Tagged: hyperlocal

Personal branding and the evolution of ‘innovative’ journalism

Personal branding should come easy to most journalists – it requires drive, networking and a hint of arrogance. It’s one of those buzzwords that gets bandied around frequently, and it’s used to describe a journalist’s image – what they do best becomes an extension of their name, and the two become one and the same.

We should really be living in a post-personal brand age – one where it’s become the norm and we know about what each individual does and what they’re good at. Two people who are endlessly cited as being masters of the personal brand to secure work are Josh Halliday and Dave Lee. I’m not going to repeat what’s been said elsewhere so you can read up on them at this BBC blog post, but they got their jobs at the Guardian and the BBC respectively by carving out a niche for themselves while still at university, Dave through his blog and Josh through a hyperlocal website.

Would students with comparable skills be picked up today? Unlikely. Take Marc Thomas, a student currently completing an MA a postgraduate diploma at Cardiff University. He set up Plastik Magazine on his own and is using it to map alternative Welsh culture. He’s also released “Plastik Pass” – a citywide discount card that lets you save money at sandwich shops, boutiques and art galleries.

Incredibly innovative and forward thinking, and it’s the same kind of strategy that has made Monocle such a success story. As far as I’m aware, (and he’s free to correct me on this) Marc hasn’t been offered a full time job at any publications. I can’t help but think that if Marc was doing what he does now 2 or 3 years ago he’d be heralded as another wunderkind of journalism. Times move on, and the media industry’s mood changes. Something like a hyperlocal website isn’t particularly unusual anymore. Hell, even I run one.

At the beginning of the year I hurriedly penned a post on 3 Journalism New Year’s Resolutions. Point three was my worry that I had yet to develop a specialty in journalism, and that something transient like multimedia storytelling was less credible than a knowledge of finance or politics.

But perhaps the opposite is true. Perhaps the fact that online journalism constantly continues to evolve means that it can potentially become one of the hardest skills to master? Subjects like politics, international relations and science are locked in time. That’s not to say there is no progression in their fields, but they are rules-based systems.

Online journalism has no rules. And to be considered innovative over a sustained period of time you have to constantly keep up with the evolving ecosystem by signing up to new apps, seeing what works and what doesn’t, and testing out things that aren’t even built for journalists with a view to integrating them into a wider news operation. What’s impressive now may not be in a year’s time. Adam Westbrook was the only person on his course at City university who had a blog, and that was only four years ago – something that has definitely changed.

Josh Halliday writes in the above linked post:

As a friend once said to me: “The difference between those who make it into the industry and those who don’t is that the successful ones were student journalists, as opposed to being merely journalism students.”

I think this statement is problematic. A student journalist implies someone who produces journalism, and happens to be a student. Whereas a journalism student implies someone who is constantly willing to learn, be proved wrong and explore new (possibly theoretical) ways of storytelling within the conventional framework.

Perhaps it’s just a matter of semantics, but I think we should all be journalism students, from the unpaid intern to the overpaid executive. Without accepting that we all have things to learn then there will never be any progression in this industry. We’re all journalism students, and we should never assume that we’ve graduated – we’re just moving onto the next assignment.

And that’s where people like Marc come in. Marc is actually embarking on his own entrepreneurial adventure to commercialise Plastik Journal. We need to encourage more people like him – because at the moment being innovative doesn’t make financial sense.

Dave and Josh both plied their trade as prolific journalism students, but had to largely leave their personal brands behind once they entered the work of work. Witness Josh’s Twitter feed changing from patter about changes in local journalism and blog posts outlining online tools to an automated feed that pushes his latest article from the Guardian’s Technology section.

This is in no way his fault, but people like him, Dave, Marc and the Wannabe Hacks should really be given more say in the way an organisation is run. Right now the industry’s strategy seems to be offering conventional jobs to talented graduates who were spotted precisely because they were unconventional. And there’s nothing personal about that.

Guardian Local, Patch and hyperlocal investment

‘Local’ has been a big buzzword in media for quite a while now. Local discounts. Local advertising. And (hyper) local journalism.

The big news regarding the latter has been the Guardian Local experiment closing. I say experiment for two reasons. The first being that it was a great step into the unknown by a national newspaper organisation, and alone amongst its peers in doing so. Secondly that it always did feel like an experiment rather than a fully fledged part of Guardian output. That’s in no way a swipe at the beatbloggers or Sarah Hartley who managed them. All of them did great things for local communities in their short time at the helm, and I think the Guardian have been foolish to let them go. What I’m getting at is that in order for hyperlocal to fully prosper, it needs investment.

