Results tagged “journalism”

Bing it on!

I am something of an accidental SEO trainer. It all came about because of a phone call from Sarah Marshall, a little over two years ago - but it has been an unexpected and fascinating voyage. I don't think there's been a single SEO course I've run that I haven't enjoyed, and I've got to meet a great range of journalists from different parts of the industry.

I do love journalist. They're great people.

How did I get here? I've been publishing on the web for over 15 years now, and I've kept up with SEO, because, well, I rather like being read. It's a handy thing, that makes the time committed seem like time well spent. It always surprises me how bad this industry is - structurally - at keeping up with this. A significant chunk of the people who come on the course are there because either they're not being given any SEO support in their jobs, or because the messages they're getting about SEO have no context. Given how crucial search traffic remains - even in this social media age - that's a good decision. What fascinated me is the patterns that emerge from the stories they tell.

Here, then, are the three original SEO sins of the news publishing business:

SEO Sin #1: old information

This is the most common one. Someone in the publishing company did SEO training (or took SEO advice) seven or eight years ago, and that's still being held as gospel. And so, poor journalists are left carefully crafting meta keywords - which haven't been used by Google since 1998.

I've had to make four major changes to the SEO course since I started teaching it two years ago. That's how fast this area is changing. The SEO advice of seven years ago is not useless - it's worse than that. It can be actively damaging.

The waves of Panda, Penguin and Hummingbird updates have changed the world of search considerably, and in a manner that is not very friendly to clumsy attempts at SEO. We're certainly at a stage where bad or old-fashioned SEO can be worse than no SEO at all. And that's where some publishers are right now.

SEO Sin #2: all tactics, all the time

This is most often seen when there's an SEO department within the company, or they have one person keeping an eye on the SEO blogs. Edicts come down from on high about keywords, or URL patterns, but without any context or explanation. This is problematic, as it leaves journalists chasing SEO pixie dust, rather than making good content decisions through understanding what's attractive in search.

Journalists do not like operating in the dark. It gives then the sense that something is being hidden from them. They do care about being read - and widely read - so why not trust them with the strategy behind the tactics? Good SEO is built up over time, and that's a strategic move, not a tactical one.

There's a whole issue lurking here about strategic content planning - and how badly we've adjusted to doing that in digital - but that's fodder for another post.

SEO Sin #3: SEO as science

Somewhat connected with the previous point - there's a lurking assumption that big publishers can:

  1. Follow an SEO "checklist" and get results
  2. Expect to place well by virtue simply of being a big publisher.

Now both of these are true - to a degree. But that degree is not as large as they think it is. There's a strong human element of SEO - putting yourself in the mindset of a searcher - and a strong competitive one, as well. You are quite literally competing from ranking with everyone else writing about the same topic. And the "advantage" a large but unenthusiastic publisher has over (say) a small, but highly expert blogger is not as great as you might think.

The key point, though, is that this is not an exact science, as you're working with an ever-changing algorithm designed by humans. And you're trying to match yourself to the ways a human searcher's brain behaves. Losing sight of the human side of this has all sorts of consequences, not least failing to get the click-thought from a good search placement.

In conclusion…

…I'm not really sure what the conclusion is, honestly. Partially that many publishers are neglecting a key digital skill. Partially, that a lot of good journalists out there have a good sense that something's wrong and the drive to correct it.

I suppose, fundamentally, I worry that we're trying to build digital businesses on skill foundations that are so much weaker than we had in the print era - and that concerns me. And it should concern everyone who care about the future of professional journalism.

Journalism needs better tools

Om Malik:

If technology has upended the media ecosystem, then it should also be the solution for that ecosystem to adapt to the new hyper-speed reality of news and information. What we need is a set of tools that basically are a way to help the information-gathering process at network speed. Instead of reporters asking questions — if you don’t have historical context you can’t really ask some key questions — we need tools that help augment the process.

Right now, we're not even good at the publishing end tools, let alone the research end ones. That has to change.

