Monthly Archives: February 2012

Soft skills: can you make a ‘born journalist’?

Perseverance and confidence - what students want to learn

When asked to write what they wanted to learn, two students in one of my classes explicitly asked for "Perseverance" and "Confidence"

Are journalists born or made? Some will tell you that there are certain qualities you can’t teach: dogged determination, for example; nosiness; skepticism.

It’s a sort of nature/nurture debate that runs through not only the profession itself, but also many of those who train journalists. “There’s only so much you can teach,” they will say.

But is there? Continue reading

The New Journalists #13: Rosie Taylor

Rosie Taylor

As part of an ongoing series of profiles of young journalists, I interviewed Rosie Taylor about her work as founding editor of student media showcase site Ones To Watch which she balances with a role as trainee reporter at the Daily Mail.

What led you to your current roles?

I got the bug for journalism writing for my student newspaper at the University of Sheffield and was news editor in my final year. My involvement in student media gave me the idea for Ones to Watch.

I did work experience everywhere I could find a sofa to sleep on for a week, got a minimum wage job covering reporters on leave at my local paper and managed to get a Scott Trust Bursary to do a postgraduate course in Print Journalism at Sheffield.

This ultimately led to a job at the Mail, where I spent five months on secondment at the Manchester Evening News before moving to the Mail offices in London this year.

What do your jobs involve?

I run Ones to Watch in my spare time, which mainly involves looking through hundreds of articles produced by students around the UK every day and putting a selection of the best ones on the site. I’m also constantly on the look out for new start-ups, student media news and ways to expand the site.

In my day job I’m a general news reporter, covering anything that gets thrown at me!

How do you see things developing in the future?

I’m still clinging to the hope that journalism, in one form or another, will survive throughout my lifetime. I want to keep writing stories and breaking news and I’m fascinated by how the platform for doing so is changing all the time.

I hope that Ones To Watch will continue to expand and that my mission to raise the profile of student media as a vital part of our press will continue to gain momentum.

The New Online Journalists #12: Michael Greenfield

Michael Greenfield

As part of an ongoing series on recent graduates who have gone into online journalism, Michael Greenfield talks about how he won a job as a Sky News Graduate Trainee, the different roles he’s experiencing across the organisation, and how he sees his career developing as the industry changes.

I’m on a 2-year rotational contract, meaning that every 10 weeks or so I move onto a different position and am trained up in that role. By the end of the scheme I should have a thorough overview of what Sky News does across all platforms, in both input and output.

Much of what I do is ‘on the job’ training, so I am fully immersed in that particular role and quickly pick up the skills along the way. For me it’s by far the best way of learning and getting the job done.

So far I’ve worked as a Researcher on the Planning Desk, a role which takes instructions and ideas from editorial meetings and sets about practically making them happen in advance so that we effectively cover a story.

This involves finding the right experts, case studies and locations to film, arranging interviews and logistically making sure that we will have reporters and crews in the right places.

Currently I’m training as a Field Producer, so I am out on the road either getting pre-recorded material or at live news events making sure, above all, that we get the shot. I am in constant communication with the reporter, crew and news desk so that all sides know what is needed and what is happening on the ground. Tweeting is now a big part of the role, for instance I have been providing live updates from the Leveson Inquiry.

What factors helped you land the job?

I was offered an interview after I was recommended to Sky News by someone I was doing freelance work for.

The main factors that helped me get to that point were:

  • having a Broadcast Journalism MA from City University London;
  • having a substantial amount of work experience in the industry;
  • going straight into work wherever I could get it straight off the back of my MA;
  • and applying myself as best I could when given the chance of bits of freelance work.

The whole process proved to me that you really don’t know how things will fall so you just have to get yourself out there.

Where do you see your career developing?

Well the scheme finishes at the end of August 2013 and I’m hoping that I will continue to work at Sky News. They are the pioneers in news coverage – they were the first UK news broadcaster to go HD, their iPad app has been awarded for it’s innovation and they are constantly looking to embrace new ideas and different approaches to how we see news.