I don’t believe that it’s impossible for big media to “do” hyperlocal. If it can’t we’ll find out soon with Patch’s new direction. I just think that a lot of people seem to be coming at it from the wrong direction. The journalists vs bloggers debate is still being had (by both “sides”), when there should be no debate. Whether you consider yourself a blog or a news website, you’re defined by the content you produce. What the debate stops is any meaningful progress in the hyperlocal scene.

Besides potential, support and pragmatism, what do all ideas require to succeed? Money. It’s how startups survive, and it’s how some flourish into bigger companies. Hyperlocals need money. Unlike over the pond, we don’t have many wealthy individuals who are interested in seeing new forms of journalism thrive. So big media has a huge role to play in this – they’re the ones with the investment power.

The counter argument to this often runs thusly; big media doesn’t “get” it, that hyperlocals work best when they’re independent and “grassroots” and that anything that has a corporate whiff about it should be duly avoided.

This is a simplistic argument. Were Guardian Cardiff, Leeds and Edinburgh so loved by their communities because of who they were owned by? No. They were loved because of the strength of their output and individual journalists who bothered to get stuck in and collaborate with areas of the community. Not once did the Guardian stamp play a part in this (though it may have helped encourage guest writers).

Yet it feels like the Guardian failed to invest properly in its experiment. A relatively short venture, with monetisation focused entirely around advertising. All this while Guardianistas Meg Pickard, Matt Wells and others jet off stateside to have another go at cracking America.

I think that quite a few hyperlocal bloggers have a chip on their shoulders about keeping things fully independent. That’s admirable, but no business model has emerged yet and the movement has now been running for several years. Some don’t care about making money – and that’s fine. But if it’s to be taken seriously as a part of the new journalism landscape it needs investment. While that hinges on those with money seeing it as something viable, it also requires hyperlocal bloggers to be willing to receive that investment and partner with bigger companies.

Blog Preston received funding because it didn’t just apply for it on its own – we partnered with two charities and a university project. Each partner supplied an expertise and was willing to work with others involved but also understood the importance of allowing a community to tell its own story.

And that’s what it all ultimately comes back to. Hyperlocal is in many ways the purest form of “users know more than we do” journalism. Its proponents have such a direct connection with their localities that it embodies the type of journalism that I’m most passionate about – one driven by the ideas, views and wants of a community, rather than a few journalists.

Sarah Hartley’s group of beatbloggers knew this more than anyone, but were ultimately let down by not being part of the Guardian’s grand plan. It’ll never be clear exactly what the situation or plan with Guardian Local was, but what is clear is that hyperlocal publishers need to seek funding, and quickly. They may just have to bite the bullet and (whisper it), admit they need support from big media.

Has this century produced a growth in journalism thinkers?

With this blog, I generally try and avoid slipping into the echo chamber of media criticism that tends to afflict journalism. I stay away from “why x should be doing x” and “why x will fail” posts, and instead try to make sense of the world of journalism from my own unique perspective.

Aside from the odd post that harnesses practical personal experience, my writing here is largely thinking about the concepts that make up the industry and trying to piece together thoughts on how elements of modern journalism will evolve.

But the subject I’m trying to explore in this blog post is one that provokes a certain level of introspection, as it concerns the idea that there are more journalism thinkers than ever before.

Academics have a perpetual presence in society and journalism educators have been around since the inception of journalism school. But I think that the 21st century is unique in that it’s produced many younger journalists who are thinking about how to shape journalism outside of their own personal space.

Consider this. Journalism is referred to as a practical trade, a vocation plied by people prepared to get their hands dirty. You have academics on one side and the practitioners on the other, just like you have scholars of International Relations and practitioners in the form of diplomats.

The gradual and somewhat inevitable decline of large news organisations has shown the cracks in poorly thought out business models. It’s allowed people in nascent periods of their career a glimpse at the cogs and pulleys that make up the news machine. While that machine remained tightly sealed those journalists focused on themselves; holding down a job, writing copy, and keeping everything steady. Because of the new focus on transparency, those problems are clear for everyone to see, and suddenly the focus has shifted.

That begs the question: If the news industry wasn’t in trouble, would I even be writing this blog? Would the Wannabe Hacks and countless others be writing theirs?

Their thoughts and my thoughts are provoked by the feeling of something new. That something new may ultimately be the downfall of everything we understand to be journalism, but that doesn’t matter so much. What matters is that the feeling of the industry on a knife edge has given birth to a wider and crucially younger generation of journalism thinkers.

