Thursday, 28 August 2008


Thanks to Andy Dickinson, who blogged today about my colleague David Berman's parrot video. It's always great to see your friends' work appreciated.

I think this is my favourite of David's videos. We're still very much in video infancy, and this one probably appeals particularly to journalists - but I hope it makes readers (viewers?) laugh as much as it did us.

As I've said before, both David and I have been on a steep learning curve (self-taught, too) over the past few months - David particularly has been working incredibly hard to get his multimedia skills at top-notch level. It's really beginning to come together now, and I hope that will be showing in the site increasingly more over the coming weeks.

Please hold us to that!

Monday, 25 August 2008

Purley Mail

I've been doing a round-up of Croydon community sites lately, and it's reminded me quite how good the Purley Mail is. It's a weekly email newsletter and basic website run by a former journalist, and member of the Purley Business Association Ken Trench.

It's a very niche product - and not just because it's so hyperlocal. It's obviously slanted towards business, but also deliberately avoids grimy crime - Ken told me his wife cannot bear to pick up the hard-nosed Croydon Advertiser because it depresses her too much.

It's a formula which, knowing his circulation, works very well. Even though we often have more Purley news, Ken's strength is his readers know he's focusing his sole attention on them.

This is something we can replicate with our hyperlocal sites, like the dedicated Purley section - but it's got me to thinking about how much you need to differentiate between how you treat each site to make each area feel special, not cloned. For instance, would you put stricter rules in place for commenters on the posh Purley site than the downmarket Thornton Heath one? Are there some areas in which you would take the view separating the site out far more is of more benefit than providing links to some of the more general parts of the site?

I think one answer could be to get our beat reporters to take more responsibility for their sites, making those judgement calls. It's something I hope we can work towards.

Meanwhile, in a cheerful article called Echoes of Dispair in the Guardian yesterday, Peter Wilby speaks about the pothole paradox - how potholes in your road are the most interesting thing in the world, but a mile away mind-numbingly boring.

He says hyperlocal sites are one answer, but they tread a fine line. I assume he means if you attempt to feed back mundane user generated content to the general newspaper, you will bore most other readers.

That's a problem which arises if you try and shoehorn that kind of content which, I think, only really works online into print. (It's undoubtedly a temptation for suits wanting to cut costs, and I hope one which won't make it into our newsroom.) But the technology which allows you to create endless variations on your content means it should be much easier to solve online.

Well, here's hoping . . .

Thursday, 21 August 2008

The Third Man

It's completely been a day of two halves. The morning was spent at Northcliffe HQ in Derry Street, meeting our web developers and discussing priorities for the next batch of upgrades and fixes to our sites. It was a really useful meeting, not least because it's always good to actually meet people you're working with. Now, when our web support bod Martin says "it's on the development list", instead of visualising a big list of tasks which need doing, I will think of a busy team of developers working on them.

Then, back to the office, to put the finishing touches to our big ambitious multimedia project, which goes live tomorrow. In the unlikely event anyone's reading this before 7am tomorrow, here's the preview page (I'll update tomorrow morning with the live page).

The one thing I'm most annoyed at is that I can't for the life of me get the Dipity timeline embedded - weirdly the CMS just keeps deleting all the code whenever I press save. Which, after this morning - and coming hot on the heels of Twittergeddon - has got me thinking about the value of third party software vs in-house solutions.

Now, chief photographer and videographer David Berman has been having all kinds of problems with our video hosting service, so much so that we've ended up using vimeo instead. Not an ideal solution in terms of branding (although but you could argue we've ended up with better looking videos as a result). However, we will need to get them onto our official one eventually, so they stay in our burgeoning video archive.

For me, there's no in-house solution available for interactive timelines and maps, so it was third-party or nothing. But having met our web developers today, I'm confident that one day we will have. Maybe not in the near future though, looking at that list . . .

It's also striking the two biggest headaches we have - video hosting and comments - are both outsourced.

So, where does that leave us? While we'll definitely keep using free services like Dipity and vimeo, it would obviously be better to have our own solutions. Otherwise, there's always the sense you're trying to force a square peg into a round hole - and of course, there's always the threat they suddenly cease to be.