I see my career and its relative success revolving around my ability to be a multi-platform journalist. The notion of TV, radio and online journalism being mutually exclusive is becoming increasingly outdated, and so I must strive to be a good journalist across all multi-media platforms.

Audiences expect news in many different formats now, so the more skilled I am at delivering the story through pictures, audio, online copy and social media outlets, the better I will be able to serve a public hungry for information.

I am keen to stress, however, that despite all the technological change, I will stick to the core principles of journalism that I have been taught and now exercise every day.

Podcasting and principles of narrative – a case study

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how narrative techniques are used within journalism to engage users and then keep them reading/listening/watching/clicking. By way of illustrating this, specifically with relation to audio, I wanted to blog in some detail about how narrative is used in a very good example I came across last month: a Freakonomics podcast.

Before you read any further, listen to that Freakonomics podcast and pretty much any Guardian Media Talk podcast

… OK, done?

Right. These are great case studies for how podcasting uses three core principles of narrative:

  • Characters,
  • Setting, and
  • Movement

The two also illustrate different editorial demands: the Freakonomics podcast is a good example of exploring one issue in depth; while the Guardian podcast is about breadth: reacting to a number of current events and reporting across them.

I’m going to focus on the Freakonomics podcast because it uses the same basic techniques which are employed by Media Talk, but also some others beside. It’s also technically pretty straightforward.

That’s good because their approach also makes for good journalism, moving beyond the superficial to a deeper exploration and understanding – which is key when we talk about narrative.

Here’s how the Freakonomics podcast uses character, setting and movement particularly well to attract the listener and keep them listening:

The hook: a great introductory story

After an initial introduction by the presenters that gives us a feel for the show and their personalities (the first ‘setting’ and ‘characters’, if you like) we start with a story. It’s a story of people dying unnecessarily. It’s a good story – and it has characters, settings, and movement: a problem, a journey, and a resolution.

Why start with this story? Because it grabs the listener from the start, and it provides an immediate reward.

But it also sets up a tension, at around 5.40: why are we being told the story? What does it mean?

This is the first hook of the podcast.

Movement and relevance: bringing things up to date

We then change setting, moving to a recent story about modern medical hygiene.

The characters in this story are weaker (that’s probably why we started with the stronger story). But it has something the first doesn’t: a problem that affects us directly.

This is the central tension of the whole podcast – our second hook (at around 7’20, when the show theme and introduction is finally played). And we will have to wait until the end of the podcast for its resolution.

From the end of the beginning we move into the beginning of the middle. That central tension hanging in the air gives us a reason to listen to the end, but we also need continual movement within the middle period to keep us interested.

And so we move to a new story: the subplot, if you like (in this case, about financial literacy), which will, eventually come together with the initial story.

We hold on to find out how this tension between the two stories will be resolved.

Style and structure

Having looked at the over-arching structure of the podcast, I want to look more closely at how style is used to add extra interest to that.

Because there is a lot more to note about the telling of these stories.

A useful technique when looking at media production is to think about the choices that have been made by its producers. For example, you could tell these stories in any number of ways – handing over the narrative to an expert; narrating it yourself; reconstructing events dramatically.

But the producers make a choice in the first story which is worth analysing: they switch relatively frequently between interviews and narration.

The effect of this is to reinforce the listener’s sensation of movement: the narrative moves along quickly, and the contrast between voices creates a tension that helps maintain our interest.

Once the first interviewee’s story is established, we move to a second. Again, this adds to the sensation of movement, with a new character, and a change of setting.

Note that the speaker is introduced after they speak, introducing a brief period of tension as the listener wonders who this new voice is.

Also: under the sound of speakers, we sometimes hear music or other sounds. This helps establish the setting of the story they’re recounting. Something as simple as classical music (out of copyright, which is handy) can establish a period or a place. Generic comedic sounds can turn tragedy into comedy.

As the story moves into its middle phase, interviews become less narrated. At 9’20 we have a telephone interview. And instead of ‘cutting’ through narration, the style is more conversational, and the interviewee has more space to talk.

