Social media for journalists is like The Generation game

This week (as a earlier post suggests) I’ve been kicking off teaching with a look at social media and how journos can use it to create a presence. That presence isn’t just about promotion, it’s about connection. It’s about putting your virtual self in front of the audience and the stream of content they produce.

That got me thinking about The generation game.

For those who don’t know it, The Generation game was a UK game show that started in 1971 and ran, on and off, till 2002. It’s big finish was the conveyor belt game. The contestant would be sat in front of a conveyor belt loaded with consumer goods (and a cuddly toy) which they would have to remember. Then they would have a minute to try to recall all the items. Whatever they remembered they kept.

The whole thing struck me as an interesting analogy of the process of managing information for journalists and how it has changed.

In journalism terms the old solution to the game would be to take notes (in shorthand) of what went past. The digital solution would be to subscribe to the RSS feed of the conveyor belt and filter it later on. Job done. Walk away with the booty.

But now the whole thing is more like the end of the game.

When the contestant sits down they get a bit of time to consider the content but then the audience begins to shout. And shout. And shout. It’s noisy. Often helpful but more often than not the helpful stuff is drowned out by repetition and distraction.

The conveyor of news

The proliferation of places where you might find yourself in front of a virtual audience is a bit of a blessing and a curse. Social networks make it easy to build profiles – it’s easy to get yourself to these virtual places –  but managing the sheer amount of information/interaction that they demand is more challenging.

Information overload is nothing new to journalists on the web, which is why I used to spend  a bit of time looking at things like RSS as a means of controlling information. But RSS has, for many, been replaced by the stream  – the realtime flow of information from the connections we make on social networks.

RSS answered the challenge of how we manage information. That’s still the challenge, but now it starts with how we manage the interaction with people who find it for us. Filtering the filterers (maybe).

There is so much value in there, but the prize is for those who can handle the thousands shouting “cuddly toy!” to get to the detail.


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Ivory tower dispatch: RSS is like twitter.

Like others in J-school I’m getting to know new classes, spending a bit of time talking about the ‘gathering’ part of journalism and how digital tools can help. So yesterday I bullied my class of postgrads through, among other things, RSS and Google reader.

When I raised the topic, one of the class commented that “it’s just like twitter”

I initially disagreed, talking about the differences of simply gathering, organising and filtering content and actually interacting with people.  But I’ve had a little time to reflect and, do you know, I don’t think that’s a bad way to think about RSS at all.

Twitter is about building a network of people who you can engage with and (positively) use. A network that is big enough not only to give what you want but also what you thought you didn’t need. The serendipity of twitter is one of its charms.

RSS is a lot like that but with websites and not people. The bigger your ‘network’ of websites, the more chance you’ll find something of interest.

For journalists a lot of the motivations for using the tool are the same: network building; time managment etc.

Points of reference

When I introduced Reader, a few people in the room had heard of it (and used it); Most had not. That’s always a surprise to me, but not a criticism of the students. The early days of new classes are always an interesting reality check for me. My world (geeky and riven through with online as it is) is not always the real world! So it’s nice when something gives you pause to reflect.

It made me think a little more about points of reference. I’ve worked through a chronology of this stuff. Started using Reader before twitter and felt the transition in passive to active engagement as the web has developed. That makes sense to me. But a lot of people in the room have come the other way. Facebook and twitter are their point of entry and reference.

Maybe that shows that digital/online journalism is really maturing now (or maybe just my view). Like many other things it’s now as important to look back at how this stuff has developed as it is simply to use it. Even if that ‘history’ is only five or six years young!

Update Kate, the one who suggested RSS is like twitter, reminded me that I should quote my sources.

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Digital job hunting

Last week I gave a short lecture to broadcast (and a smattering of magazine) students about using the web to help find a job.

I tried to sum the whole thing up in a pithy slide:

It was really about fitting digital in to an already well established pattern for job hunting – traditional ad’s with a good slice of what and who you know.

That’s why I started with a list of job sites offering a digital way of doing that long slog of working through the job ad’s.  No surprise there then.

But I made the point that looking for work in a converged world mean’t a bit of a change of perspective.

Even though you may come from a broadcast tradition and your target job may be in a traditional environment (radio newsroom for example) the market is increasingly varied. (as my highly technical diagram shows) Your skills carry across boundaries in a converging world. You could end up as a radio producer at a newspaper working on their podcasts or working for an online only publication working on video.

Increasingly that converged mindset is what you have to cultivate to get work. But I think it’s also  the mindset to apply for job hunting. Don’t limit yourself to one sector. Instead of starting in one of the circles, position yourself in the middle and aim at all of them. You never know what might crop up. So my tip around searching for jobs also included searching for jobs.

By searching for something like radio OR broadcast jobs UK you get a rich and broad pot that you can then start to refine and filter. To develop your searches, think laterally. Add phrases that are specific to your area of interest or that would be unique to a job : radio OR broadcast ~job +salary +enps uk.