But then, there's so much going on out there. Will our web team, however good, ever be able to keep up with the explosion of creative solutions to web publishing that's out there? And should they even try? Where do you draw the line on providing services yourself, and finding them elsewhere?

Dipity and Darnation

This is a test to see whether I can get my Dipity timeline to embed in my blog, as it doesnt' seem to be working on the Croydon Advertiser website:

Tuesday, 19 August 2008

Exciting times

It's meant to be silly season, but this is one of the most challenging news weeks I can remember at the Advertiser - and not for lack of stories.

I can't go into too much detail at the moment, but we have a story (and no, it's not the murder) which has made everyone in the senior editorial team determined to do their very best to make it fly.

I should start by saying the story is all down to reporter Aline Nassif - and it's all credit to her drive and inspiration that we're all pulling together in the most effective way I think we have ever done.

I've said before it's no secret there are quite significant differences in our attitude to web-first in the newsroom. And there's no doubt the fact there was no question of this ever being broken first online (it's not that kind of story) has meant we've been able to concentrate on how to do it the most justice we can once it does get there.

The skills both I and chief photographer David Berman have been busy building up over the past weeks and months are now going to be tested pretty much to their full. I really hope we rise to the challenge.

Even if we only manage to pull off what we've planned so far, it will easily be the most impressive multimedia project we've done. But in the afternoon breather we have after Thursday lunchtime's print deadline, I'm determined to make it even better (by which I mean more interactive).

It's almost undoubtedly going to be one of the Advertiser's biggest stories of the year in print. Until now, we've not had the skills, the technology or the time to cover those big stories in the same way online. This is our chance to change that - and prove our website can eventually overtake the paper in terms of presenting Croydon's stories in all their complexity.

Oh, and if anyone has any examples of ways papers have presented multimedia packages we could aspire to (especially ones with lots of interactivity), I'd really appreciate it if you could post them below.

Monday, 18 August 2008

Unchartered territory

Two or three weeks ago, I announced my intentions of getting our users to help me draw up a Commenters' Charter. I had grand plans of inviting regular commenters to our offices and asking them what boundaries and guidelines we should set.

I said I wasn't sure whether anyone would respond, but if they didn't, I would cross that bridge when I came to it.

Well, I'm now preparing to cross it. Two or three bloggers said they would try and make it, but no commenters, so I called the meeting off.

So, our online community isn't quite as committed as I had (perhaps naively) hoped. But I'm determined not to take that the wrong way. After all, we've still only had comments now for six months, so it's not that surprising. And a few people did respond with suggestions, so all is not lost.

And after the beginnings of a useful debate kicked off on my last post, I think I am ready to get stuck in once more. Once we've got the charter in place, hopefully that will be our Magna Carta, the framework which our disparate users can engage more confidently within.

Of course, it will a lot easier to police once the technology is in place . . .

Saturday, 16 August 2008

Angry, Purley

I actually woke up in the early hours last night worrying about the havoc just one commenter is wreaking on our site.

He used to be called Angry from Purley, and we managed to ban him for a while - but he seems to have got a new IP address, and is back, under a range of pseudonyms.

Unfortunately, at the moment, we can't ban him. Our last message management system gave us his IP address, but you couldn't ban him using it - our new one has an effective banning system, but generates the same IP address for every unregistered commenter (which led to editor Ian Carter accidentally banning everyone from commenting the other day - oops). It's something we are asking IT to look into urgently.

Fortunately, I don't think he's worked this out yet. Unfortunately, he's steadily building back up to his worst self, and yesterday posted a whole load of highly racist messages under the name of our troll-magnet.

I am really not sure he intends to be such a site-wrecker. He seems desperate to get an apology for banning him in the first place (while not wanting to admit it's him in case he's banned again), which seems to indicate he wants to be part of the community.

There's no way we're going to registered comments only though. There's far too much value from people visiting the site for the first time about an incident they've got info on, then commenting with that insider knowledge - they wouldn't do that if they had to spend 5 minutes filling in a form.

I just hope our IT bods can pull their fingers out and get this fixed fast.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Save Our Subs

A subbing colleague of mine drew my attention to this Facebook group, Save Our Subs, today.