Interviewees are sometimes arranged in sequence so that their views are at odds. We have conflict. Put another way: having established the problem in the beginning, we are now introducing characters onto the stage to fight that problem out.

This helps solve one of the hardest problems in storytelling: the fat middle; how to get from the beginning to the end without losing interest.

Mini-stories

In the Freakonomics example interest is also maintained in a number of ways other than conflict. One is the way the podcast introduces mini stories within the larger story (how the research was done; how a character discovered flawed claims – complete with ‘detective’ soundtrack); and a third is a mini-quiz (with a comedic/’countdown’/’game’ soundtrack to make it less dry).

The peak of the conflict comes with a hosted debate between two characters who hold different positions on the problem (flagged up as a “puzzle” in the lead-up, which again uses ‘debate’ music to establish the setting).

It’s worth listening to how the host prompts the debate and summarises positions, and when the characters get to speak directly to each other.

Even within the debate there is structure: we start with consensus before moving onto disrupting that, and a final consensus.

To host a debate like this you need to know people’s positions first and plan the debate around those.

The end phase

Having resolved that conflict, then, we move onto the beginning of the end.

And to signal that change, we have a change of setting too: we have an interviewee walking us through a hospital. The sounds are key to this, often recorded separately so they can be heard more clearly in the edit.

The end of the podcast uses a common technique in storytelling: returning to the start. The problem established in the beginning – hospital hygiene – and the problem established in the sub-plot – financial literacy – are both resolved with both final lessons and consensus, and at the same time, the question hanging in the air of “What do these stories have to do with each other?” is also resolved.

What’s more, the resolution has meaning beyond just a story: we have learned something.

Just to reinforce this, after that resolution comes a fade-out, rising title music, and credits. Small things that tell us definitively: The End.

Principles of narrative in a news podcast

But how do these techniques translate to a more traditional news podcast? The Guardian’s Media Talk podcast is, as I say, more about breadth than depth: a collection of short stories rather than a novel.

But it uses many of the same techniques at a smaller level. We begin with a table of contents, which serves to establish a little bit of tension, including teasing clips of tasty quotes.

We again have two voices (often both journalists) to tell a story instead of one, to introduce contrast and a little tension, and some structure of questioning that sets the scene before exploring more problematic issues, and ends by looking forward.

Each change of story is accompanied by an audio sting to signal that change of setting – and sometimes that change of setting occurs within the story – as when, for example, we move from an interview or report to the reaction to it.

The peak – two-thirds into the podcast – is the discussion where we move from hearing 2 voices to hearing 3.

So you can see the same techniques used, but in a much shorter space of time, and in a more routine manner. The format is more restrictive, but also allows for more effective production. It’s the right tool for the job.

Rounding it all up

That’s a lot to learn, so let me try to summarise these techniques that are used again and again:

  • Firstly, think about establishing tension:
    • through problems and questions;
    • and through conflict and contrast.
  • Secondly, think about movement:
    • This is done through regularly resolving those tensions and establishing new ones (while keeping the main tension hanging until the end).
    • And secondly, through moving from setting to setting.
    • And thirdly, by having stories within your overarching story or stories (which is really the same as using tensions, but is worth identifying separately). Notice how narration is used frequently to move the story forward – mainly because there’s a lot of material to get through. Don’t add narration for the sake of it if your characters can move things along themselves just fine.
  • Thirdly, note how audio is employed beyond the core content.
    • Music is used to increase tension, describe character, establish setting, and even the genre of mini-stories.
    • Silence and volume are equally important: a moment’s silence can indicate a change of pace or setting. A sudden rise in volume can indicate the end of a section.
  • Finally, remember that all the above relies on those characters. It is the actions of characters that creates the movement; it is characters who introduce us to new settings. We need to hear those characters – and you need to find them.

