Monday, 24 September 2007

Creating and owning communities

A great day with Caspian on Friday. Caspian is a B2B house that publishes Real Business and Real Deals among other bright, savvy titles that bring a great deal of flair to their sector.

The session was a day’s introduction to writing and editing for the web.

Caspian, like many others, is taking its first real steps into the web and multi-media, so the main aim of the day was to work on how to ensure material created for print is adapted to work as effectively online. They were a bright bunch and picked up on things fast.

Because they didn’t need a lot of drill, we had time to look at the bigger picture too. So we could look at what sort of identity the various publications could have online. This was helped because I had the company’s communications director, Matthew Rock, among the delegates.

A weekly news-driven B2B title can create a good solid news-led website and immediately add to what it offers its readers: deepening the relationship; making it possible for the title to be the news-source of choice on a daily – or several times daily – rather than a weekly basis.

But what about monthly titles where analysis and comment are the attractions? What do we do with them?

Creating community has to be the key, and Caspian is making solid moves in that direction.

Already, their forums are rich in comment, and discussion often flows out from a particular piece of analysis, with posters offering their own experiences and advice.

The forums could become master classes, with the sort of advice and shared experience that is worth a fortune if measured in consultancy fees or personal coaching.

By bringing their journalists’ and other contributors’ invaluable advice online, and enabling readers to interact with the writers and each other, Caspian is beginning to crack the key challenge: creating communities that are hosted and owned by that particular title.

Now, I’m aware that not everyone thinks media companies can own communities. They accept they can help create them but believe that true communities have a life of their own and can’t be controlled – to expect to do so is old-media thinking.

I’m not so sure, and I believe there is plenty of evidence around to show that B2B titles do indeed own communities. During my day at Caspian we looked at some examples.

Take, the publicans’ title, for example. It has a fantastically close relationship with its online readers. They can comment directly on stories and, with major issues, the comments run into the hundreds – 360 is the highest I’ve seen there. Iain O’Neil, their online reporter, tells me he often gets great stories from his readers’ comments and feedback.

There are campaigns; a wealth of advice on coping with the smoking ban; on how to make money; on developing catering: a real master class in running a pub.

Clearly this is a vibrant community, and clearly it is a morningadvertiser community. That’s not to say someone else couldn’t start a community to serve the pub trade. Anyone could set up a group on Google or Yahoo or anywhere else and, if publicans liked it, it would grow. But it wouldn’t have the editorial expertise and wealth of high quality content that Iain brings to his site.

This should be our USP online: strong communities, valuable content.

Farmers Weekly is another example. It has a community editor, Isabel Davies, who told Press Gazette recently that the magazine’s online communities helped the title get vital information out to readers on the foot and mouth outbreak, and helped her hear back from those affected.

Isabel says: “The job of community editor is a new post…and a lot of it is about championing the voice of the reader. It really worked in this instance – they’ve asked questions and we’ve used our influence to get them answers.” (You can read her full PG dairy here)

It’s pretty clear that, particularly in extremis, farmers – or any community – will go to the home they trust. The challenge for B2B magazines is to create those homes, to nurture them and keep them their own. Do it well and you can own them, do it badly, and others will take on the job instead.

Creating and owning communities is perhaps more of a challenge for newspapers. I blogged recently on one potential community that newspapers have let get away to rival commercial providers.

Newspapers’ readership is obviously more disparate than that of B2Bs, but there are communities among readers, and the challenge for us is to find, serve and own them. If we don’t, someone else will.

I’m working with a number of regional newspapers at present on how to identify communities among their readers and serve them well enough to gain their loyalty – so that those newspapers' websites are the place that those communities chooses to come and chat.

The very local-ness of the regional press is a great strength here. Add to that the opportunities the web gives us for hyper-local and user-generated content, and we have one potential key to thriving online.

So, is it really old-media thinking to talk about creating and owning communities? Or is it, conversely, fanciful to suggest that communities are free-born spirits that no one can control?