I'm feeling more than usually acidic tonight, so apologies to my subberly comrades - but I can't help but note the contradiction of a group for whom social networking is such a huge threat trying to use the means of their downfall to protect them.

But good luck to them all the same.

Thursday, 14 August 2008


How much of an overlap is there between our print and online audience? I would really love to know.

I suspect there isn't much - and whenever I win an argument to web-first a non-breaking story, that's usually the crux of my argument - i.e. it won't impact on the print sale because most paper readers won't know it's online. But I wonder whether I am shooting myself in the foot in the long term with that line.

We are unlucky (or lucky, depending on your outlook) to have a strong, freebie competitor which bites round our ankles and keeps us on our toes. If it scoops us in print, we very rarely splash the same story. But if they get there first online, we are not nearly so bothered - they're different audiences, aren't they?

But as more and more readers find us online (we now have more than half as many readers online as in print, and it's still rapidly growing), maybe we should stop thinking about different audiences and just concentrate on being the first to break news, in whichever medium allows us to get there first, i.e. online.

It's much more difficult for a weekly. If you get a sniff of a great story a couple of hours after deadline, taking the chance it won't get out for more than a week in your next issue is immense.

I've blogged before about how not reporting the stuff happening on the streets is suicide for your reputation. But as you move towards the bulk of your audience coming to you online, not being first is just as risky.

I'm not talking about rushing to tell half-baked stories - but to hold onto stories once you've got them stacked up with nothing more than crossed fingers to stop the competition sniffing them out, or stumbing on them - well, that's just stupid. Isn't it?

(Not to mention how online audiences are unforgiving of being fed week-old stories . . .)

I'm going to risk the wrath of my most print-loyal colleague now by saying this is based on current newsroom events. We did indeed get a tip-off of a cracking story at 3pm this afternoon - three hours after we went off stone. Story is now pretty much confirmed, but we are currently just hoping nobody else gets the nod.

I'll let you know how it pans out.

testing Widgenie

Here's a test of an A Level results table made in Widgenie:

Wednesday, 13 August 2008

Courting publicity

There was a really interesting debate on Twitter today, about whether you should put court reports straight online or not, kicked off by this tweet from the Liverpool Post's deputy editor Alison Gow.

It reminded me of many debates we've had in our newsroom - I'm glad to say, the policy is now we pretty much put all court stuff up straight away, unless it's extra special, and we are sure we have it to ourselves.

A good example would be this inquest - the tragic story of a young woman who died because she took dodgy diet pills - we decided to hold off on that because it was so unusual, and that also allowed us to get better and more thoughtful reaction from family, etc. than the bare bones of the court report.

So, where do you draw the line? I think for us, it's the human interest factor which is key. For maximum impact, these need to be kept back for a bit of development first. And I don't think this is manipulating the news agenda, or patronising our audience - I really think this is doing the best we can to tell our community's stories. I don't think opening that diet pill story to online debate would have added nearly as much as allowing the mother space to collect her thoughts.

So yes, I think we still have a long way to go in using our website to develop stories - but equally, I think there are still certain stories where you have to hold back.

And ultimately, I think we would be doing our readers a disservice by publishing bare bones first, then fleshing out. After all, the joy of news - certainly for me - is the "guess what!" factor - and in these deeply personal cases, a fully fledged story does that so much better.

Tuesday, 12 August 2008

Hundreds of cats, thousands of cats . . .

A funny story came up in the news meeting today, which the editor, Ian Carter, then blogged (I hereby distance myself from decidedly dodgy headline). It was about how we ran a story about a cat-dumping crisis in Croydon, appealing for people to rehome them - but unfortunately, it backfired when we just alerted heartless non-deserving cat owners to the fact they could dump them at Croydon Animal Samaritans. Net gain = 4 cats.

Sorry, should clarify: funny for heartless news types like us. Not for the cats.

Anyhoo, I tweeted it (partly because Ian's readership has sharply declined since we started publishing more news and other blogs, and he's threatening to quit unless it increases) and it prompted suggestions as to how I could cover it online.

The consensus was a timeline-generating software package called Dipity. And so, here's my work in progress:

It's lacking proper dates and cat tally figures, and I'm sure there's more I can add to it once I've had more of a fiddle, but I think it's beginning to take shape.