Suggestions on building narrative into a podcast

Listening to those podcasts again with those points in mind, here are some suggestions on how you might plan to organise a podcast of your own on a single issue story:

  • What’s the central tension you are going to introduce at the start and resolve at the end?
  • Is there a secondary and related tension you can run alongside it and resolve simultaneously?
  • What’s the best mini-story to begin with? End with?
  • Who are your main characters? And when do they need to enter and leave the stage?
  • What are your settings? And how might we move through them as the story develops?
  • How can you maintain movement in your middle section? Do you have more mini-stories?
  • What extra audio might you need to signal setting, character, genre or movement?

Any other examples or suggestions welcome.

FAQ: The stream as an interface; starting out in data journalism

Here are the latest answers to some questions – this time relating to these predictions for 2012:

Q: What are the advantages of “stream” as an interface for news website homepages?

The main advantages are that it’s very sticky – users tend to leave streams on in the same way that they leave 24 hour news channels on, or keep checking back to Facebook and Twitter (which have helped popularise the ‘stream’ interface).

If you compare that to the traditional story layout format, where users scan across the page but then leave the site if there’s nothing obviously of interest, you can see the difference.

I think there’s room for both, but if you want to know what’s new since the last time you looked, the stream works very well. And it’s not difficult to combine that with subject or region pages that show the most important news of that day, for example.

I think it can work for every kind of news: the stream says ‘Here’s what’s new’ across all topics; the ‘layout’ says ‘Here’s what we think is important’ – in other words, it performs a more traditional ‘snapshot’ function akin to the daily newspaper layout.

2) What are the skills a reporter should have in order to be a top-notch, first-rate data journalist?

The basic skills are the same as any journalist: a nose for a story, and the ability to communicate that clearly. In data journalism terms that means being able to interrogate data quickly and then focus on the most important facts within it.

That will most likely involve being able to use spreadsheet formulae to work out, for example, the proportion of time or money being spent on something, or to combine different datasets to gain new insights or overcome obstacles put in your way by those publishing the data.

You also need to be able to avoid mistakes by cleaning data, for example (often the same person or organisation will be named differently, for example), and by understanding the context of the data (for example, population size, or methodology used to gather it).

Finally, as I say, you need to be able to communicate the results clearly, which often means pulling back from the data and not trying to use it all in your telling of the story (just as you wouldn’t use every quote you got from a source) but keeping it simple.

Games are just another storytelling device

Whenever people talk about games as a potential journalistic device, there is a reaction against the idea of ‘play’ as a method for communicating ‘serious’ news.

Malcolm Bradbrook’s post on the News:Rewired talk by Newsgames author Bobby Schweizer is an unusually thoughtful exploration of that reaction, where he asks whether the use of games might contribute to the wider tabloidisation of news, the key aspects of which he compares with games as follows:

  1. “Privileging the visual over analysis – I think this is obvious where games are concerned. Actual levels of analysis will be minimal compared to the visual elements of the game
  2. “Using cultural knowledge over analysis – the game will become a shared experience, just as the BBC’s One in 7bn was in October. But how many moved beyond typing in their date of birth to reading the analysis? It drove millions to the BBC site but was it for the acquisition of understanding or something to post on Facebook/Twitter?
  3. “Dehistoricised and fragmented versions of events – as above, how much context can you provide in a limited gaming experience?”

These are all good points, and designers of journalism games should think about them carefully, but I think there’s a danger of seeing games in isolation.

Hooking the user – and creating a market

With the BBC’s One in 7bn interactive, for example, I’d want to know how many users would have read the analysis if there was no interactive at all. Yes, many people will not have gone further than typing in their date of birth – but that doesn’t mean all of them didn’t. 10% of a lot (and that interactive attracted a huge audience) can be more than 100% of few.

What’s more, the awareness driven by that interactive creates an environment for news discussion that wouldn’t otherwise exist. Even if 90% of users (pick your own proportion, it doesn’t matter) never read the analysis directly, they are still more likely to discuss the story with others, some of whom would then be able to talk about the analysis the others missed.

Without that social context, the ‘serious’ news consumer has less opportunity to discuss what they’ve read.

