Category Archives: Newspapers

Social media tools and journalists: the debate continues

A big theme for journalists at every level these days is to what extent they get involved in social media -how much and in what way they interact with their audience.

Alison at the Liverpool Daily Post wrote a post about all the different ways she collaborates with and broadcasts to the paper’s audience and how she uses social media tools, particularly things like Twitter and online polls, to enrich what she does.

So I posted about this for The Wire, making the point that not everybody is quite so switched on with these things, and was taken to task by fashion blogger Petah Marian. She wrote:

Patrick Smith from the Press Gazette posted a story today about all of the “new” methods journalists were using on the net to gather stories. He and I have been following each other on Twitter for what seems like an age now, so clearly these “new” techniques are not new at all to him. I guess I’m a little surprised that someone who seems to be on the edge of the tech curve is writing about techniques other journalists have been using for ages

She makes a fair point: none of the stuff Alison mentions is that revolutionary. But, I defended myself thus:

Thanks for the link Petah.
You are right – these techniques are not new and I have written about many of them extensively both on our website and in the magzine.
But that’s not to say that all our readers – both young and old – are as familiar with them.
You may or may not be surprised to learn that many, I would even say most journalists at both national and regional level have never used Twitter, never heard of Plurk, think live-blogging is a waste of time and consider broadcasting live from a mobile phone something out of a science fiction film.
I could name a couple of editors who would broadly be in the same category.
So the fact that Alison and a few others are doing all this as part of their normal jobs is, to me at least, quite interesting.
That’s not to say all our readers are Luddites – many of them are far more intelligent and engaged in new media than we are, which is why I link to what they are doing so everyone can see.

Petah then comments again saying she gets my point. But she’s right – these aren’t new tools. Twitter is very much old news to many; things like Qik and Bambuser are old hat to people still waiting for a really reliable, high quality video streaming service (see my article in last month’s Press Gazette, if you subscribe). Delicious is ancient in new media terms and is, I would guess, used by a great many journalists.

But how many people are actually using these things? How many people use the DIY Yahoo Pipes UGC kit made by Robin Hamann?

I don’t think the most web-savvy people in the industry understand quite what a skills lag there is for some journalists. Some have only just, in the past year believe it or not, moved to publishing news online in any serious way and many still refuse to publish their best news online (take this incandescant rage at Northcliffe’s Thanet Gazette from Justin Williams as proof) because they are “protecting their business plan”.

Don’t forget the row an NUJ member started over an ill-judged article in The Journalist headlined Web 2.0 is Rubbish. Roy Greenslade, a former union rep at the Sunday Times (see Roy’s comment below) may or may not have torn up his union card and many others had no time for an organisation that apparently saw the net as a threat to its trade – when in fact it was its saviour.

The union regained some respect with its thoughtful multimedia commission report, but the “web is rubbish” argument got some support and I felt showed the level of trepidation among many in the business about the future.

There is case for saying that the NUJ should be wary of some aspects of convergence and moden newsroom practice. The 65 jobs under threat at Trinity Mirror’s Midlands titles (see also cuts at the Glasgw Herald, Daily Express etc etc) are directly a result of bringing in the ContentWatch CMS. Johnston Press and Newsquest are making similar cuts if not on the same scale.

But these cuts unfortunately seem inevitable and they’re going to keep on coming. And the sooner more people get familiar with those social media tools, start properly engaging with their dwindling audience and play a part in growing the web traffic that will ultimately keep them in jobs in future years, the better.

On a related theme, Martin Belam is in the midst of a series of posts on how newspapers engage with social media. (He’s even selling an e-book about it for £25, the smart man). Belam is talking about website structure, more the domain of web editors and group-wide web strategy people (red-socked twats, as Grey Cardigan would put it) than rank and file journalists. But, worth a look.

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Court reporting in the online age – how soon is now?

As every trained journalist knows, you can report whatever you like from a court case as long as it is “fair, accurate and contemporaneous“.

It doesn’t even matter if what is said is false – absolute privilege is a complete bar to any nasty letters from Carter Ruck or any other libel lawyers. 

To have that privilege your report must be published at the “earliest opportunity” –  while the trial is happening, or just after, not three weeks later.

The media law bible McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists says: “For all practical purposes this means publication in the first issue of the paper following the hearing, or while the hearing in proceeding.

It continues: “An evening paper might begin reporting a case in its early editions, continue to add to its report as later editions appear, and perhaps conclude it the following day.”

But in a 24/7 media age, what is contemporaneous? Increasingly, newspapers feel the need to file to only one deadline: now, online.

In fairness to MacNae’s expert editors, this is from the 18th edition published in 2005 and the newer book is better with online matters and the forthcoming edition even better. But the advice it gives on being contemporaneous is from another age: hardly any evening papers publish more than one edition, and most of them are essentially morning papers now anyway, printed over night to save money and time.

