Thursday, 31 July 2008


I've been blogging for a couple of weeks now, and one of my wisest friends has pointed out I haven't really explained why I'm doing it in the first place. So here's an attempt to address that.

The lack of explanation to begin with was purely because I wasn't quite sure myself. I guess it was something I felt I should do - and it would be a good way to collect my own thoughts on web-related stuff.

As I explained in one of the first posts, we were on the verge of launching our new site, and also creating a team to work out how to manage a multimedia newsroom, so I had started reading a lot of online journalism blogs (which reminds me, must update my blogroll). So, the timing seemed right.

I'm not a particularly deep or original thinker, so I know what will make this worth reading will be the tales I can tell from the coalface. So, while wanting to tread carefully, I also want to be as frank as possible about how and why we are adapting to the brave new world of online. Otherwise, what's the point?

I'm also hoping it will help explain to any of my colleagues reading this why I'm so passionate about online. In a busy newsroom, there's not much time for reflection and discussion (and yes, we should make more time for that). Which brings me full-circle to one of the original reasons for starting the blog - collecting my thoughts.

The blog is advertised as charting my online learning curve. I'm very aware it's in its infancy, but hopefully this will let me back and see how far I - and more importantly, the Advertiser - has come since I started. And then it will be worth it.

Anyway, that's enough navel gazing for one night. It's been one of those days. My wise friend Maria also said I should be joining in the discussion. So in future, I promise more of that, and less of this. Goodnight.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008


Okay, it's confession time - I was bitchy earlier, and now I regret it.

After weeks of being the queen of Croydon news on Twitter (not difficult when it's just you), our competition has decided to decamp there en masse (well, three of them). And instead of welcoming them, I had a dig. (Given our comment feature is STILL down, maybe I should have thought about our own glass house before throwing stones.)

There, I've admitted it. I'm ashamed, because it's against the spirit of Twitter, which is to share - everything.

All the same, I can't help feeling like they're piggybacking, just a little. I've spent a while building up a network, and all they have to do is come along, and click to follow everyone who's following me.

But begone, resentful thoughts! After all, social networking is more than just signing up to the services, you have to maintain them too. And if they have the initiative to do that, then good luck to them. I'll just have to be a little bit more careful when discussing stories we have in the pipeline, that's all.

Monday, 28 July 2008


So the comments feature on our site has been down all weekend - and is still down as I type, on Monday night.

On the one hand, I have got a lot more done today without having had to keep one eye on what people are posting. On the other, I actually feel a bit lonely without our burgeoning online community nattering away in my ear. Yes, I've got Twitter, but that's very different.

I really hope things are up and running again soon. No comments over the weekend wasn't great, but things tend to pick up on Monday, and I know from our launch experience how angry our guys get when they can't make their own contribution.

Maybe it's just karma for my post on Thursday, perhaps?

I guess the silver lining is that they can't make their feelings heard by commenting . . .

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Reputations - more thoughts

Going back to how expectations of local papers are shifting, I found this story from another local's site, the south east London News Shopper, very interesting.

It's a run-of-the-mill story about a car crash - but the comments reveal the driver allegedly tried to flee the scene of the crash, and police found huge amounts of cash when they searched the car. A very different story.

To put it in context, it was linked to in the comments on Hackney blogger Dave Hill's (justified) rant against his local paper, the Hackney Gazette, for failing to credit him as the source of a story. The commenter, thylacosmilus, made the point the comments on the bland story really fleshed it out, and hailed it as example of how new media is coming into its own.

And yes, he's right. But that's not what I find interesting about it - it's the sheer venom directed against the paper for not getting all the details - and getting some details wrong.

The second comment is telling - joe says: "well done lee see they only tell us want they want to." I'm sure that isn't the case, but that doesn't matter - that's the perception, and the way it's phrased suggests it's an opinion long held.

Later comments criticise the paper's research - but also question publishing the story as it is in the first place. This certainly isn't a readership willing to be passively fed their news any more.

Of course, a lot of what is posted there is legally dodgy - certainly the way the commenters have put it. But a careful news editor could certainly take most of the facts from the comments, and make a much better story - and then explain why the comment feature was having to be taken down. But instead, they've published another bare bones follow up -and one commenter has simply posted the whole debate from the previous story underneath!