Maria Popova

Here's a fascinating interview with Maria Popova, curator of the truly excellent Brain Pickings blog.

Some choice highlights:

I can’t speak for others, but I’ve found in myself a tendency to retreat deeper and deeper into my existing interests as a form of self-defense against the abundance of demands for my time and attention. Again, it takes a certain discipline not to do that and to continually expand one’s ideological comfort zone, as it does not to scatter oneself too chaotically across a multitude of diversion.

And, on journalism, this:

Every nonfiction writer is essentially a curator of ideas – whether this means the selection of academic and clinical studies to be cited in a Malcolm Gladwell-style pop psychology book or the snippets of articles highlighted and contextualized in a day’s worth of Andrew Sullivan’s blog. At their best, journalists – writers, editors, “curators”, or whatever we choose to label them – help people figure out what matters in the world and why. The label under which they do it is irrelevant.

One of the most thought-provoking interviews I've read in a while.

Photo by Ryan Lash for TED conferences, and used under a Creative Commons licence

Fascinating account from Storyful about their social media verification work around the downing of flight MH17:

In the aftermath of the attack, the Ukrainian Ministry of Internal affairs released the video below, described as showing a ‘Buk’ anti-aircraft missile system being transported in eastern Ukraine, en route to the Russian border. The footage is not the original, however we believe that the first instance of this footage was removed by the uploader and the version below is the earliest we can find. Ukrainian Interior Minister, Arsen Avakov, made early claims that the video was filmed in the Ukrainian town of Krasnodon near the Russian border, however collaborative geo-location was able to place the footage in southwestern Luhansk.

This really is one of the new frontiers of serious journalism, and one that's only growing in importance.

(Which is, of course, why we teach it as part of the Interactive Journalism MA at City…)

Twitter's UK in-house journalism expert and friend of the blog Joanna Geary has crowd-sourced a great list of 30 Twitter tools that are useful for journalists:

Some are familiar and essential, but some are brand new to me. Well worth a little time.

From blogger to Bloomberg

Josh t

Bloomberg has a new hire:

Josh Topolsky, the co-founder of the technology website The Verge, will join Bloomberg as the editor of a series of online ventures it is introducing as part of a revamped journalism strategy.

He'll be running a range of new online initiatives for them as "Editor of Bloomberg Digital, and Bloomberg Media’s Chief Digital Content Officer".

Interesting to see people who have risen through the "blog" ranks of online media transitioning into senior positions in more traditional publishers…

Matt Nevarra hosting


Bella Hurrell

Bella Hurrell

"Tell me something I don't know" is a basic journalistic premise. Over 50% of traffic to the BBC website is coming from mobile devices now - so everything has to be responsive. It ha to adapt to different screen sizes.

They're expiring ways of spreading their stories beyond the site. Flat info graphics, simple, but to the point, have been one focus, They're optimised for Twitter and Facebook and link back to a main story. They need an element of wit, and certainly of interest. Respond to comments - and make improvements if the suggestions are good.

Interactives - like budget calculators, or "which athlete are you most like?" - are another good way of telling the story. The latter used scatter plots which was too "maths-y" for the mainstream audience - and it didn't work on tablet. they'd do it differently today.

They've just published a Commonwealth Games one, that looks at which event you are more suited to. And it was built mobile-first. But even before that, before you write a line of code, you need to figure out what the audience will take away from this - and that's what will bring them back.

Coffee in Tom Foolery

Four good reads that I think are worth your coffee time this morning:

  • Looking for a job in journalism? Kevin Anderson, who recently landed a great one, has some really excellent advice for preparing for the journalism job interview. His point about researching the community the title serves is very well-made, and all too often neglected by job hunters.

  • Meanwhile, Paul Bradshaw has some excellent advice for journalists looking to the security of their work, their online presence and their sources. You're not paranoid if they're out to get you, and given the nasty piece of legislation that was pushed through yesterday, I think we can assume that no online communication is secure, unless completely encrypted.

