Thursday, 30 July 2009

Could an industry report on itself? And, if it could, what role would be left for the B2B journalist?

I ask because there has been some fascinating discussion on the topic recently, notably from Dan Blank -- director of content strategy and development for Reed Business Information  -- and Paul Conley, a specialist in web-first publishing among other things.

The questions need posing because of the growth of social media. Twitter, Flickr and YouTube-distributed video are being used extensively by both trade journalists and participants at major trade events.

Dan presents an example, the NeoCon trade show in Chicago, which was covered by Interior Design magazine. The magazine had a website, two Twitter accounts, an online navigator and a blog.

But this  was only a part of a much bigger picture of coverage of the event undertaken by participants using social media.

Dan found around 1,500 tweets a day with 400 individuals updating, hundreds of photos on Twitpic and Flikr and dozens of videos shared via YouTube.
He points out that some of this content is from other professional journalists and trade publications, some from manufacturers and PRs, but says: “Plenty of these tweets, photos and videos were shared by industry insiders, regular attendees, and fans. The overall point here is that this content is being found on social networks not associated with a single media brand.

“This content is being published more broadly to the web, and then shared and talked about in places that no single company could ever control -- they can just try to be there in ways that help their audience.

“What this means is that journalists, publishers and media companies need to rethink their roles, and the value they are offering their industries.”

And this is where the good news comes in. As anyone who follows a lot of people on Twitter and subscribes to a range of RSS feeds knows, you can easily get swamped by information. It’s hard to sift it.
What you need is an editor. And that’s where the journalist comes in.

The value of the editor is not diminished in all this, it is enhanced. A professional journalist can filter all this and bring the very best of it to their readers’ attention. So while an industry can, to an extent, cover itself, it takes the journalist-interpreter to make sense of that, and to make all that collaborative effort comprehensible.

Some people talk of this as being a curatorial role: like the curator of a museum collection, the journalist brings the really good stuff to the fore and showcases it, and may also offer context and interpretation.
So any B2B magazine’s social media strategy has to be rooted in the industry conversations that are taking place, and in filtering them.
Social media make it possible to serve niches within a B2B’s readership.
Dan says: “When considering your social media strategy, keep these niches in mind. Can you have multiple brand accounts on Twitter in order to serve the needs of very specific audiences you serve? If you are creating a Facebook group -- are you targeting your industry broadly, or focusing in on the one sub-group who is most passionate about a key aspect of things?
“Social media strategy can become very sophisticated very quickly, but can be more straightforward if you always consider the needs you are serving and work to measure what is working and what isn’t.”
What any B2B publication must seek to do is to lead the way within its industry. Paul Conley picks up on this point and says: “For every B2B publication that is participating in -- even leading -- the conversations, there are still plenty that lag years behind.

“Twitter -- at least in most B2B verticals -- is a media phenomenon. Most tweets come from journalists, marketing execs and public-relations pros.

“If you're a reporter for Paper Bag Weekly walking the floor of the Paper Bag Expo trade show, you'll likely find dozens of folks tweeting. But they will nearly all be from the media side of the paper bag industry. You can read tweets from flacks and tweets from hacks, but you won't find a tweet from anyone who actually makes a paper sack.

“The obvious exception to this is in tech. Walk the floor of a tech trade show and you'll find that everyone really is tweeting. Tech really does cover itself.

“So this poses a question: what will it take to reach the point where a non-tech industry actually reports on itself?”

Paul says that better software is needed, and suggests a project called Google Wave, currently under development, could be the key to making that happen.

I’ll look at Google Wave in detail in my next post.

Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Five key questions every journalism student should ask their tutors

Whether you are about to embark on a fast track course, are looking forward to a longer course beginning in the autumn, or are still considering what course to take, there are five key questions you should ask any tutor.

What have you had published this week?
Or, more broadly, what journalism are you doing right now?
Never mind what they did a few years ago, or even last year. What are they doing this week? Things move so fast now that anyone teaching should also be practising journalism currently.

If they aren’t, then question their ability to teach you what you need to know.