I don't know much about how the News Shopper works. If it's like its sister title, the South London Guardian, for which I once worked, then the reporters will be short on the ground and work extremely hard. I don't want to knock what they are doing for a moment. The point I want to make is how easy it is to lose your readers' respect when you hand them the means to add to the report themselves - then not act on the information they tell you.

There is still hope here - the commenters are angry the paper itself isn't reporting the true facts. Simply letting it stand in the messageboard isn't enough, so the story itself is seen as having more value than the messages.

So where forward? Do you close your messageboards, as New York news site Gawker suggests, sick to the teeth of the inane "debate" found there (apparently only blogs are allowed that privilege). Or do you bite the bullet and really embrace the massive news resource they offer? It's not a difficult call to make from where I'm standing.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008


The crux of the debate in our newsroom, as I'm sure is the case in newsrooms across the world, is what our core product is.

At the moment, of course, the printed product is what our whole operation is geared around, and so this is seen as the core. And I'm sure it often comes across that I'm trying to push towards the web being our core instead, but that really isn't the case. Instead, my notion of what our core is, and what I am trying to protect, is reputation.

Despite carpings from our critics, I believe the our paper enjoys the best reputation in our area for newsgathering. Yes, people sometimes get starry-eyed when our stories get picked up by the nationals or the Beeb - but they get angry when we DON'T pick them up.

But to maintain this reputation, you have to move with expectations. For years, our readership has respected our print deadlines, and understood why we don't report something which happens on a Thursday night until the following Friday. But that's changed.

Today, we got an angry email from someone demanding to know why we weren't covering a serious incident which had happened last Thursday. The reason was, she was the first to let us know, and I'm very grateful she did.

But because of the way we work at the moment, I still can't tell you, or her, or anyone else what it is, even though that goes against almost every instinct I have. So, we are in the ridiculous position that we have been tipped off because someone has upbraided us for failing her expectations - but we are doing nothing to meet those of every other person who witnessed something of the incident and wants to know more. Chances are they don't know about our print deadlines - and why should they care? But the more we do this, the more potential readers are going to give up on us.

Now, of course, we are doing this to protect the "core" print product, and if that is the main priority, it makes sense. But in the long term, with circulations falling at nearly every title in the country, plus a near-certain recession on the cards, it's time to examine closely at what we try to make sure we've still got once we're out the other side.

Web evangelists are often accused of trying to throw the baby out with the bathwater, by cannabilising print or sacrificing in-depth analysis for speed. I think, with a bit of thought, it's definitely possible to avoid the latter. But the way I see it, not throwing everything you have online is truly infanticide - and the baby, or core, in question is reputation - not paper.

Wednesday, 16 July 2008

We're there!

Our new site is well and truly launched, and aside from a few outstanding technical issues preventing uploads to a couple of sections, I reckon it's looking good.

We're already getting the anticipated backlash from regular readers, but despite expecting relentlessly negative "I hate change" comments, a reassuring number are saying they like it. And our most vocal critic has changed their mind too - after I re-posted a load of comments from the old site.

That's the most interesting part of the backlash for me - the number of people howling in protest that their comments have gone. It's reassuring too - they obviously feel they own the site.

It's also got me wondering whether their comments qualify them as citizen reporters, according to US journalism professor Jay Rosen's definition?

"When the people formerly known as the audience employ the press tools they have in their possession to inform one another, that’s citizen journalism."

He's talking more about bloggers, but I'm sure this can be extended to our commenters too. We certainly pick up enough stories from their posts. And so, by extension, if their comments are journalism, I'm not surprised they feel aggrieved they've been taken down. One reader said they felt they had wasted a week posting comments which had now disappeared.

It will be interesting to see what happens when we launch a forum in a few weeks, and they truly have control of threads from the very start. I'm hoping it will be a bit more lively than this other Croydon forum . . .

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Are you being served? No

After wading through an internet connection slower than treacle all day, I've not been able to make the tweaks I wanted to the site. Grrr. In fact, the first of the comments saying how much people hate the new layout started trickling in half an hour ago, and our server is yet to even realise the new site is up.

And after my crowing about how great our news team is, and my hopes to get a daily service up and runnign, I guess I've only karma to blame for someone pointing out our current top story dates from Friday. And there's nothing I can do about it until tomorrow morning. Sigh.

Off home to see if it's any better there. Will keep you posted.

Monday, 14 July 2008


So it's less than 24 hours now before the new site goes live, and I think we're going to make it. Just. I've hardly had time to think about anything, so this post won't be one of my best.