These aren’t people who are either doing their job or thinking about the bigger picture. They’re doing both. People like Mary Hamilton work for Citywire and talk about unconventional storytelling at the weekends, while Dave Lee combines a day job at the BBC with running a hyperlocal website.

The early 21st century has created a range of hackademics who are prepared to discuss the theories underpinning journalism while applying it in the workplace. Looking across the pond, where US media lies more decimated and fragmented than our own, and you can see hundreds of inspiring news projects that are all generated by journalists in the first flushes of their careers.

The concept of a melting pot of ideas springing from the industry’s youngest is exciting, but it’s all worthless unless there’s investment and recognition in the right places.

Blog Preston just won significant funding as part of a joint bid for NESTA’s Neighbourhood Challenge. As part of that we’ll be able to train people to record and document what’s going on in their local area. An excellent achievement, and hopefully NESTA saw something in our passion about local community that meant they gave us the go ahead. We didn’t get to that stage by thinking about journalism in a traditional sense, but by first understanding the importance of a community and then identifying its needs.

Of course there are lots of people in executive positions similarly attempting to restructure and adjust their organisations to today’s news environment. But once this generation of young journalism thinkers start to infiltrate the industry en masse and occupy decision-making positions, that’s when we’ll really start to see change.

Using Foursquare with #hyperlocal

Back in August, Ed Walker wrote a post asking whether location apps were useful for journalists. He rightly pointed out the lack of relevance in using Foursquare to pinpoint his location, because quite frankly, who cares? For journalists who belong to a news organisation it seems fairly unworkable, but I think I’ve managed to find a use for it within the hyperlocal sphere.

I’ve long since stopped using Foursquare on a personal basis. Now that I’m able to push my check-ins from Gowalla it means that logging into two services is no longer a necessity. But when I heard that they were offering business pages to more customers, I saw the potential for using it in some capacity with Blog Preston, and engaging our audience more as a result.

I sent Foursquare the following email.

Start-ups are generally terrible at customer service. Many of them don’t have a dedicated team of support staff, or they’re concentrating more on building the actual product rather than answering questions from users. So as the weeks ticked by I was hardly surprised that Foursquare failed to get back to me. After all, I couldn’t have been the only one who had asked about this.

Several months later when I’d forgotten all about it, the following email dropped into my inbox.

I sketched together a quick logo design on Photoshop and a few lines of copy before emailing it all back to Foursquare. Within half an hour, my business page was up and running at foursquare.com/blogpreston.

My plan was to go through the Blog Preston archive and dig out any posts that were vaguely related to reviews or features about a particular venue. I then published a two-line summary of each review in the form of a Foursquare Tip, with an additional link that links back to our site for the full article.

It adds an extra layer to our community. I’ve added everyone who follows our Twitter account on Foursquare, so 43 people now follow the Foursquare page. When walking around Preston you can see nearby tips like this (click for larger image).

When the user clicks through they’re presented with the tip page and the link that then directs them to the mobile site. That means that people can not only view our reviews on another platform, but they’re also made more relevant now that they’re tied to a location. A foursquare user looking to check-in will see our tip, (even if they’re not following us) read our review and then hopefully come back to the site in the future. If you visit the Foursquare page itself it collates all the tips onto one page, so it also can serve as a directory for local information, and one that crucially encourages users to click through to our site to access the full content.

In addition, I think it’ll also have an impact on stories that I’ll write in future. The fact that we can dot these tips all around Preston and then link back to the site means that reviews suddenly become a very valuable resource. We focus on community news, and that will continue to be the case. But reviewing more events, bars and restaurants means that we can build up an audience that may never even visit the site through any of our other online streams; be that direct traffic, Facebook or Twitter.

Tips are good, but I’d also like to take this further. How about geo-tagging posts with a foursquare check-in and then feeding the RSS into a Google Map to create a automated story map? Daniel Bentley briefly wrote about the possibility of doing this last year, but I’ve yet to find a plugin or app that allows me to do exactly what I want. If you’re a developer who wants to work with the Foursquare API and think you can help build something useful, I’d love to hear from you.

That’s about it. Fairly simple to set up but a great way to raise awareness of the Blog Preston brand, bring in more users as well as making it easier for them to access our content on yet another platform.

I can feel some readers shaking their heads and muttering “what about the content?”. Rest assured that’s still the priority at Blog Preston, and the site would be nothing without it. But by experimenting with applications like this we can help foster a wider community, and isn’t that what it’s all about?

The finished Foursquare page