News is multi-purpose

Then there’s the idea that people read the news for “acquisition of understanding”. I’m not sure how much news consumption is motivated by that, and how much by the need to be able to operate socially (discussing current events) or professionally (reacting to them) or even emotionally (being stimulated by them).

As someone who has tried various techniques to help students “acquire understanding”, I’m aware that the best method is not always to present them with facts, or a story. Sometimes it’s about creating a social environment; sometimes it’s about simulating an experience or putting people in a situation where they are faced with particular problems (all of which are techniques used by games).

Bradbrook ends with a quote from Jeremy Paxman on journalism’s “first duty” as disclosure. But if you can’t get people to listen to that disclosure then it is purposeless (aside from making the journalist feel superior). That is why journalists write stories, and not research documents. It is why they use case studies and not just statistics.

Games are another way of communicating information. Like all the other methods, they have their limitations as well as strengths. We need to be aware of these, and think about them critically, but to throw out the method entirely would be a mistake, I think.

UPDATE: Some very useful tweets from Mary Hamilton, Si Lumb, Chris Unitt and Mark Sorrell drew my attention to some very useful posts on games and storytelling more generally.

Sorrell’s post Games Good Stories Bad, for example, includes this passage:

“Games can create great stories, don’t get me wrong. But they are largely incapable oftelling great stories. Games are about interaction and agency, about choice and self-determination. One of the points made by fancy-pants French sociologist Roger Caillois when defining what a game is, was that the outcome of a game must be uncertain. The result cannot be known in advance. When you try and tell a story in a game, you must break that rule, you must make the outcome of events pre-determined.”
And while reading Lumb’s blog I came across this post with this point:

” A story as an entity, as a thing doesn’t exist until some event, some imagination, some narrative is constructed, relived, shared or described. It must be told. It is “story telling”, after all. Only at the point that you tell someone about that something does it become real, does it become a story. It is always from your perspective, it is always your interpretation, it is a gift you wish to share and that is how it comes to be.

“In a game you can plant narrative as discoverable, you can have cut scenes, you can have environments and situations and mechanics and toys and rules and delight and wonderful play – and in all of this you hide traditional “stories” from visual and textual creators (until read or viewed they don’t exist) and you have the emergence of events that may indeed become stories when you share with another person.”

And finally, if you just want to explore these issues in a handy diagram, there’s this infographic tweeted by Lumb:

A Model of Play - Dubberly Design Office

A Model of Play - Dubberly Design Office

For more background on games in journalism, see my Delicious bookmarks at http://delicious.com/paulb/gamejournalism

Are Sky and BBC leaving the field open to Twitter competitors?

At first glance, Sky’s decision that its journalists should not retweet information that has “not been through the Sky News editorial process” and the BBC’s policy to prioritise filing “written copy into our newsroom as quickly as possible” seem logical.

For Sky it is about maintaining editorial control over all content produced by its staff. For the BBC, it seems to be about making sure that the newsroom, and by extension the wider organisation, takes priority over the individual.

But there are also blind spots in these strategies that they may come to regret.

Our content?

The Sky policy articulates an assumption about ‘content’ that’s worth picking apart.

We accept as journalists that what we produce is our responsibility. When it comes to retweeting, however, it’s not entirely clear what we are doing. Is that news production, in the same way that quoting a source is? Is it newsgathering, in the same way that you might repeat a lead to someone to find out their reaction? Or is it merely distribution?

The answer, as I’ve written before, is that retweeting can be, and often is, all three.

Writing about a similar policy at the Oregonian late last year, Steve Buttry made the point that retweets are not endorsements. Jeff Jarvis argued that they were “quotes”.

I don’t think it’s as simple as that (as I explain below), but I do think it’s illustrative: if Sky News were to prevent journalists from using any quote on air or online where they could not verify its factual basis, then nothing would get broadcast. Live interviews would be impossible.