  • An interesting look at the media consumption habits of the under-24s. Consume with caution because we know that people habits change with age, but that's more than balanced by the fact that they're starting from a very different place that earlier generations.

  • Google has finally given up on its "real names only" policy for Google+. I'm not going to make the standard joke about G+ being a ghost town - as I can see clearly from my feed over there that it isn't. However, the activity there is limited to select communities - but that was the case for Twitter and Facebook at the same stage (time-wise) in their evolution.

Enjoy your coffee.

Burger bites journalist

A burger

I'm not entirely sure if this is journalists going above and beyond the call of duty, or just bloody stupid:

Assistant news editor Arron Hendy, and trainee reporter Ruari Barratt were taken by ambulance to the Royal Sussex County Hospital after taking one bite each of an XXX Hot Chilli Burger from Burger Off, in Brunswick Street West, Hove. Mr Hendy agreed to try the burger after the takeaway came in the top ten of burger restaurants in the country – as rated on the Trip Advisor website.

Sounds like a delightful experience:

Mr Barratt took a bite and minutes later suffered severe stomach pains which increased. He lost the feeling in his hands, his legs were shaking and his eyes rolled back in his head.

Verification is so very hard

Google Concept (not)

Take a look at this video:

Pretty clearly a concept video done by some students, right? That information's all there, including the account name on Vimeo. Even the most cursory of verification checks would show that up.

So, it's not like anyone would publish it as a real Google concept without doing the 60 seconds of checking needed, right?


Grabbing a paper at the station

Merciless attack on print nostalgists from Clay Shirky:

The most important fight in journalism today isn’t between short vs. long-form publications, or fast vs. thorough newsrooms, or even incumbents vs. start-ups. The most important fight is between realists and nostalgists.

He builds a compelling argument that the media convering the media downplay the likely demise of print, and that too many people - including those teaching in universities - lie to young journalists about the future:

If you want to cry in your beer about the good old days, go ahead. Just stay the hell away from the kids while you’re reminiscing; pretending that dumb business models might suddenly start working has crossed over from sentimentality to child abuse.

I think he misses one key point: some student journalists come in wanting to work in print. They come pre-equipped with nostalgia, and sometimes find a cozy welcome amongst academic staff who left the coalface of journalism before the digital shift happened in a big way. These sorts of students dislike being given the hard realities of life about the shift to digital - right until they see that all the jobs for young journalists being advertised seek digital skills.

For would-be journalism students interested in those emerging journalism jobs in digital, I lead the social media and community module on the Interactive Journalism MA at City University in London - well worth a look.


Some time ago I was interviewed by Karin O’Mahony about liveblogging and its use in a journalistic context. The report was published a little over a month ago, and I've finally had the chance to dive in.

First of all - a caveat. It focuses exclusively on the journalistic rolling liveblogs that are commonly used by media organisations, rather than other forms of liveblogging, some of which pre-dated the media use. This irks me a little - these forms do not develop in isolation within journalism, but are informed by both the tools and practices that emerge on the web, none of which is really acknowledged within the research. But I'm slowly reconciling myself to this - the long-running time-stamped format has become the primary journalist use of the concept, and that largely emerged within journalism.

That said, I think the report does an excellent job in capturing the core elements and challenges in creating a viable live blog, with a creditable amount of time give to the practicalities. There's a useful 10 point guide, partially derived from my own contributions:

Liveblogging in 10 steps

  1. Write quickly
  2. Be human, not opinionated, in your tone of voice.
  3. Be extra aware of sensitive information, conflicting information and unverified information.
  4. Be social: take in readers’ comments and contributions and use social media for sourcing – but be aware that social skills are built up over a longer period of time and treat these sources as any other sources. Get to know your audience.
  5. Be transparent about when you cannot verify – but also when you are sure: link to sources and interesting material. Open up the journalistic process to your readers.
  6. Do not lose the overall perspective on the bigger story – summarise from time to time.
  7. Do not be mentally locked into the first narrative that emerges – be able to construct an emerging narrative from the emerging facts over time.
  8. Make sure you are totally familiar with the technical tools so that you can focus entirely on the writing and research
  9. If possible (for scheduled events), be prepared and read up on the subject.
  10. Be creative with ways to fill the gaps when no information is coming through.