Remember the aim here is not to get Google to simply churn out job ads; the jobs sites will do that. It’s also to introduce an element of serendipity in to the mix that will richen your understanding of the market.

Of course the introduction of a broader range of sites means more content to wade through so you’ll also need to consider ways to manage the flow. Simple things like setting up a Google Alert based on the search terms you enter can help. But you may also want to get your RSS reader working for you to pull all your job related feeds in to one place that you can search and filter.

If a speculative google search throws up an interesting company (who don’t have jobs but you might want to keep an eye on) then search for an RSS feed to subscribe to. Then when a job comes up you know what they have been up to.

When the orginal slides went up in a post on, John Thompson pointed out a way to get custom RSS feeds based on custom searches.

In the top left-hand column on most of the pages on, you will see a panel headed “Job of the week”. About half-way down there is a dropdown menu that allows you to search by job type. For this example, select “editorial assistants and trainees” and click “go”.

On the subsequent search results page, you will see at the top of the central column an advanced search form. This allows you to make a more detailed search based on sectors, categories, salary and location. You will also see an option under format to “return search results as RSS feed”. Select that and also tick “editorial assistants and trainees” under the “categories” section.

Click the search button and, voila, you will be presented with a customised RSS feed containing only editorial assistant and trainee vacancies.

Josh Halliday got in touch via twitter so say he has put together a combined RSS feed of popular job sites that you can subscribe to. (thanks Josh)

I’ve put together an RSS bundle of just five of the UK’s most comprehensive media jobs listings sites: GorkanaGuardian JobsHold The Front Page and the Editorial Jobs Twitter feed (it’s RSS is borked).

And don’t forget that there are other ‘oldschool’ ways. Sign up for email newsletters like the Gorkana alert

The Shmoozing bit.
In the media people will often tell you that it’s about who you know rather than what. So whilst the broad searching will tell you what jobs are available and give a broad view of what’s going on we need to get next to some real people.

At this point it’s worth stressing that this is not about using digital to replace the process. You still need to get out there and meet people. But we can build our own networks online that help us connect and experience the churn or views and news from the industry. It could be eavesdropping on the latest gossip to build up ‘intelligence’ or even using the community to help you get a job.

But if it’s about who you know, how do we know who to connect with?

This is where social networking sites like Twitter come in to their own. They offer an easy way to find and connect with people in your community. Take a look at MediaUK’s twitter page (@mediauk). Obviously a popular follow and the kind of thing that a lot of people in the industry would look at. Now we could go through the list of people that follow and are followed by @mediauk to find useful people; use their contacts if you like. But notice their lists

Mediauk's twitter lists

They are nicely split in to sections and make following a glut of people in your area easy. If you find someone on the list who really resonates with you or fits right in to your area then look at their lists (if they have them) and build your network.

The same logic (if not the same mechanics) work for other social networking sites. Take a look at LinkedIn or even Facebook. Connect with one person or join a Facebook group and you’ll open yourself up to more connections.

Of course, the key to success in social networks is to be an active part; Share, listen, help, participate. All of these things will build your profile. And profile is important as it doesn’t just build your recognition within the community (the most valuable part) but it also makes you more visible online.

The lists from mediaUK are actually generated from user submissions – you can go to their site and add yourself. That’s an easy way to be pro-active about building visibility. For some this might fall in to the ‘rampant self promotion’ section but it’s a way of getting your name out there.

That’s why I think a blog is still a valuable tool in your job searching kit.

Many people are leaving blogs behind in favour of the more dynamic ‘statusphere’ of twitter and social networks. But a blog offers something a little more stable, a more permanent place for you online. It offers you a chance to reinforce and expand your online identity. (I will always look at the link that people put in their twitter profile to get more information about a person.) To start with you could use it simply as a static CV/Portfolio site that you can point people to when applying for jobs. But it could soon expand to offer more. More active posting about your experiences and interests attract audience.

The most popular blogs within the journalism community tend to be the ones that share experiences – Think about Josh sharing that list of RSS feeds. It’s journalists trying things and showing their working out. Thats valuable to the community and people remember you for that (you’re playing an active role). That’s one of the reasons I linked to Adam Westbrook in the presentation. Like Josh, he’s a great example of someone who plays an active part in the community.

You could ask ‘why a blog and not a static website?’ My first response is that blogging is one of those things that you should have experience of in a converged world (back to my point earlier). But there are some, more practical reasons.

There are lots of great website builders out there (I’d add Jimdo to that list ), but blogs offer a lot of under the bonnet stuff that helps promote your stuff and make it easy to share. Built in notification of search engines and automatic RSS feeds are just two of the things that will help spread yourself around the web. They may be the thing that gets you popping up in a search engine when a prospective employer searches your name and it will link them to something that sells you appropriately.

Here’s a quick cheat sheet telling you how you can tweak a blog to start showing static pages rather than the more dynamic posts. You can change it later on when you are ready to go down the more dynamic posting route.

