Playing to the audience

…in which I mangle a metaphor in search of a thought about the relationship between journo and audience.

Time was that when I was asked about the value of social media platforms like twitter for journos, amongst the reasons I would give is the capacity to build audience.

The value of the individual journalist as a brand in a networked world (in contrast to the large media org) is something I repeatedly bang on about. But the truth is that there will always be some intersection between the sole trader and the big media hubs. In fact the prevailing model seems to be that apart from a tight core of full-time staff, most big orgs will have a steady stream of freelancers in their orbit to keep their mass.

In that respect having an audience that already follow ‘brand you’ rather than ‘brand x’ is just as attractive to the big media orgs as it is your own work.

I used to liken this to the idea of being in a band.

Record companies, even venues, wouldn’t look at you without some proof that you had audience. Signing mailing list sheets, following on myspace and now twitter and Facebook are ways that bands tried to do that.

But a chat with my excellent colleagues clarecook and Robert beers and the recent blogging about guardian local got me thinking about the danger of taking that idea too far.

How long would a band have an audience if they didn’t listen to those fans? If they didn’t tell the fans where they were playing next or what they were up to?

Many journos still stick to the idea that communication with an audience should only be one way. Some will tell you it’s because of the problems with managing the flow (busy, busy people journos) whilst others will happily tell you that they have no interest in the dribbling rantings of a few nut jobs ( because anyone who uses the web other than them is a nut job).

Truth is that if the audience isn’t behind you, you have nothing.

You could argue that the best musicians do what they do regardless of what the audience wants. They are artists. I’ve got news for you. When it comes to the web you’re not an artist. You can’t create in a platform or hack away in a garret.

If you don’t nurture and talk to the audience then, in a world of pay-to-play journalism you’ve got nothing.

Increasingly the opportunities are there for those who look out in to the audience rather than those who point their sites in a singular dash for a job with the media mothership. The crowd is not just a means of getting you there. They are the measure of your success and integrity (not just other journos)

It’s a lesson that big media orgs could learn too. Stop thinking like a record company think more like a concert promoter. The days of being the big media ‘stadium acts’ are fast becoming numbered. Maybe there is room for a few headliners at the festival but the vast majority of people are here for the rest of the bill (the long tail!).

So maybe, in future, when I’m asked about the value of social media, I’ll still be talking about the value of audience. But maybe I’ll put the band metaphor to bed. Truth is the dynamics are being rewritten everyday, just like the opportunities, and they are being written on an individual level – no band required.

Communities and the “big enough” society.

Launch of Big Society programme
Small committee makes big society - Image by The Prime Minister's Office via Flickr

I’ve been listening to and talking with a lot of people about community lately. All kinds of communities and all kinds of projects. One of the things that comes out of the discussions was the connection/tie-in/albatross-round-the-neck that is the “big society”.

A general embargo on political commentary on this blog means I won’t tell you what a none-sensical, keep all the blame away from politicians excuse for a concept it is.  But it has certainly put the cat amongst the pigeons for those doing real community engagement stuff who genuinely have to worry about the way their work is seen/critique in a political context.

By real, I mean something other than the virtual – the twitter community or the community of readers –  we often talk about in social media circles.

Social. Theres another word that means something else now. In my world, social often means social networks or collaboration. In the world of big society communities it means poor (and costly to the state) rather than the cash rich time poor that make up most of the demographic.

Social housing isn’t connected to facebook and social security isn’t just using  backupify.

Despite the differences, what struck me about a lot of the discussion was the parallels between how media talks about community and the growing discussion in the broader ‘social’ arena; the idea that working with communities is a sure fire way to solve the big problems. Not because those small communities couldn’t help with that – they can. But because of the belief that there is a big solution out there to be found.

It’s not enough for a good community strategy to simply help and develop a community. It has to scale and have a model (preferably a business one).

But maybe they don’t have to be.

Maybe a local community group doesn’t have to be an exemplar of how ‘big society’ can work. Just like your hyperlocal community site doesn’t have to be the business model for others. Maybe they just need to be big enough to do the job. Big enough to sustain one journo rather than the business plans of many.