There's some interesting discussion about restructuring sites around livblogging for news-centric organisations, and well as the challenges around verification, with the emerge of determined hoaxers as a significant problem.

It's a useful piece of work, and a good contribution to the on-going discussion about new forms of journalism. Grab yourself a copy - it's free - and dig in.

Download As It Happens: How live blogs work and their future


You might have noted a lack of long form stuff on here in recent weeks. That's partially because it's marking season and I'm very busy right now, and partially because I've actually been publishing some long form stuff elsewhere.

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote a long think piece for about the rise of explainer journalism, why we'll see more evergreen content, and the concept of stock and flow content.

It was a nice example of my teaching at City converging with my consultancy, and the need to start developing a vocabulary of terms to pass on those ideas to students and clients.

It was also very well received, with plenty of hot, hot Twitter action around it.

The digital transformation ghetto

Earlier today, I wrote a follow-up, looking at the three stages of digital transformation that traditional publishing businesses go through as they try to adapt to today's online environment for journalism, in the light of the leaking of the New York Times innovation report.

I'd be very interested to hear what you think of them…

Thumbnail image for Evening Standard Erection

An e-mail from the Ada Lovelace Day folks dropped into my in-box the other day, mentioning that Roma Agrawal would be speaking at Ada Lovelace Day Live. That set a little alarm ringing in my head that I'd seen her name before recently, and meant to write about it.

You see, I was reading a profile of her in the Evening Standard, after picking up a copy left on a train, and after getting slightly annoyed at the "Gosh! An attractive female engineer!" tone of the piece, nearly choked on my coffee when I got to this line:

This softly spoken 30-year-old in a yellow dress is the woman who made sure the biggest erection in Western Europe didn’t fall down.


Did we really need to go there - connecting her dress and the word "erection"? Do we really have to focus on this talented and successful engineer's sex appeal?

Honestly, I expected to see that the author was a man - but no, it was Susannah Butter, evidently a woman. And I was shocked enough that I ended up grabbing a photo, intending to write about it.

Am I reading too much into this - or is this a gratuitous and unnecessary sexualisation of a feature about an engineer? Would we ever consider commenting on the dress and sex appeal of an equivalent male engineer?

UPDATE: As it turns out, Roma has already written a response:

This one sentence contradicts the core message of the article: that women can excel in engineering and other male dominated industries on their merit. I believe women should be judged on their skills and contribution in the workplace and shouldn't have to fear being sexualised.

Declan Curry

The above photo was circulating Twitter yesterday, and at least two media outlets - Romenesko and FishbowlNY - ran it as an example of a BBC captioner having a bad day.

They found the image and they ran with it. They didn't contact Declan or the BBC. And today, they're both apologising.

As it happens, I was at university with Declan - we worked on Imperial College's student newspaper Felix together. I'd seen the photo before - when he posted it to Facebook, sharing a joke he'd written himself. Yup, the caption was by him - and was the best part of a year old:

click on the comments link to see the discussion

And there we have it. Two media outlets turned their journalistic instincts off when presented with something fun on social media, and made fools of themselves.

You don't get to stop applying the basic techniques of journalism just because you found something on social media. Verify, check, double-source. Or you'll be apologising to your readers - or your editor - pretty quickly.

Data journalism at work

Allison Schrager has a problem with data journalism:

But I worry that data give commentary a false sense of authority since data analysis is inherently prone to bias. The author's priors, what he believes or wants to be true before looking at the data, often taint results that might appear pure and scientific. Even data-backed journalism is opinion journalism. So as we embark on this new wave of journalism, we should be aware of what we are getting and what we should trust.

How, though, is this different from traditional journalism? Inevitably, a journalist brings her bias to any story - and however hard we strive to eliminate that, it will find expression, whether we like it or not.

