Focus on editorial ideas, then find the right tool

My esteemed colleague and comrade in digital arms, Jemima Kiss, Twittered this very astute observation, in less than 280 characters, about Twitter and use of the micro-blogging application by news organisations:

jemimakiss: Common mistakes news orgs make with Twitter 1) That it’s all about Twitter, rather than how people are actually using Twitter and..

jemimakiss 2) They get fixed on using a tool, like Twitter, rather than working out what they want to do & finding the best tool for it. That is all.

She’s spot on when it comes to Twitter. There is a tendency for organisations to rush with the herd to a new social media service or site without thinking about what, editorially, they are trying to achieve. I’ve seen the same thing happen with blogs and Facebook. After entering the mainstream, some journalists demanded their own blog. Why did they want a blog? They saw it as a back door to having a column. They had always wanted an opinion column because it was a sign of status and as we all know, blogs are just opinion (sarcasm noted). A typical conversation in the industry might go like this:

Editor: How often are you planning on updating your blog?

Aspiring columnist: Oh, once a week should do.

Editor: Were you planning on linking to anything?

Aspiring columnist: Why would I do that? This is my column, er, I mean blog.

Editor: Are you going to take part in the conversation and respond to comments?

Aspiring columnist:
No, of course not. I’m far too busy for that kind of thing.

Editor: So why do you want a blog instead of a column in the newspaper?

Asprining columnist: *silence*

That’s not to say that the journalist wouldn’t get their own column, er, I mean blog, thus continuing traditional media’s focus on celebrity over interactivity. Some journalists make incredibly good bloggers, but when a blog is used simply to replicate what possible in print, it is an editorial waste.

Functionally, there might not be a great difference between a column-with-comments and a blog, but editorially, there is a huge difference.

  • Bloggers post frequently.
  • Bloggers take part in the conversation and respond to comments and questions.
  • Bloggers link to the conversation on other sites.

Blogs take part in a distributed conversation in ways that columns rarely do, whereas columns – even ones with comments – provide a relatively closed, introspective conversation.

Jemima has flagged up how much the same is happening with Twitter. This all comes down to understanding how social media differs from traditional uni-directional publishing and broadcasting and thinking about the editorial concept and the unique opportunities for engagement.

NUJ training chair at centre of blog storm

Over the weekend, I was tempted to write about the blog dust-up between Chris Wheal, chair of the National Union of Journalists training committee, and Adam Tinworth, the head of blog development at Reed Business International, on Adam’s personal blog, but I decided to let Suw fight her corner in the comments. However, I have written up a post looking at the debate with interviews from Chris and Adam over at the The Guardian’s media blog Organ Grinder. Adam’s post had kicked off a great debate about a range of issues, and I agree with him when he says that this kind of debate needs to happen out in the open.

I have to agree with Adam to say that this isn’t a print versus online debate. It’s not a bloggers versus journalists debate (thankfully). This is a new intramural debate amongst digital journalists. We’re now at the point where there are journalists who have been working online for a decade or more. This debate is amongst digital journalists who have embraced social media, and I’d include myself in that camp, and those who see it as a threat to traditional journalism values.

Your questions about US Elections: a(nother) experiment in journalism

Suw and I talk about the US elections over breakfast all of the time, and I realised since I came back to Washington last week that despite having very little interest in politics when I first came to Washington DC ten years ago, my geekiness has now spilled over into politics. I can’t tell you how many conversations I’ve had about politics and the economy with a range of people since I came back. Suw was asking questions that I’m sure on the on the mind of many Guardian readers, and instead of letting these conversations disappear, I realised that I wanted to capture and share those conversations.

We recorded this conversation this morning over Skype. She was sitting in our flat in London, and I was sitting in my hotel here in Washington. We used the Skype Call Recorder from Ecamm (a bank breaker at US$14.95), but if you use a PC, Pamela will do the same things plus can automatically handle uploads to FTP servers and auto posting to several blog services. I used Pamela to record broadcast quality interviews when I was at the BBC. If you use a nice broadcast quality mic such as the Snowball from Blue (a lovely wedding present that Suw and I received from our friend Vince), the sound quality is stunning. We simply used the mics on our MacBooks. The Call Recorder software has a side-by-side split screen option so we didn’t have to do anything to edit the video apart from top and tail it (edit out our pre-call and post-call chatter). In the end, it took very little production time apart from the time for the call. Viddler, the site we used to host this doesn’t like stereo audio so I had to merge the channels, but QuickTime Pro handled that with ease.

That’s the technical side of things. Technology is simply a means to a journalistic end for me, and the real aim is to expand my little experiment to anyone with a Skype connection, a webcam and a question about the US elections. Sure, I love talking to Suw about anything and everything, and she wants to talk after the vice presidential debate next week between Democratic nominee Joe Biden and Republican nominee Sarah Palin. I want to use this to open up a discussion with as many people as possible about the US election, around the US and around the world. I’d also like to see how feasible this is on the road. After next Thursday, I’ll be traveling across the US. The technical challenges are pretty minor, especially compared to previous election trips that I’ve taken. The real measure of success for this and many other journalistic experiments I have planned for the next month is the depth and breadth of the conversation. If you’d like to take part, drop me an email or leave a comment. Let’s talk. There are lots of important issues on the table, and I’m so excited about how technology opens up new possibilities for civic dialogue.