More importantly when we talk about community, maybe we should be looking at how we can make that word social mean the same thing for both sides of the digital divide.

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Want to know the answer…ask a journalist

I know, I know. I’m supposed to be taking a rest from blogging.  Well, it’s getting close to term time again (I had that in my mind as a time to revist the blog) and with a bit of space behind me to clear my head I wanted to dip in – sorry.

What’s peaked my interest. Well, Ryan Sholin threw up an interesting link via twitter to a site called which recently picked up a Citizen Media Award in the Knight-Batten Awards for Innovations in Journalism - award winning simple idea - award winning simple idea

It’s a simple idea. provides a personal link between the journalist and the reader, allowing the reader to submit a question about life in southeastern North Carolina. Within a week, a StarNews journalist will provide an answer on, where readers can find a wealth of information about historical places, famous people and oddities in the area.

Add to that the ability of people to comment, or add clarification and detail to answers and you can see how the vision that that Executive Editor Robyn Tomlin has that ” at some point this becomes a living encyclopedia of local information,”

Questionland - crap name but good idea?
Questionland - crap name but good idea?

Ryan also highlighted another one, wonderfully titled questionland from Seattle paper The Stranger.

What’s so great about that, you ask. Why not just put the question in to google? Surely that will get you the answer.

Well, yes, maybe it will. But in a world where people are time poor, local newspapers still have some brand to work with and Google’s inability t really do local search (not without some strong arming of search terms) this seems to me to really reflect the local newspaper being the ‘source of local information’.

It’s one example of the connection with the community local journalism is supposed to have and I think it would be fantastically easy to implement it on any local news site. is built on WordPress – easy to hack together – and questionland runs on a third party Q&A platform called yousaidit. But there are other sources.  Ryan Sholin points out that the source code for his nascent reporting back channel service ReportingOn (a knight news challnge winner) is available as open source.

I know that the first reason why a site like this wouldn’t happen on many UK papers is resources. Who answers the questions? But as something that falls between the crowdsourcsing of reporting and the often one way input of comments, this could be an interesting way for people to move questions and conversation out of the ghetto of forums and make it more accessible and obvious.

Have you come across any other sites that are doing this? Are you running a site just like this. I’d love to know.

There are no stories on the web

I‘ve been pondering that titular mantra for while now. I’ve got to the point where I’m wondering whether my focus on the idea that the web will not just simply cough up a story is really about a broader shift in mindset that journalists need to make or more about me getting my head around the process.

So I’m posting this to get it out of my head.

It got in my head again at the end of last week as I found myself eavesdropping on a group of students sat at their computers.

“I need to do a search for a story for my portfolio assignment” says one student who then proceeds to fire up a collection of news sites including the BBC and a number of different local news providers.

Frustrating as I find this behaviour sometimes, I know it’s not limited to students.

Reverse engineering stories – finding an article online and then unpicking the threads – is more common than I think any of us a prepared to admit. Is that a bad thing? Maybe not, but it happens. But that’s not finding a story, it’s just (re)reporting the story for your audience. It’s also a mono-media approach to the journalistic process. Everything is geared towards servicing an article at a publication point.

Web 2.0 journalism

Working the ‘Web 2.0’ way approaches the story from a different direction. It builds a critical mass of content through the appropriate application of digital technologies. Web searches, crowdsourcing, alerts and all the other good stuff can be weaved in to the ‘traditional‘ journalistic process to serve the increasingly voracious content machine.

But does that process really address where stories come from?

What you will find on the web is data and information. But they are not stories. They can help develop and support a story but they are meaningless without context. You need to know the story you are trying to tell before they become useful. You still need the story.

People make stories

Ultimately, stories come from people. They come from the collective experiences, social contexts and relevence of communities. To find a story and know why it’s a astory, you have to be part of or active in those communities. That’s something that ‘traditional’ journalism is supposed to be good at. Understanding the communities/audience they serve. Being relevant through the intimate knowledge of a patch. Having the ‘in’ at the ground floor of a story.

Of course the web will get you next to people, sometimes in the most direct and immediate way. But the web still won’t give up that story unless you approach those people in the same way you would in real life. That means going to the places where people gather and inhabiting them.