There's some very useful advice towards the end of her post about how to avoid distorting the data too much, and how to make sure that you're looking at the whole story, but she doesn't address that central question hinted at my her use of "a false sense of authority".

My gut instinct is that people are more wary of bias in data journalism, because there's a tendency to believe that the "numbers don't lie". And they might not. But how you chose to present them has a very big impact on the message a particular truth tells...

That's art, my friend, not science

Tim Hartford wrote about how misinformation can be beautiful for the FT a little while back:

Data visualisation creates powerful, elegant images from complex data. It's like good prose: a pleasure to experience and a force for good in the right hands, but also seductive and potentially deceptive. Because we have less experience of data visualisation than of rhetoric, we are naive, and allow ourselves to be dazzled. Too much data visualisation is the statistical equivalent of dazzle camouflage: striking looks grab our attention but either fail to convey useful information or actively misdirect us.

Visualisation, in particular, is in danger of dressing art up as science. You need to be very careful that the data tells the story it actually claims it does, and that you don't distort things for the sake of a more compelling "angle" or aesthetic representation.

And, y'know, check your own assumptions at the door when you dive into this. But this is all good, standard journalism practice anyway - not something new or unique to data journalism.

The fox knows his pivot tables, that's what...

Of course, this whole discussionon has been triggered by various interviews that Nate Silver has given around the launch of FiveThirtyEight. Matthew Ingram sums up the discussion pretty well:

When it comes to using data of any kind in the creation of journalism, Silver says that traditional journalists are quite good at the first two steps of the process -- namely, the collection of data and the organization of it into a news story or other format. However, they often fail to do as good a job at the next two steps, he says, which include the explanation or analysis of the data and some kind of generalization about its future implications.

Lurking in this is an explanation for the current obsession with data journalism: traditionally, we've only had very limited access to significant datasets. The arrival of digital technology has made collecting, sharing and analysing datasets significantly more simple, and so has opened up a whole new field of journalism, that we've only scratched the surface of before. It's difficult to complain about this (although some people try...), because more sources of stories is pretty much always a good thing.

But for an industry which tends to bend liberal in its politics, journalism can be very small "c" conservative in its outlook. There's an inherent suspicion of the new that anyone who has been working in online digital development will be familiar with. Coupled with the mistrust of journalists that the last few years of revelations has engendered, it's not a surprise that people are slightly suspicious of what we're doing with the numbers.

An oasis of fact in a desert of opinion

However, I think that the Economist's robust defence of Silver and his approach to journalism actually gets to the heart of the matter. Right now, we have far, far too much opinion-based journalism and not nearly enough fact-based reporting.

As the piece concludes:

There is, and always will be, a place for bullshit--or if you prefer a more dignified construction, a place for arguments driven by ideas, belief and feeling rather than data. Positivism is in no danger of sweeping such journalism away in toto; American newspapers and airwaves are full, far too full, of shouters, table-bangers, aspersion-casters and heartstring-tuggers. They drive ratings and traffic (and inspire blogposts). But to the extent that Mr Silver's mission is to shrink bullshit's share of our national conversation, I can only wish him Godspeed.

Who can argue with that? I meet more journalism students interested in becoming opinion columnists than I do those interested in data journalism. I've talked to managing editors at our national papers who despair of finding graduates keen to get on a do reporting, rather than writing leader-type columns.

Data journalism is actually a form of back-to-the-roots movement, of focusing our journalism back on finding facts and the stories within them. We're just using different tools to do that.

Talking of team diversity (as we were), how about age?

For all but a very small minority of people at the top, the corporate world is a cult of youth. The 'up or out' mentality favours younger employees, if only because they have more rungs of the corporate ladder before them, have fewer competing responsibilities, and are cheaper. But as a communicator I know that messages that resonate well with one audience (in this case, shareholders), don't necessarily meet the needs of others (such as society, local communities, employees), or indeed benefit the company itself in the long-term. That's why some enlightened companies are adapting to the challenges and even benefits of an aging workforce.

