Monday, 22 September 2008

More moggies

More feline fun at Advertiser Towers today.

A few weeks ago we discovered the unintentional power of the press when a story about a local cat sanctuary being overrun with unwanted pussies attracted more dumped cats than new homes. It didn't do much for Croydon's cat-loving reputation.

But today, we saw the flip-side after we published a story about some drug-dealers being evicted from their home. Buried at the bottom of the story was a reference to a black cat they left behind. As you can see, there are two comments about it, we also had phonecalls and this afternoon someone actually came to the office to enquire about the poor pussy. So my faith in the town's animal altruism has been restored.

I just hope we can find out what has happened to it . . .

Tuesday, 16 September 2008

Bringing up baby

I'm coming to the conclusion managing a news website is like raising a child. Here's why:

1. At the beginning, it needs almost constant attention. Learning the ways of dealing with its needs is a very steep learning curve.

2. No matter how much others might coo over yours, they probably think theirs is much more beautiful and clever.

3. The first time it talks back to you is a truly special moment.

4. The first time it swears at you is a truly terrible one. But you'd better get used to it - it will happen a lot.

5. No matter how well prepared you are, you can never truly predict the disruption it will bring to your family.

6. Sibling rivalry with its older (print) brother is something you should ignore at your peril. Getting the two to play happily together takes time and patience.

7. The first time you're away, and it's left in the hands of baby-sitters, you can't help but check up on its progress. This is daft - don't.

8. You are always trying to broaden its horizons it by bringing it thought-provoking and informative material. This is good.

9. But no matter how well this works, it will often be more interested in the lighter side of life.

10. It might sometimes be led astray by mixing with the wrong crowd.

11. But when it meets and starts to play with more suitable new friends, you know it's on the right tracks.

12. Although you will never stop caring, it soon starts caring back, and helping you with your job.

That's it from me for now - anyone got any more to add?

Monday, 15 September 2008

Time out

I've got a week off, but for various reasons I won't bore you with, I'm not jetting off anywhere exciting, but staying in sodden Streatham. But while it means I'm not able to go cold-turkey on Croydon, it will be quite interesting watching our site from as much of an outsider's point of view as I'm likely to get.

And it's been a pretty eventful weekend to have been listening in on - a promising footballer was stabbed to death outside a nightclub on Friday night. As with the tram crash the previous weekend, it would be a bit tasteless to discuss coverage of someone's death to make a point about online news. But I will say I am sure the speed with which the team were able to reveal the victim was a talented kid with a bright future helped challenge assumptions he was a gang member and accusations he therefore had it coming. Although judging by the comments, it hasn't stopped this, sadly.

Wednesday, 10 September 2008

Am I a spammer?

I was a bit taken aback when a self-proclaimed Social Media Genius (wannabe) sent out a prickly tweet yesterday evening which I'm fairly sure was aimed at me. It was complaining about journalists following him. He only has 11 followers, and as far as I can see, I'm the only hack there - other than his friend @charlesarthur. I sent back a reply asking if he'd rather I unfollowed, but haven't heard anything back yet.

Given his social media proclamations, I'm of the opinion he should know better. But it got me to thinking - this isn't the first time people have been a bit taken aback at my signing up to follow them. There's nothing sinister in it - if people say they're from Croydon, or my summize search feed picks up mentions of it, I'll follow them - both to see what they're up to, but in the hope they'll follow me and I can make the website seem interesting enough to visit.

So far, only two people have blocked me. For the record, one was a girl who was into hip-hop videos. The other was someone pretending to be Dr Who's assistant Sarah Jane.

I'd hate people to think I was intruding on their innermost thoughts - but ferchrissakes, this is Twitter! Protect your updates if you want privacy, people. But another possiblity is newspapers are seen as another variety of spam - that would be pretty depressing.

I wanted to know if there's any kind of emerging etiquette on this for newspapers. I'd found this compilation of general Twitter guidelines, but they don't really cover this. But a post about an American company Zappos' experiences of doing pretty much the same as me, albeit for more purely commercial reasons, made me think twice. We may have genuine, if lofty ambitions of just wanting people to engage with their community via the paper/website - but if people aren't interested, maybe this is just another hard sell of something they'd rather not be confronted with? Ultimately, I have to ask - am I a spammer?

P. S. It's only taken one day for the editor to get the hint and start blogging again - I'll ignore the slightly grumpy start and say I'm glad he's back. And I guess I'll have to start thinking of embarassing things to do to give him enough material to keep it going . . .

Tuesday, 9 September 2008

News for sale

I've just come back from a chat with a hacky friend tonight, who reminded me of one way the web has changed things for reporters which I don't think is often considered when looking at newsroom management and workflows. And that's that great perk of the job, selling your story.

It's a time-honoured tradition on local newspapers that if you've got a great scoop, you spend the evening before the issue hits the stands phoning the newsdesks of the nationals, trying to interest them in running your fantastic exclusive in return for hard cash. Sometimes the editor encourages this, sometimes it's done surreptitiously - but it always goes on. And it's not just the money - for a reporter wanting to jump onto the nationals, it's also a great way to get yourself noticed.

Now, when you're increasingly in the business of putting those scoops straight up online, this window of opportunity can disappear. Most of our reporters' sellable stories are still held over until the moment they've appeared in print, but not always.

It might not be an officially acknowledged perk, but I think it's definitely something which should be taken into consideration when considering the impact the web has on the reporting team.