A couple of passing thoughts though. Firstly, after reading this post about people searches, from slewfootsnoop, I'm quite impressed by the amount of stuff people search engines can pick up about me online. Bit freaked out by a professional networking site which has set up my profile without my knowledge - but very amused that it has confused me with my first editor, Joe Wadsworth (then of Semiconductor Fabtech, an achingly dull b2b technology mag). For the record, I was then called Jo Bowring, so it wasn't as odd as it could have been. He's now married with two kids, selling wooden garden toys, I believe.

Secondly, Birmingham Post blogger Jo Geary's exasperation at the state of her Google reader made me laugh. It also reminded me of Paul Bradshaw's tweets about how he's using Tweetdeck to cope with the ocean of twittering coming his way. Mainly I'm just full of admiration at having so many people to follow (694 Birmingham bloggers! I can hardly find 60 in Croydon, although I'm probably not looking hard enough). But it also reinforced the notion that one role of journalists will be to filter the online information overload. And I like to think it's going to take more than new folders or Twitter applications.

Finally, big thanks should go to my long-suffering husband, who has been working much harder than me, painting windows all day, and still sorted out dinner and has only made one pointed comment about me coming home at gone 9pm and jumping straight onto the computer. Thanks Nick, I owe you one.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

Moving (slowly) towards web-first

We reached what felt like a huge milestone for me in our weekly news meeting yesterday. For the first time, we started discussing web coverage of some stories in depth - and more importantly, when they would be published. We're lucky in Croydon that there's usually enough breaking news around to keep the site moving through the week. But if you rely on just that, your readers end up with a fairly repetitive diet of court, council and calls.

Because the new site goes live on Tuesday night, I've managed to get the green light to break a really strong story we would usually hold on Wednesday morning. It involves two or three elements which really push our readers' buttons, so I'm predicting it will do really well.

But without wanting to seem ungrateful, it still really goes against the grain to be holding off until Wednesday a story we've pretty much got in the bag already. Ho hum.

P.S. For anyone coming to this from the link Ian Carter posted in his blog yesterday, be warned: I'm unlikely to discuss many Croydon issues here. But to make up for that, and as he did kind-of promise to post the link to the preview of our new site and then not do that before going off on holiday, here it is (ta-da!). Please bear in mind there's still quite a lot of work to do at the mo.

Thursday, 10 July 2008


Just about to sit in on an interview for a new reporter, which reminds me of a conversation we had during a recent bout of "creative tensions" - that old chestnut about why reporters become reporters.

I once stood up in public and said whatever reporters might claim to the contrary, part of it was the glamour, and I still think that's true, to a point. But since then, I've come to think the sheer adrenaline rush of getting that story out first plays much more of a part in why I love my job.

Which is why I find it odd when reporters don't rush to embrace the internet more. Obviously nobody's the same, but my compulsion once I find out about a story is to run and tell as many people as possible, which the web is perfect for. Why wait for Friday, when you can tell thousands of people right now?

During the row I'm remembering, someone said the big incentive was seeing your name in print above a cracking exclusive, which I guess is part of the glamour I talked about. And I can still appreciate that, but the more I work online, the more I'm appreciating not just the rush, but also the conversation that comes afterwards. And to truly embrace that, you really do have to leave your ego at the door, and accept you no longer own the story. And that's where it gets really interesting.

Wednesday, 9 July 2008

Changing deadlines to livelines

I'm working on the deadline for the print paper - and amazingly, all but one of my pages are done hours ahead of when they usually get sent down. Which has got me pondering again on one of my favourite obsessions at the moment - how do you adapt deadlines for a weekly paper to a daily website?

So far, we have been doing this on a pretty ad hoc basis, and to be honest, it shows with the site. I raised eyebrows the other day by saying most of our stories don't develop over the course of the week. I think I was misunderstood, so I should clarify: they usually don't develop of themselves over the week, but we do a hell of a lot of development to them. But - it should be possible to do that development to each story over a shorter amount of time, concentrate our energies on them one at a time, surely?

Of course, that bugbear of all newspaper offices, the press office, has to shoulder a large part of the blame for holding back when stories can be filed. They know our deadlines better than we do! When I moved from a weekly to a daily a few years ago, it amazed me how quickly press officers came back to queries. It can be done. So one of the biggest tasks in moving to a more daily mindset is convincing our regular press contacts to do the same. Quite a steep task.