So surely “at the earliest opportunity” is now. It’s as soon as the reporter has gathered his or her thoughts, deciphered the notebook scribblings, wrote the story and emailed it or phoned it in to the newsdesk.

Judges are not the most web-savvy people (see here), so for time being the next day’s edition will be enough. But how long before the senior judges and the Ministry of Justice wake up to the fact that the whole issue of “earliest opportunity” has changed?

The Society of Editors is already warning that the Contempt of Court laws need to be shaken up to cope with multi-media realities. So how long before the powers that be take court reporting law into the 21st century?

Thanks to Alison at the Liverpool Daily Post for kicking off the debate on Twitter today. She asked whether newspapers whould break exclusive court reports online, to which I ask another question: why not?

Flat Earth News revisited

In need of inspiration, I am re-reading Flat Earth News by Nick Davies.

It was a big story for Press Gazette – we serialised it and hosted a debate at London College of Communications (Private Eye was less than impressed incidentally – as were one or two people who turned up.

It was a top reporter, probably one of the leading investigative journalists of his generation, setting his sights on his friends and colleagues mercilessly. (And if proof were needed of Davies’ credentials as a writer check out this mighty piece on the anti-globalisation demonstrations in Genoa in 2001).

Not just that, it was a Guardian reporter – albeit on a freelance retainer – serving up justice to The Observer, Guardian News & Media’s Sunday paper. We were, to say the least, quite eager to read the book.

As were our readers. PG became a sort of sounding-board for people to air their praise and criticism of the book: Press Association editor Jonathan Grun wrote an angry letter as did David Leppard of the Sunday Times Insight team and two Observer executives.

But looking back at the coverage of the book, I can’t help feeling that a lot of people missed the point.

The book’s essential argument is that control of the flow of information in public life is now controlled by PR firms and goverment departments, something none of the reviews I read managed to disprove or even deny. Davies argued that 80 per cent of stories in his five studied newspapers during one week contained PR or wire copy or both.

The diary of the local newspaper reporter who spends all his time in the office re-writing wire stories and even recycling nibs from other papers, is very sad to read.

You can’t blame the papers for defending themselves, but I wondered whether anyone would say, “OK, fair cop, we do rely on PR/PA a bit too much”. But it never happened.

My own criticism – which I put to Davies when the book came out – is that his statistical analysis only deals with what he calls “respectable papers”: Guardian, Independent, Daily Mail, Telegraph, Times. He says that “nobody needs a book” to tell them tabloids are full of lies, whereas I find that a bit elitist.

But it’s an inspiring book, a call to ask more questions and reject what you are told. I even tried my humble hand at exposing PR mistruth myself, albeit on a much smaller scale.

And what effect – I wonder – does PR have on the blogosphere? In an age of publicity-hungry clients paying richly for their Google rankings and even paying bloggers to blog, does Flat Earth News spill over into the online realm?

Why aren’t PRs using Twitter?

Arguably the most important social media tool around is Twitter. For journalists – the ones that “get it” at least – it has meant a new network of contacts, shared information and friends. 

News is increasingly broken by ordinary people with iPhone Twitter apps or normal office workers sat at their desks updating Twitter by web or Gtalk and not by dashing reporters in long macs, or even agency reporters in far-flung bureaux. It is the canary in the news coal mine.

So it’s great and everybody loves it.

But where are the PRs? As Michael Cooper (@michaelcooper) rightly said a while back, “If newsdesks had Twitter at their disposal, the relationship between hacks and flacks could change dramatically”.

He says: “From instant updates like ‘Don’t bother me. I’m on deadline!’ through to ‘Looking for urgent case study about….’ journalists should be using Twitter as a tool to interact with PRs. If newsdesks are evolving into 24-hour bodies, maybe it’s time for their journalists to move away from resources like ResponseSource to a more immediate communication tool.”

Indeed. But more and more, on some national papers and forward-thinking regionals, journalists are getting it big time. Trinity Mirror seem to be leading the way in both Liverpool and Birmingham where journalists use Twitter to connect with people locally as well as to break and aggregate news. But are PR officers seizing the opportunity?

Though I know people who have, I’ve never been approached by a PR on Twitter and I would quite happily discuss story that way. Or what about sending press releases or statements out that? Downing Street does. Even the Mars Lander does.

And for PRs it could be a good career move – Todd at PR-Squared says he has hired people because they handled themselves well on Twitter.

So if you want me to write about your newspaper/website/magazine follow me and let’s start talking. And if you are in public relations and already a prolific Tweeter, get in touch and prove me wrong.

UPDATE 07-08-08 – A Twitter friend tweets to say that tech PR people are ‘all over it, unsurprisingly’. That would make sense, it’s just not something I’ve seen myself.