Tuesday, 18 September 2007

How to pass the NCE

I’ve been busy running refresher courses for the NCTJ’s National Certificate Examinations over the past three weeks.

These are very satisfying for me and – I think – valuable for the delegates. Satisfying for me because there are quantifiable outcomes. I try to teach the young journalists how to pass the exams: to see what is required to give the examiners what they are looking for.

If they pass, I’ve done my job; if they don’t, I haven’t.

There is a lot of respect for – and some suspicion of - the NCEs. They are treated with respect because they are tough. Pass rates are routinely 50 to 60 per cent for first-timers. There is a degree of suspicion because some wonder if they are needlessly tough, and whether they seek to apply standards that are not reflected in everyday regional journalism.

In my view they are only as tough as they need to be to ensure that those who earn the title of senior journalist deserve it. And they come tolerably close to replicating the circumstances in which journalists work. Of course, they could be closer, and I have some thoughts on how they might better replicate real work conditions, but they do a pretty good job.

In my view, what is often lacking is an understanding - on the part of candidates – of what is required to gain a good mark in the exams. Competently delivered refreshers ought to address that concern.

The key is showing students how to approach the three papers.

I remind them of their driving test. Remember all that mirror, signal, manoeuvre malarkey? What was that all about?

It was about demonstrating to the examiner that you were a safe driver. To do that the learner needed to make it abundantly clear that they were doing the right things – hence all the exaggerated mirror, signal, manoeuvre stuff. No matter that once the L-plates were ripped in half the newly-qualified driver would burn off and drive just like the rest of us.

The NCE is all about demonstrating to the examiner that you are a competent, safe journalist. It’s mirror, signal, manoeuvre time all over again. The Newspaper Practice paper – one of three examinations – seeks to determine if the candidate is someone who can be sent to court and not land the paper with a legal problem; and someone who can take a tip-off and develop it into a fully rounded story for their paper.

The News Interview paper is there to demonstrate that candidates can conduct an interview in such a way that they extract all the important information from the interviewee, and that they can write a story that makes the most of what they are told.

The News Report paper requires candidates to take a bundle of briefing papers and then listen to a speech from which they must extract three or four key quotes.

The problem comes – for too many candidates – when they enter the exam room. Too many have never seen examples of the papers they are now sitting. That puts them at a huge disadvantage. I can’t imagine taking any exam without studying past papers to get a clear idea of what to expect.

It’s true that, for News Interview and News Report, you can’t revise. But you can know what is required. So, for News Interview, you will need three or four key quotes, and to gain from your questioning a clear outline of the story – best achieved by taking the interviewee through a full chronology of events. If candidates then get the main point in the intro, follow with one or two pars to introduce subsidiary themes, and follow this with a killer quote, they are off to a very good start. If they then feed in three pars of vivid description of events, go on to give a couple more quotes and a solid three or four pars of detail, they will probably be home and dry – as long as they don’t make any silly mistakes.

With the News Interview, a similar structure will again work well. What candidates need to blend into their answer is a good range of detail from the briefing papers, three or four quotes from the speech, plus some additional facts that can only be gained from the speaker.

With the News Practice paper, candidates often show a reasonable knowledge of law, but demonstrate an inability to apply it to the scenario outlined in the question. It only takes two or three hours during a refresher to convert their raw legal knowledge into a sound ability to put this knowledge into practice. In the second part of the practice exam, they have to take a couple of story tips and develop them for their own paper. Once again, once they have mastered the necessity of a thorough mirror, signal, manoeuvre approach, they quickly get the hang of passing this section.

In the latest retakes, the pass rate was up to an impressive 67 per cent. Now, if more of those second-time-around success stories had been given the benefit of refreshers before their first efforts, I’ll bet a significantly greater proportion would have passed first time.