I also wonder how it's going to impact on news agencies, which from where we stand seem to make a big chunk of their living from selling our stories when we don't get in quick enough. Will the fact it's getting so much easier for the nationals to check what gems the locals have thrown up from their London HQs via the web make any dents in their business model?

On an entirely separate note . . . I'm going to briefly touch on the editor's second appearance in the Guardian's Media Monkey column, which follows his stated intention to take a vow of silence after a blog post which attracted some unanticipated intention from the monkey last month. Even though I'm the news editor (almost) named and shamed in the original post (and he's spilled some of my more embarassing beans in the past ), I'm also sorry it's stopped for the moment. But I'm assured it is temporary (and probably something to do with other projects he's been busy with). I'll let you know when it's back up and running.

Monday, 8 September 2008


I did briefly think about writing about lessons learnt from our coverage of the Croydon tram crash, but I think it's still a bit too soon - both for reasons of taste, and because the story is still very much developing. So I'll come back to it another day.

Instead I'll write about the second biggest story we had on the site this weekend - the Purley Cross UFO:

Now, at the risk of attracting the ire of alien spotters, this story is clearly a load of bollocks. And although these stories always boost your stats, it's a spike made mainly from non-local readers (a significant chunk of our readership started to come from the States after we published this on Saturday).

So it's important to minimise the risk of alienating (sorry, sorry!) your regular readers - but not killing the story entirely, or making your site a target for the global I Believe community, angered by your dismissing their latest spot.

I think the reporter, Maheesha Kottegoda, did a great job at doing this here. It's clearly tongue in cheek, but doesn't jeer at the alien spotter either. And, while trying not to sound too self-congratulatory, it seems to have worked - most of the comments are in the same gentle fun-poking spirit - and from local readers.

It would be interesting to hear of anyone else's experiences of reporting aliens - do you think we should stop doing it altogether, and stick to reporting real news? Or is a bit of harmless fun just that - harmless?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

The fear of crime

This post isn't directly about online journalism, but it's inspired by a Twitter conversation with Martin Stabe about the Met's new crime maps, so I'm going to let it sneak in anyhow.

Yes, today the Met officially launched their new crime maps. We've been on deadline today, so I've not had a chance to look in depth at how they've changed from the beta version, so I will reserve full judgement. But as they only plot burglary, robbery and vehicle crime, I doubt they will be of huge use to us. As Martin's former colleague Patrick Smith pointed out when they were released in beta, there's a huge discrepancy between the actual crime figures, and what appears here. In Croydon in July, the Met's stats say there were 2,916 total crimes. The map's narrow criteria only highlights 656. A big difference - and interestingly, my calculations say the map is still out, as those crimes total 779 according to the "detailed" figures.

As someone who's twice reported crime in the past few weeks (a bag snatch in Streatham, and a road rage attack which was classified as an RTA in Croydon), I'm not sure how useful I find this personally. I'm more interested in violence against the person and sex crimes.

There's loads more you can say about this (see this conversation on a local forum), but I'm particularly interested in how this ties in with the police's management of fear of crime.

In recent years, police have become increasingly obsessed with fear of crime. And the solution seems to be cut off the media's access to accurately report it.

My first work experience placements, at local radio stations, featured daily trips to the police station to talk to the duty sergeant about all the notable crime from the last 24 hours. By the time I was a trainee on a local newspaper, this had been replaced with weekly meetings - then weekly meetings with a press liaison officer who had no formal training or, incredibly, access to the crime logs (she relied on posters in the loos asking officers to tip her off, which they generally didn't) - and in Croydon, even those were recently cancelled.

We have been asking for weeks for statistics about stabbings in Croydon - and nothing comes back. But last night, a garbled version of those very stats was given by a senior copper at a Croydon Council knife conference. We're fuming!

That same copper also trotted out the same argument we've been hearing lots lately - reporting knife crime makes youths more likely to carry knives to defend themselves, which makes them more likely to commit, or fall victim to stabbings themselves.

Where to start? For starters, the police have provided no evidence of this at all. This also assumes kids won't hear exaggerated and inaccurate accounts on the rumour mill (which I imagine has a much wider and quicker reach amongst teens than the local paper). And, most Croydon stabbings are gang related - I sincerely doubt a news story about a stabbing is going to push kids into joining gangs - the opposite, if anything. I could go on, but it's well trodden ground.

As I've been writing this, BBC London has aired a report about the maps which interviewed people in Croydon. It didn't say much about Croydon crime, but it did make the point about limited stats, and about there being no clear-up rate included either. Maybe the day's other crime data announcement, the push to get court results put online, will help. But I can't help but fear all the information will be neutered and managed to fall in with the fear of crime agenda until it's next to useless.

I really hope I'm proved wrong on this.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Football - it ruins lives

Some days you've just got to take it on the chin.

A gremlin crept into our site today, and played havoc with our PA national football feeds (I've always maintained football is the root of all evil, and this just goes to prove my theory). The upshot was, we ended up with several month-old stories about Premiership teams. They weren't linked to the site, but fans from all over the world were finding them, through Google I guess, and they weren't impressed. And not impressed in such large numbers they were soon at the top of our Most Read and Most Commented tabs.

Here's the story which inspired the most comments.
I knew there was no hiding from it when the comment about Noah and the storm went up. By the end of the day, and the advent of the bubonic plague and the man on the moon, I'd started laughing too - but it took a while.

Funnily enough, reporter Judith Townend tweeted about another story where the comments about a burnt chair in Kendal took off in even more inventive ways, even as our little debate was unfolding - although my personal favourite is one a bit closer to us, at the Surrey Comet, about a pigeon cull.