Ok, so -- for example -- a features writer’s skills haven’t changed that much over the years, but markets have. I’d expect my features tutor to be writing and getting published right now. If not, how can you be sure they know the market?

Do you work on the web?
If your tutor has worked on the web, great, but how long ago was that? When I began in online in 1997, things were radically different to now. A tutor who used to work on the web is no use to you.

They need to be up to speed with all current practices, and to have a clear insight into what comes next. What can they tell you about Web 3.0, for example? What views do they have on the replacement for Twitter?

Do you blog, tweet and use RSS?
If they don’t, they aren’t part of the conversation. And a journalist who is not a part of the conversation is failing at their job. So will make a lousy tutor.

What jobs did the last cohort get?
And jobs means full time, paid jobs, not unpaid work experience or the occasional freelance shift or commission. Even in these hard times, there are jobs and they are being filled – with graduates from the most successful courses. Successful courses will make sure you meet past students who are in work. If they don't, ask also if you can contact them for a chat.

Are you getting paid on time?
While the cheaper public sector is still solvent, some private sector courses are struggling to attract the students they need to remain solvent.

Private sector courses are some of the most commercially attuned, and successful at placing graduates in jobs, but more than one has hit hard times. So are they up to date with payments to tutors? If they aren’t, you need to know. Because an unpaid tutor is an unhappy tutor, and no good to you.

Friday, 24 July 2009

Journalism can be a class act, or a middle class act. It can't be both

So here’s a thing. Many, many people now have the means to publish their text, video, audio and still images. And yet journalism has become one of the most exclusive middle-class professions of the 21st century.

So, while the journalistic tools are now available to the many, professional journalists are drawn from the ranks of the affluent, well-connected, well-educated few.

The debate over the causes of the increasingly elitist nature of journalism has been rumbling on all week. It was sparked by an all-party report, Unleashing Aspiration, which revealed that social mobility in Britain has gone into reverse.

The underlying reason for journalism becoming a middle class profession is that the industry handed training over to academia.

Over a generation, the traditional pattern of school-leavers entering journalism via indentured training (apprenticeships weighted towards on-the-job experience) was replaced with a default model of an entrant to journalism having a first or second degree in the subject.

Roy Greenslade has reflected on how, when he joined his first local paper, staff from cleaner to editor were working class. Today, he says: “We have reached a position in which the working class do not even consider ‘the media’ as a career possibility.”

What got lost in this transition is sight of the fact that journalism is not a profession, it is a craft. You don’t have to be a genius to be good at it. You don’t have to be someone who thrives in an academic environment to write a sound, compelling news story, cover an event, review a book or movie.

Someone with an Oxbridge first might become a brilliant journalist, but they might just as easily be a lousy one. Likewise, a kid from a sink estate with a mediocre academic record could be a very bad journalist – or they might become a great one.

The only meaningful distinction in journalism  is between those who can do it, and those who can’t. And academic performance is not a reliable indicator of that.

So what’s the solution? Unleashing Aspiration says universities must do more to end elitism by admitting thousands more students from poorer backgrounds.

Another proposal is to pay interns, so you don’t need to be rich enough to work for free to get on the first rung of the journalistic ladder.

Dominic Ponsford of Press Gazette has some practical advice. Instead of a City MA at £7,000, he says, go for an NCTJ fast track at £900 as a much more cost-effective way of training.

All good, but to my mind the real solution lies with journalists themselves: specifically those who hire other journalists. They must hire on the basis of demonstrable ability as much as, if not more than, academic prowess.

Let’s put this into the wider context: young people don’t read newspapers any more, nor do they watch or rate TV news. They do use Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and the rest. They do, in an unschooled way, create journalism which is popular with their peers.

If we can’t attract these people into formal journalism, formal journalism will become increasingly marginalised.

So here’s what has to happen: journalists who hire, training organisations and universities running journalism and media course need to attract those who show a relish and a talent for the multimedia publishing opportunities that are open to them. They should worry much less about a potential student’s academic background.

Teach these people well and we’ll protect and reinvigorate mainstream journalism. Fail, and journalism fails.