Given that this presentation was to broadcast students I also looked at the problems associated with multimedia on free sites and blogs. I’ve listed a number of third party hosts that you can try to get round some of those restrictions. Using a third party site also has the benefit of getting your work out there on another platform to another audience.

So, there it is. Use the web to sign up to job sites but don’t stop there. Use it to broaden your horizons, think multiplatform in where you look. Be part of and visible in the community and your profile will grow and that can only be a good thing.

I hope it made sense and if you have any questions then drop me a line.

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Making an RSS feed where there isn’t one.

I’m very taken with the general move towards more data from primary sources. Councils, government orgs etc. putting stats, facts, figures and information online for us to use and mashup. Those orgs who are savvy enough to drive this stuff through RSS make it even easier for us to harvest this stuff and add an extra dimension to our news gathering.

Of course the public sector moves slowly when it comes to IT and it’s no surprise that there are still a majority of orgs that hide their content away on static pages. No RSS feed to help there. So what do we do?

Well we could resign ourselves to adding them to the list of pages that we bookmark and visit. A bit like those regular calls we make to keep our contacts book fresh; no bad thing. But another solution is to use on of the many RSS services on the web to ‘scrape’ the page for content and convert it in to a feed.

Preston city council (the council nearest to me at work) has a few feeds but none around the basic operation of the council – meetings, decisions etc.  This kind of thing would be great to get a feed of. So I thought I would give it a go with their published decisions page using Feed43

No feed for the dull stuff!
No feed for the dull stuff!

The first thing I did was set the search so that it showed all results. That way any new ones would show up by default. I did this by using an * in the search box. The * is a standard operator for a wild card or ‘any matches’. So it seemed a logical punt to try it.

The next step was to copy the web address to feed my RSS maker. The URL looks complex but it contains all the information needed to drive the search.

Feed43 grabs the whole page for you to explore
Feed43 grabs the whole page for you to explore

The first step with Feed43 is to feed it the URL then click Reload. It pulls in the whole page and then you get the hard bit. The idea with feed scrapers is to give it enough information about the way the stuff you want is presented that it can ‘spot’ the stuff and ignore the rest. This means trawling through some HTML.

You get two options

The global search pattern looks for HTML that ‘wraps’ the content you want to make in to a feed. It could be the whole table that contains the search results. But this doesn’t really help in this case.

Better to go straight to the second option which defines the specific things to look for to define an item to be added to the feed. Here’s what I put.

<td > <a href=”{%}” title=”{*}”>{%}</a></td>

In feed43 language {*} means this could be anything, just ignore it. {%} means this is important so store it.

So I can saw from the HTML that each decision in the list looked like this

<td > <a href=”;displaypref=0″ title=”Link to decision details for North West England Regional Spatial Strategy Partial Review Consultation”>North West England Regional Spatial Strategy Partial Review Consultation</a>

So I told feed43 to look for anything between the <td> </td> tags regardless of what ‘class=’ said. Then I told it to grab the href link as the actual weblink, ignore the title and then grab the text between the <a> tag to use as a title.

Finding the useful bits on the page means working through the HTML
Finding the useful bits on the page means working through the HTML

Clicking extract will filter the content and show you the results. You can see they are split in to {%1} for the link and {%2} for the title of the decision.

The filtered results display in a list
The filtered results display in a list

The last step is to define which of these makes up the key parts of the feed. You can see it’s pretty straightforward to fill the gaps at this point. Your feed is then ready to go. All you need to do is subscribe in the normal way

The filtered results can be added to the feed template
The filtered results can be added to the feed template

Moving beyond the basics

The thing that makes scraping pages difficult is picking through the HTML. Feed43 makes this easier by limiting the number of options to filter by. But if you need to push further in then you will need to explore other options. One to consider is Yahoo pipes which has a page grabber option. But you will also need to invest some time in understanding regular expressions.

I think this kind of stuff is more an more important for orgs and journalists especially when it comes to councils and government orgs. We all know how ‘mundane’ many see this stuff (important as it is). So making it in to a feed would be more conducive to newsgathering by stealth. Encourage more ‘passive aggressive newsgathering’ as Paul Bradshaw once described it.

Any journalist who hasn’t tried Twitter should re-think their career: New Year convictions

The last of my new year convictions I said Any journalist who hasn’t tried Twitter should re-think their career

A bit of link bait really. I don’t thing that any journalist who doesn’t use Twitter should not be a journalist.

But I do think is that if you have heard of Twitter but haven’t tried it then you should be thinking about what kind of journalist you want to be. Even if you try it and think it’s a complete waste of time.

You could substitute twitter with anything from trying RSS feeds,  Plurk, Qik or starting a blog. Whatever it is you have to engage and you have to engage for yourself.  If you don’t engage, you aren’t punishing your employer, you are limiting yourself.

I’m convinced that if you are journalist who isn’t curious about the web then you you may find yourself seriously limited  as the industry shifts or worse still, not being a journalist for very long.

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