The (uncertain) shape of things to come

I spent the day in Bournemouth and Poole, talking to two centres about trialling the new Online Journalism qualification that we are building in as a part of the Preliminary Certificates for the NCTJ.

Tom Hill at uptospeedjournalism in Poole is reassuringly onboard. He has a cohort of mainly career-changers – the first of three intakes this academic year - who looked to me as if they will make great journalists.

At Bournemouth University’s Media school I met up again with Liisa Rohumaa who has a background in Fleet Street websites, like me. We reminisced about the struggles of grafting an online identify onto (in her case) the Financial Times and (in mine) The Times.

There have been some key staff changes at Bournemouth but I’m hoping they will join the eight centres already committed to Trailblazing the Online Journalism syllabus this academic year, prior to its integration as a compulsory element in the Preliminary Certificates in 2008-9.

I had fascinating conversations with both Tom and Liisa about the shape of things to come. Let’s face it; none of us know for sure what multi-media journalism is going to look like in a year or two. Regional and national newspapers, consumer and B2B magazines are all feeling their way and seeing what works for them in the multi-media world.

One thing I do feel is going to come to the forefront, eclipsing video, which is the current focus of many people’s attention, is community.

I sense that creating and owning appropriate communities will prove to be the real key to success online, for all media outlets – whatever pocket of trad media they come from.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

Do press photographers have a future?

It's a question that has been uppermost in my mind this week, as the NCTJ has asked me to look at their press photography and photojournalism syllabuses.

On the one hand, many editors send reporters out with cameras to snap straightforward pictures to accompany their stories. On the other, many newspapers are hiring video journalists - or training existing reporting staff to do the job.

And that's not to mention the rise of the citizen-snapper, who sends in pictures of dramatic events captured on their mobile phones - everything from terrorist attacks to car crashes, fights and fires.

Clearly, the press photographer needs to evolve if a cash-strapped editor is to choose to hire him or her as opposed to a video journalist or reporter.

I've only just started what will be an industry-wide consultation, but already the responses have been fascinating. I don't want to preempt things, but already it is clear that the answer to the question posed in my heading is a resounding yes - as long as we get the training right, and produce photographers who can offer the editor exactly what they need in an age of video and citizen journalism.

Training: a matter of degrees

The British Journalism Review asked me to sound off about media studies degrees, which I was happy to do because I think they disappoint many aspiring journalists who only find out too late that they are not being prepared for a job in the trade.

Here's an extract:

I have an analogy I like to use when working with a group of raw recruits to a journalism course. It’s that they should think of learning how to write a news story rather as they would approach following a recipe in a cookbook.

Just as with a recipe from Jamie or Gordon or Nigella, I tell them, the recipe for writing a news story is pretty straightforward. It’s called the inverted triangle. But I point out that, while the news-writing recipe is simple - a useful template for any story - what is hard is deciding how, in each new situation, the various ingredients that are to hand should be mixed, blended and added to the dish.

What I’m essentially telling them is that journalism is a craft: the theory is minimal; it’s practice that enables you to become good at the job.

Finding they are studying a craft rather than an academic pursuit puzzles some students. It’s often the first they have heard of such a distinction. This is particularly true of those who have spent three years gaining a media studies degree and have found, to their consternation, that it is not helping them get a job as a journalist.

Often, such graduates have discovered too late that editors – whether in newspapers, magazines, broadcasting or online - want above all to know that a raw recruit has been trained to do the job to a basic level of competence. They discover that editors are much less interested in the class of degree they have received or, often, the institution that awarded it, than in whether the course was accredited by the National Council for the Training of Journalists, the Periodical Training Council or the Broadcast Journalism Training Council.

The current BJR is here

Monday, 3 September 2007

Three down...

Eight weeks in and three of the 12 post-grads on PMA's Magazine Journalism course have landed jobs. One week of the course to go, and several others have had promising interviews...and there's always graduation day on Friday, when editors with vacancies come to fill them.