So, lessons learnt from today:

1) Dipity is going to be used a LOT on the Croydon Ad site from now on in. For starters, it has solved one of our "how can we put this breakout online?" questions.

2) Twitter - and more to the point, the people who follow me - is truly amazing. Every week, it proves itself in a fantastic new way.

3) I really should seriously think about adopting a cat. I wonder if Violet is still homeless?

Sunday, 10 August 2008

Green Gadgetry

Today is a bit of a milestone for me - I have finally got my laptop to go wireless, so I will be writing this post not just from my front room, but also from my kitchen and the bedroom - but not the bathroom, I promise.

(Starting off in the front room, in front of the Olympics on the telly)

I'm soooo behind when it comes to gadgetry. Years ago, I was a relatively early adopter - although this is as much down to my gadget-mad dad (and the radio station I worked as a breakfast weather and traffic girl which gave me a mobile phone when nobody rang in to enter the competition I'd organised - the BBC had nothing on us!). But then, I got a job as staff writer at a desperately dull trade journal for the microchip manufacture industry, and it really changed my mind about things.

(Right, now typing as I sit on the bed, can hear the pigeons roosting in the eaves outside the window gently coo-ing, aaah)

The turning point was a conference in San Francisco I was lucky enough to go to. This was a couple of months before 9/11, after which everything collapsed, and the industry was still convinced it could keep the massive production lines going - if only it could generate demand for chips by coming up with ideas for gadgets nobody needed. One speaker was questioning whether anyone would want a video phone watch, a la Dick Tracey - and concluded no, but people would still probably buy it.

Also, the biggest story I covered there was over some scandal about Chinese factory workers' health being put at risk by the nasty chemicals used in the production process. And we also covered stories about the pollution aspects. So, the impression I took away was of an industry desperately trying to push useless gadgets to make money while destroying the environment and its employees' health. Nice.

(Now in the kitchen, have just put a chicken in to roast, but have thoroughly washed my hands, I promise)

For the next seven years, I eschewed all gadgetry. I only upgraded my phone when it broke. I laboured away with the laptop, modem and printer my dad had given me in 1996 as an undergraduate (and even then they were about three years old). I refused ipods, DVD players, Sky boxes, Sat Nav, the lot.

So, what's changed? Well, finally having to get a new laptop when the old one died was a big eye-opener. But I think more than that, there's many more gadgets out there which aren't gimmicky, and which are genuinely transforming everyday life - mobile internet, for instance, could well transform my profession, for starters, in the same way downloading has transformed the music industry.

But I'm still uneasy - is it possible to reconcile a green lifestyle with cutting edge technology?

It's even up for debate whether replacing newpapers with websites is greener or not. So I think I will be very careful when selecting which gadgets to betray my green credentials for. But if anyone can recommend one it's worth ruining the environment for, please let me know

Thursday, 7 August 2008

Farewell, troll magnet

One of my first posts was about my bemusement at one of our commenters becoming a target on our messageboards. I said then I thought it was because she stuck up for authority.

Since then, we invited her to blog, and I've changed my mind about what really annoyed people about her (while still thinking the scale of the response was unjustified).

It was, I think, also because she posted too much about the mundanities of her own life, relating every story to her own personal experience. I think this was in the back of my mind when I invited her to blog - the hope she would use that platform to talk about personal stuff, so diffusing the annoyance on the messageboards.

Unfortunately, this spectacularly backfired.

Firstly, she began alluding to the fact we were taking down abusive comments about her, which was like a red rag to a bull. We are now regularly accused of taking our orders from her. The fact she's blogging for us adds ammunition to the claim. (It's not true, of course - but it's got so bad I feel I have to make that clear.)

Secondly, she started upping the personal content of her messages on stories - which really inflamed the situation. So yesterday, she finally threw in the towel. I don't blame her. But I have to admit I am also a bit relieved.

In retrospect, I think inviting her to blog was one of the worst calls I've made at the Advertiser - as much for her as for the site. But that's what a learning curve is all about.

Meanwhile, and still on the subject of looking after your communities, digital journalism blogger Andy Dickinson is promising rambling posts about community, audience and journalism.

