstairs in your management aren't on board with digital, then update your resume and get out.
"If you want to stay in a rapidly shrinking industry, then just stay where you are."

Monday, 6 October 2008

Things I would like to see in every newsroom, some essential tools for the multimedia journalist ... oh, and err some toys I would like to play with

#2: Interactive screen

To make multimedia succeed, newsrooms need to be redesigned to have multimedia at their very core. This will involve investment and it will require some new tools to make it all work.

One such tool would be a fully interactive multimedia wall.

This shouldn't just be a big screen TV, but a display to show internet, news channels and be right at the heart of the newsroom where it can display active story lists, page layouts, plans, etc.

I've not been to a newsroom where such a screen is being used although I have seen regular large screen TVs displaying 24 hour news channels. So I've been taking a look around the web to see if such a screen exists.

The only thing that seems to come close so far is a magic white board - the likes of which are being used in schools.

However, I did stumble across the Panasonic Life Wall - it really does do it all ... and more. It's scheduled to come out "later this year", but there's no word on price as yet. Never a good sign.

But just think of the happy newsroom when the World Cup comes around - everyone can watch England get knocked out on big screen from the comfort of their office chair.

Saturday, 4 October 2008

A bedrock of community journalism calls it a day

On Friday I went to the leaving lunch of one of the unrecognised bedrocks of quality community journalism.

He took the opportunity to take a far too early retirement (in my opinion). You can hardly blame him considering the fact that he joined the industry in very different times.

Straight from school in 1965 he entered the world of journalism at his local paper. While ownership changed around him, it is where he stayed for the full length of his career.

He worked through what have been described as the “glory days of British journalism”, with the move from broadsheet to tabloid, hot metal to computers and now the internet. And at every stage he embraced the change – even writing a blog.

When I first met him, as a junior reporter on his title, he was News Editor. He set the benchmark for that position which I have not seen any News Editor since him meet.

Under his patient tutelage hundreds of reporters got a grounding in journalism before spring boarding onto bigger (but maybe not greater) things. I’m never surprised to meet a journalist from anywhere in the country, at any level, who benefited from his guidance during the formative years of their careers.

A lot of reporters owe him a thank you.

Happy retirement Cliff.

Friday, 3 October 2008

Things I would like to see in every newsroom, some essential tools for the multimedia journalist ... oh, and err some toys I would like to play with

#1: Journalists/reporters

Radical as this may sound, particularly in light of the current trend of axe falling, my dream newsroom would be packed full of reporters. Not those pompous types who see reporting local news as beneath them - no, the reporters who want to serve their readers/users.

For too long, pompous journalists have been allowed to run riot, ruining strong local and regional papers by writing at their readers and not for their readers. Far too many column inches - online and in print - have been devoted to B-list celebs at the expense of local news.

A good reporter must remember that every story warrants a front page to those people featured in it. Every story should be treated as the most important story that day by the reporter writing it, regardless of whether it's a murder, the latest greatest expose, or a report from last night's W.I. meeting.

Things I would like to see in every newsroom, some essential tools for the multimedia journalist ... oh, and err some toys I would like to play with

With all the restructuring of "news gathering organisations" of late, I've been thinking a lot about how I would redesign the newsroom.

Change is here - there's no avoiding it.

There was one time when a journalist's tool kit consisted of nothing more than a pad and a pencil (preferably one of those retractable stay sharp ones). But now things are different.

Today, no self-respecting reporter should be seen out without a pad, pencil (preferably one of those retractable stay sharp ones - some things don't change) and multimedia phone with web access, video and mp3 recording capability.

So every now and again, I'll use this blog to list some of the things which I think are essential tools for the multimedia journalist and technological gadgets for the smooth running of a cross platform, multimedia news organisation. (And some will be the cool toys which I've seen, read about, played with or dreamed about.)