The thing to remember is that people don’t gather in the same place and, more importantly, you cannot force them to.  So even though RSS feeds and alerts will allow you to monitor the conversations effectivley (and if you arent using these tools then you should be) you need to get out there.

Platforms are places for conversation

Web 2.0 is all about platforms. Sites that enable people to do things are real honeypots. But the really successful web2.0 sites are the ones that encourage conversation between users.  We have thise platforms in real life. People will go to the post office to send a letter or the pub to get a drink.  But the conversation in those places could be about anything. The same thing happens online.

Take a look at Pistonheads – a site about motoring. The site has some very popular forums

Over 2 million posts in the general area
Over 2 million posts in the online 'pub'

Lots of good stuff about cars (in minute detail) but take a look at the Pie and Piston (general chat areas in forums are often called the pub, bar or take pub names). 2,401,820 posts. Over 2 million posts and the majority are not about motoring.

Push not pull

The thing I recognise more and more is that’s a challenge in a journalistic environment where strategy and staffing is defined by pull rather than push; the idea that you can bring everything to your desktop could be one of the reasons more journalist find themeselve effectivly desk bound.

But we can still exhibit a bit of that push behaviour when it comes to communities even if it is just virtual. Think of the platform as a place – a shop, a pub or a street corner.

Hang around long enough and someone will give you a story.

The virtuous circle of journalism process

Say a quite word of thanks dear reader to Mr Kevin Anderson. Why? Let me explain.

Yesterday I posted a graphic that tried to sum up some of the problems that still exist as we try and engage with community.

I’d been thinking about it because I’ve been updating content for my Digital newsroom module next semester. One of the things I found was that it was tricky to get the students to buy in to benefit of sharing. They got the power of the web to gather content but I guess you could say that they where still in that gatekeeper mentality.  Sharing photos on Flickr or using twitter was too geeky for them. It didn’t fit the journalistic process.

A phrase that popped in to my head, and I used a lot, was the ‘virtuous circle’. You give and people will give.

This strikes me more and more as a defining element of a journalist who understands how to work online. You only need to look at the debate around plagiarism and the link economy in journalism to see that.

Anyway, I promised a ramble post or two may follow. So in an effort to head one of those off here is a little video I made to try and explain my thinking. I’d love some feedback:

The virtuous circle from Digitaldickinson on Vimeo.

This isn’t original thought by any stretch of the imagination. The virtuous circle is not a new concept and if anyone else is talking in the same tones then I’d love to know. I’m also not trying to make a new ‘model’ here.  I based many of my lectures on Paul Bradshaw’s news diamond and the discussion that generated. All credit to him. The way that model was developed through his blog and the discussion it generated in my lectures is a fine example of that virtuous circle in action.

Yeah, yeah, Video shimdeo. What about Kevin Anderson you ask.

Well, Kevin picked up on my illustration and commented on how a different attitude can reap rewards.  Thanks to his concise example you have a hell of a lot less ramble to sit through.

A few years ago, colleagues asked me why bloggers responded to my interview requests when they had trouble getting a response. The problem was, they were often sending out form e-mail interview requests and treating bloggers, usually ordinary people, as if they were members of government or industry spokespeople. I usually started my search for a blogger through a blog search engine like Technorati. When I found a relevant post, I would quote the post and ask them if they wanted to join a discussion about the topic they had blogged about.

I also use Creative Commons licenced pictures in Guardian blog posts (Attribution licence that allows for commercial use). Unless, I’m really pressed for time, I send the Flickr user a short note and a link. They always thank me for being a good member of the community, and the sometimes even blog about the post. I’ve acted in good faith, and they have reciprocated by flagging up their photo on a Guardian post. We can be good members of both virtual and real world communities, and I think it’s one of the things that can rebuild journalists’ relationship with the people formerly known as the audience. Becoming better citizen journalists might just save professional journalism.

Thanks Kevin.

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I won some money

I have won some money (well, funding) to do some research. This is both good (it’s always nice to win) and scary (more for the research community than anyone else.