The Sky policy, then, seems to treat retweets as pure distribution, and – crucially – to treat the tweet in isolation. Not as a quote, but as a story, consisting entirely of someone else’s content, which has not been through Sky editorial processes but which is branded or endorsed as Sky journalism.

There’s a lot to admire in the pride in their journalism that this shows – indeed, I would like to see the same rigour applied to the countless quotes that are printed and broadcast by all media without being compared with any evidence.
But do users really see retweets in the same way? And if they do, will they always do so?

Curation vs creation

There’s a second issue here which is more about hard commercial success. Research suggests that successful users of Twitter tend to combine curation with creation. Preventing journalists from retweeting  leaves them – and their employers – without a vital tool in their storytelling and distribution.

The tension surrounding retweeting can be illustrated in the difference between two broadcast journalists who use Twitter particularly effectively: Sky’s own Neal Mann, and NPR’s Andy Carvin. Andy retweets habitually as a way of seeking further information. Neal, as he explained in this Q&A with one of my classes, feels that he has a responsibility not to retweet information he cannot verify (from 2 mins in).

Both approaches have their advantages and disadvantages. But both combine curation with creation.

Network effects

A third issue that strikes me is how these policies fit uncomfortably alongside the networked ways that news is experienced now.

The BBC policy, for example, appears at first glance to prevent journalists from diving right into the story as it develops online. Social media editor Chris Hamilton does note, importantly, that they have “a technology that allows our journalists to transmit text simultaneously to our newsroom systems and to their own Twitter accounts”. However, this is coupled with the position that:

“Our first priority remains ensuring that important information reaches BBC colleagues, and thus all our audiences, as quickly as possible – and certainly not after it reaches Twitter.”

This is an interesting line of argument, and there are a number of competing priorities underlying it that I want to understand more clearly.

Firstly, it implies a separation of newsroom systems and Twitter. If newsroom staff are not following their own journalists on Twitter as part of their systems, why not? Sky pioneered the use of Twitter as an internal newswire, and the man responsible, Julian March, is now doing something similar at ITV. The connection between internal systems and Twitter is notable.

Then there’s that focus on “all our audiences” in opposition to those early adopter Twitter types. If news is “breaking news, an exclusive or any kind of urgent update”, being first on Twitter can give you strategic advantages that waiting for the six o’clock – or even typing a report that’s over 140 characters – won’t. For example:

  • Building a buzz (driving people to watch, listen to or search for the fuller story)
  • Establishing authority on Google (which ranks first reports over later ones)
  • Establishing the traditional authority in being known as the first to break the story
  • Making it easier for people on the scene to get in touch (if someone’s just experienced a newsworthy event or heard about it from someone who was, how likely is it that they search Twitter to see who else was there? You want to be the journalist they find and contact)

“When the technology [to inform the newsroom and generate a tweet at the same time] isn’t available, for whatever reason, we’re asking them to prioritise telling the newsroom before sending a tweet.

“We’re talking a difference of a few seconds. In some situations.

“And we’re talking current guidance, not tablets of stone. This is a landscape that’s moving incredibly quickly, inside and outside newsrooms, and the guidance will evolve as quickly.”

Everything at the same time

There’s another side to this, which is evidence of news organisations taking a strategic decision that, in a world of information overload, they should stop trying to be the first (an increasingly hard task), and instead seek to be more authoritative. To be able to say, confidently, “Every atom we distribute is confirmed”, or “We held back to do this spectacularly as a team”.

There’s value in that, and a lot to be admired. I’m not saying that these policies are inherently wrong. I don’t know the full thinking that went into them, or the subtleties of their implementation (as Rory Cellan-Jones illustrates in his example, which contrasts with what can actually happen). I don’t think there is a right and a wrong way to ‘do Twitter’. Every decision is a trade off, because so many factors are in play. I just wanted to explore some of those factors here.

As soon as you digitise information you remove the physical limitations that necessitated the traditional distinctions between the editorial processes of newsgathering, production, editing and distribution.

A single tweet can be doing all at the same time. Social media policies need to recognise this, and journalists need to be trained to understand the subtleties too.