This seems to be particularly common in journalism businesses, where the number of 40-plus people in the companies is often significantly lower than the 20 to 40 bracket. Some of them take the PR shilling, some of them go freelance (hello!). But what happens to the rest of them?

Microsoft accesses a blogger's e-mail without permission to track the source of a leak:

One of the revelations in this week’s case of a Microsoft worker who leaked pre-release Windows 8 software was that Microsoft accessed the Hotmail account of the blogger to whom the data was leaked. And it did so without a court order.

Your sources are not safe in Hotmail (now (In fact, the standard guidance of "get online sources who need protecting offline as soon as possible" applies…)

The editor's desk

Today was a good day. A hard and difficult day, to be sure, but a good day.

Around teaching the Newspaper MA students, and a meeting with Jon and Ben about the Interactive MA, I was with the Financial Journalism MA students at city, doing technical and web tutoring on their budget day website. And what an experience it was. It made me realise how much I miss the buzz of a busy newsroom. It's been some years since I work din one full-time now, but I do crave the feeling of being part of a team working towards something, and my current menu of work isn't really giving me that. Something to consider.

The reason that all this came to a head is that this team of students were working exceptionally well together, and the adrenaline rush of working to a tight deadline around a major news event was harnessed well, to create productivity and great reporting, and not dissipated in stress and anger.

And that's despite the amount of people working on a single WordPress install maxing out the database connections repeatedly - something to think about for next time we do something like this.

Financial MA students 2013/14

One thing I've noted this year is that a diversity of students makes for a better learning experience. Two of my cohorts have been much more diverse in age, country of origin and experience before joining the class, and that seems to bring a different dynamic to the group - one that's very positive.

Diversity and the lop-sided enterprise

It's an interesting contrast to offices I've worked in years ago, where the recruiting policy seemed always to be "more people like us", leading to a surprisingly toxic work environment. A whole bunch of people sharing common outlooks and weaknesses doesn't actually create a very good team. Both their strengths and weaknesses are amplified, making for a very lop-sided enterprise.

Which rather brings to mind Emily Bell's commentary on the hires going into Vox and FiveThirtyEight:

Well, Project X may now be called Vox, but the great VC-backed media blitz of 2014 is staffed up and soft-launching, and it looks a lot more like Projects XY. Indeed, it's impossible not to notice that in the Bitcoin rush to revolutionize journalism, the protagonists are almost exclusively - and increasingly - male and white.

I love you, Bro-grammer

This theme was picked up in an excellent Medium piece by Zeynep Tufekci:

Simple: among the mostly male, smart, geeky groups that most programmers and technical people come from, there is a way of existing that is, yes, often fairly exclusionary to women but not in ways that Silver and his friends recognize as male privilege. When they think of male privilege, they are thinking of "macho" jocks and have come to believe their own habitus as completely natural, all about merit, and also in opposition to macho culture. But if brogrammer culture opposes macho culture, it does not follow that brogrammer culture is automatically welcoming to other excluded groups, such as women.

There's an obsession in certain hiring circles about making sure new hires are a good "cultural fit". I think that - in journalism - you actually want people who are a slightly poor cultural fit. Journalism at its best is a team game with a little bit of internal friction. Journalistic teams who are too matey, too similar in mindset and too comfortable slip easily into a common worldview bubble that excludes that sort of boundary-pushing, challenging journalism that makes a publication really stand out.

From Diversity, Quality

It's utterly right to make the argument for diversity from a cultural point alone - but it's worth bearing in mind that there is another argument that supports the same results, that of building a better team, even is that's a team with a few more rough edges. Journalists need people around them to challenge their worldview, reporting and conclusions - because that internal process makes for better journalism, and better service to the community you're reporting for. Too much uniformity within teams creates that toxic "us versus them" reporter versus audience dynamic that I've seen too many otherwise good journalists slip into.

Beware. And hire uncomfortably.