Sandbox (see their site to get an idea of what they do as Iwould just make a hash of explaining it) offers grants for people in the University to enagge in ‘research activities that are interdisciplinary and collaborative’

Here’s what I put in.

Are the people who represent the community part of the community?
The media have traditionally claimed the role of the fourth estate, framing and advocating issues and debates for the public; gathering information on the basis that the majority do not have the resources themselves. But new media driven, content creation (perhaps best defined under the catch all phrase citizen journalism) has challenged the traditional media’s primacy in this role by putting the means to source and distribute information in the hands of the audience.

This change is forcing many media organisations to redefine the relationships they have with the communities they are supposed to represent.

The same technology that challenges these relationships has also had a profound impact within the traditional media. The production process has become increasingly ‘digital’ in the way the information is collected, processed and distributed. This, in turn, has resulted in a reduction of the number of journalists and editorial staff.

So the balance between the numbers of editorial staff within the media and the number of people in the community (the audience) who are generating content is at tipping point. Many in the community question the ability of the mainstream media to reflect their interests; the community they live in.

This paradigm shift is often referred to as a change from lecture to conversation.

In an effort deal with this change, many media organisations have embraced the concept of community as a strategy. By offering blogs, community forums and other forms of social interaction the aim is to become a central part of the conversation. In the print media this is best illustrated by one media groups aim to convert their newsrooms in to community hubs – the central point for a community to share information.

But does creating a ‘virtual’ hub really create a focus point for community or are the media, in their daily practice, physically too isolated to be recognised as part of the community?

The project
The aim of this project is to map the movement of journalists in the local community by taking reporters from print, radio and TV and providing them with GPS enabled devices to track their movements throughout normal reporting day.

The aim then would be to compare this with the data created from the social mapping projects within Sandbox and see where the two overlay.

In essence it’s an audience research project that provides an interesting exploration of news agendas – that of the professional reporters and the stories they either elect to cover or are sent to cover – and those issues reflected by communities participating in city media – their ‘news’ agendas.

The project would then attempt to develop a matrix that visually demonstrated when and where the news agendas of local communities and those of professional media organizations coincide, with a view to examining the range of elements that lead to this juxtaposition.

Conducted in this way the research can explore ‘randomness’, and ‘proximity’ to breaking news as a value that impacts news agendas (and says something about reseources too).

The next logical stage of this research is to begin to map other stake holders in the process – politicians.

Now I just need to do it.

Journalists and online etiquette

The latest column by The Guardian’s Readers’ editor Siobhain Butterworth, makes interesting reading. It tackles the sticky issue of community interaction

When five Guardian writers took part in a discussion about a music blog post in December, a reader complained that their intervention was “heavy-handed” and that the topic chosen was deliberately provocative. The author of the piece, who contributed to the discussion, agrees that the talk thread was “a bit pugilistic” and a couple of comments from Guardian writers matched that tone. How should journalists conduct themselves in online conversations?

Its a nice trip around some of the issues but one defence was a bit hollow

“You can see why journalists might be reluctant to join online conversations. Imagine that you arrive at the office one morning, you take your coat off and you’re just sitting down when a crowd of masked strangers bursts in, gathers around your desk and spends the rest of the day making derisory comments about the way you do your job. Work, for journalists whose newspaper columns are posted online, can sometimes feel a bit like that.”

Might seem like a valid point but as one (of many) who commented points out

 Yes, but occupation I chose does not require me to share my thoughts and insights with the population in print. I guess if you have elected to carve a career out of telling the great british public what you think, and demonstrating how terribly well informed and insightful you are about a topic, then it seems fair enough that they are given the opportunity to challenge your point of view, correct inaccuracies, whatever.

Another commentator is more succinct

Sorry Siobhan, but that won’t do. Those masked strangers are not random assailants, they are your journalists’ clients, customers and audience.

Overall, Butterworth said it was the view of most journalists that “they should hold themselves to higher standards of behaviour than other contributors.” It’s a good point but a difficult balance to strike given that change in relationship.

If the ground shifts beneath your feet the tempation is to take a step back to more familiar, isolated ground where the audience are a homogeneous mass to be tolerated.  Higher standards, yes. More distance, no.