There's no doubt that convincing those who Jay Rosen so charmingly calls curmudgeons is about changing mindsets. But on a more practical point, I think it's also about changing habits - and not just within the newsroom.

Tuesday, 8 July 2008

New site kittens

In less than half an hour, it will be exactly a week before we launch the new site, and I'm beginning to get more kittens than Wanda Gag.

There are sooo many things I would still like to do on the site - and the more I look at other sites, the more I see missed opportunities. And yet, I'm still petrified we're going to launch without even having done the things we do have properly.

That's the problem with online - it's such a limitless bucket of opportunity, where do you stop?

But, I think with a bit of tweaking how the newsroom deadlines work, we are already set up to be a fantastic online news service - in fact I'll go out on a limb and say the best weekly newspaper team's online offering I've seen in the UK (more another day on how in a year's time I want to be dropping the weekly from that sentence . . .)

And in terms of building up the community and social side of the site, most of what we can't do is down to the technology, which I think Northcliffe is pretty committed to fixing. Well, it has to be, doesn't it?

So, I'm going to go home, pour myself a big glass of wine, and try to calm down a bit. Wish me luck.

Monday, 7 July 2008

Seb Rochford

Oh, and another thing. Just got back from a festival - and guess who opened it? Yep, jazz drummer Seb Rochford and his band Polar Bear (see Google Alert voyeurism post below). It was like a little piece of my virtual Google reality had landed in a Kent field. And the music was just as noodly as I had imagined. Magical.

Twitter comes home to roost

Thrilling times on Twitter for me today. Just checked in, and saw one of the people I've followed has tweeted about a national news story - and linked to our site! Now, she obviously wasn't getting there through Google (our site is impregnable to its spiders right now), and it was a link to one of the updates which I hadn't sent out a tweet about myself - so that's at least one person I've converted to our website with my Twitter project.

Now, how to boost my followers from 29 to 290? Especially as I only want to attract people who live in our patch? Hopefully that tipping point is only just around the corner, but there must be another way . . .

Friday, 4 July 2008

The voice of experience

This posting from a journalist working on the US Spokesman newspaper, Nick Easton, has really struck a chord with me.

His project is to reinvent the way his newsroom works, starting from a blank sheet of paper - a daunting project.

And similar to one which a small group of us have been given on the paper I work - to find a way to make our paper the trailblazer in how to develop our online offering for the company.

Although we haven't been given the remit of tearing everything up and starting again, the huge difference in mindset between online and print means we are frequently coming close to that - which as you can imagine has led to what the editor likes to call "creative tensions", where what he really means are barnstorming rows - inevitable when everyone is passionate about what we do.

But what really interested me about Nick Easton's post was his emphasis on the youth of the team tasked to do this at the Spokesman.

Does youth mean being more receptive to change? I'm not sure - the member of our working group most resistant to change is also the youngest. And conversely, some of the most enthusiastic noises from our reporting team have been coming from the older generation - especially when they see the benefits of publishing their stories online can bring.

So I'm not convinced you should write off the experience of the fathers and mothers of the newsroom. After all, they've seen plenty enough changes in the industry to have learnt to roll with the punches so far. And I'm far more willing to listen to voices of caution when they've the experience to back them up.

Tuesday, 1 July 2008

Google alert voyeurism

Forget about spam - the emails which clog up my inbox the most are my indispensable Google news alerts. I don't know of any jobbing local journalists who aren't signed up to their own customised clutch. They've undoubtedly transformed our jobs - for a start, scanning the nationals every morning is no longer the essential job it once was (although in case my boss is reading this, that's not to say the odd story doesn't slip through Google's net . . .)

But another side effect is the stories you pick up which would have passed completely under your radar before. For example, my last patch included the Essex town of Rochford, and so for months I followed with vague interest the career of jazz drummer Seb Rochford - gosh, he plays in a lot of bands! And my current batch of alerts includes an alert for Sutton - a salicious side effect of which was getting to follow the macabre ins and outs of the Joyce Sutton murder trial in Wales (her partner, pensioner Dai Banjo, was eventually acquitted despite allegedly confessing to his pet Persian cats, then died weeks later).

More annoyingly though, I am now far too familiar with the details of Shirley Bassey's stomach complaints, after being inundated with alerts set up to catch all the news from Shirley - Croydon, that is. Ho hum.