He's struck a chord. Before he's even started, Guardian chief blogger Kevin Anderson has pitched in, talking about how mainstream journalists are sometimes guilty of arrogance, and exploiting the communities they're writing for.

I'm bristling, as I think here at the Advertiser we look after our best community contacts - but also because I recognise what they - well, at this point, Kevin - are talking about. I won't pitch in yet, but I'm going to be interested to follow the conversation.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

Commenters' Charter

This afternoon, I issued a summons to our bloggers and most prolific commenters, asking for their help in drawing up a Commenters' Charter. Tomorrow, I also want to put up a promo box asking people if they want to join in too.

The time is right, as helping out with community management will definitely one of the key roles our new web bod will have. We do our best at the moment, but too many dodgy comments are slipping through the net. And with Googleisation, we've lots of people coming to us for the first time, and we really don't want to scare them off.

While the guidelines and advice in the charter will ultimately be up to us, I think it's important our burgeoning online community we have has some input into it. Firstly, this should make them more likely to abide by what's agreed, and possibly help police it too. But I also want to increase our users' feeling they have a stake in the site, which of course they do.

So how am I getting them together? Commenting on one of our stories? Tweeting through a hashtagged stream? Inviting them to join a Facebook group? No, I'm going right back to basics and inviting them to Advertiser Towers.

Is this going against the whole ethos of a local paper's online community? I don't think so. After all, what defines our community is geography - so it's important to know those taking part do live in and around Croydon.

Also, our anonymous messageboards can be a bit hostile at the moment, so I want to diffuse any viciousness right from the start by making the discussion face to face. I'm hoping this may also help stop some of the bullying we've been seeing directed towards one commenter in particular too.

Of course, none of them may even want to turn up. Not sure where that would leave me. But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

If I do get a decent turnout though, I may see if we can cover the debate on the web in some way. Hmmm, that's one to think about.

As ever, any ideas gratefully received.

My first mash-up - fingers crossed it works

I'm absurdly proud of this - it's my first mash-up. It's an aggregation of news about Crystal Palace - from everywhere except the Croydon Advertiser (because it will eventually end up on our site) and the Croydon Guardian (because yes, links out = links in, but I don't think we're quite at that stage yet).

Monday, 4 August 2008

And forward again

At last! After weeks and weeks and weeks of scratching our heads, we finally seem to have agreed on what kind of role our long-awaited extra web person will have. That's as far as we've got - and I don't want to go into too much detail, as it would be unfair to whoever ends up filling the boots whose design we're probably still going to end up tweaking.

It's a relief in two ways - firstly, it should mean an end to the sometimes excessive hours the newsdesk have been putting in. But more excitingly, it means the ever-growing to do list I have for our site will actually become a reality.

I've spent a lot of time on this blog bitching about what's holding us back. Now, I'm a natural moaner, so that's probably not going to stop. But now I'm about to get a whole world of help, I can concentrate more on what can move us forward.

And with that in mind, I'm off to create my first Yahoo pipes mash-up - with some help from Paul Bradshaw. I'll let you know how I get on.

Friday, 1 August 2008


After last night's post, and two days out of the office in a training course, I've been taking stock of things. And I've decided I need to start looking back a little rather than just racing forward.

Which is why I was delighted to come across this eulogy for the newspaperman, written by Spokesman Review editor Steve Smith. He writes eloquently and compellingly about the joy of working in the ink-stained newsrooms of decades past - times which will never again be seen. It's powerful stuff.

I can't look back to the same world Steve Smith does - many years and many more miles separate our experiences. But even in my brief career, things have radically changed, and it's time I remembered how things were for me and most of my peers were when we first entered the industry.

But I'm definitely going to share this with my team. And one of the reasons is that instead of raging against the dying of the light, it is forward-looking too. And the comments add so much more too - this one by Ken Paulman particularly struck a chord with me - the importance of harnessing the new online audience rather than trying to save a dying print product. Because although we can stem its demise, print is never going to grow again.

Speaking of debate, and as I said yesterday, discussing ideas and perspectives like this one is something I need to be doing more of with my team, so high on my to do list for next week will also be setting up some kind of forum for sharing the conversation - delicious or Google Reader are likely candidates. Any advice gratefully received.