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Journo Talk 3: ‘Some might say I’m bolshy – I call it passionate’

By Sam Blackledge

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“I wish we didn’t have to do the woman thing.”

Lizzie Ammon, speaking to her 29,000 Twitter followers, has pre-empted my question.

A freelance writer and broadcaster for The Times, the BBC and The Guardian among many others, Ammon is far from your typical cricket journalist.

The “woman thing” is impossible to escape, so let’s get it out of the way.

“I guess while women are the minority in sports journalism it’s going to be a thing if you are one,” she says.

“I’m a single mum and I won’t pretend doing this job and trying to look after a small child is easy, it isn’t.

“It requires having a very understanding childminder, being completely organised in terms of logistics and being able to cope with the guilt of not seeing your child much.

“But I am quite passionate about demonstrating that you can be a mum and a sports journalist, even though the hours are a bit erratic and sometimes long, particularly in cricket.”

Ammon says she “fell into” the job, having followed the game from a young age as scorer, junior coach and county member.

She blogged and got the occasional gig with a newspaper “more by luck than judgement”, but says being in the right place at the right time is just the start.

“There are hundreds and hundreds of people who want to write about sport for a living,” she says.

“You can’t expect a sports editor to employ you to just sit all day watching cricket in the sunshine and filing 500 words on what happened.

“You have to give them something they can’t get from Press Association reports or from any other writer.”

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We move on to the subject of social media.

My own day job requires me to follow a stream of chattering political types, clogging up my feed with endless squabbles over Brexit, Corbyn, Trident and the rest.

With 230,000 tweets and counting, ‘LegSideLizzy’ gives them all a run for their money.

Her messages appear as a stream-of-consciousness: one minute she’s sniping at ECB bosses and the lunacy of international schedules, the next she’s gleefully tweeting along with Cold Feet and posting pictures of her sausage casserole.

“I know a lot of my colleagues hate it,” she says. “I have a love-hate relationship with it but I am very active.

“It’s a useful tool for spotting trends, opinions and news; it’s also a great way of engaging with everyone, from county chairman to county members or a player’s best mate.

“I try to use it to both impart what I know and give my opinions. I’m afraid I have had some horrible experiences on Twitter – everything from rape threats to personal abuse about my looks.

“It kind of goes with the territory, and on balance I think it’s far better to be on social media than not, particularly if you are trying to build an audience and get noticed.

“Sometimes I get told I am too much of a self-publicist, but I figure if you want to try to pursue a career sometimes you have to self-publicise.”

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Does her online identity reflect who she is in real life?

“I’m probably not the best judge of that,” she says.

“I am outspoken, perhaps far too outspoken at times. Some might call it bolshy and opinionated; some might call it passionate.

“I am certainly passionate about cricket, particularly the less than glamorous world of county cricket.

“Some of that is because you form genuine affinities with the players, coaches and supporters in county cricket.

“It’s not like football, it’s a small enough to really feel like it’s something worth fighting for.”

Ammon has built an enviable portfolio of scoops, including digging into the fallout from the ECB’s decision to relegate Durham from division one of the County Championship.

She says newsgathering is “the only thing I am any good at”.

“I am self-aware enough to know that I am no Michael Atherton or Gideon Haigh.

“I don’t write pretty words or have a nice turn of phrase and I’m not a technical expert. Inherently I am a massive gossip, which isn’t a bad trait for a journalist.

“I like finding things out, pursuing things to their end. I believe one of the most important roles of a journalist is to hold authority to account for every decision they make, to uncover things, and most importantly to tell your reader something they didn’t already know and couldn’t find out somewhere else.”

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Given she has not come from within the game, like many cricket writers, does she feel more able to challenge those at the top?

“I am not scared of authority, although of course if you annoy powerful men they can make life very uncomfortable for you,” she says.

“I guess in a sense I don’t have anything to lose by challenging authority, but at the risk of sounding pious, it isn’t solely about that.

“I try to find out the truth and write about it, and if some of those truths make life uncomfortable for those in power then that is not really my problem.

“The current ECB administration often verges close to bullying territory and that gets my back up, so I will continue to stay across what some see as the minutiae of county cricket and continue to try to hold the ECB to account for the decisions they are taking.

“I do try to give credit where it is due too, although perhaps not as often as I should.

“But no-one wants to read ‘Isn’t everything great and didn’t they all do well’. That doesn’t sell newspapers.”

Are you a proper cricket journalist? Would you like to feature in Journo Talk? E-mail samblackledge@yahoo.com or tweet @samblackledge.

 

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Poison pens, viral dates and Twitter overkill

by SAM BLACKLEDGE

IT has been a funny old week in Twitter land. Once again I was reminded of the extraordinary power of everyone’s favourite social network/timewasting tool.

On Monday I posted a picture of a reader’s letter from The Herald. The content of the letter, and whether we were right to print it, has already been debated to death. But what happened next made my head spin. The picture was picked up by one Jeremy Vine. Panorama, Newsnight, giant of journalism, housewives’ favourite.

Jeremy – for we are now on first name terms, naturally – is a prolific tweeter. With more than 201,000 followers, anything he chooses to promote has a decent chance of going viral. And so it did. For the next three days I stared at my ubiquitous handheld mobile device as the re-tweets, mentions and favourites just kept rolling in.

For a lowly regional journalist, Jeremy’s endorsement was the perfect storm. It contained an immediate visual hook for anyone idly browsing through their feed. It was contentious, playing perfectly to the gallery of eager punters just waiting to be outraged. But most importantly, it came from Jeremy Vine. Eggheads, Points of View, Radio 2, beast of broadcasting.

The relative mayhem sent my Klout score, the measure of social media influence between people who care about this sort of thing, soaring from a trifling 56.14 to a whopping 59.48.

On the same day as my viral Vine encounter, I came upon the tale of Plymouth singleton Ralph Ferrett. Ralph became an online sensation when his friends vowed to help him find love using the power of Twitter. He went along with it, and the campaign worked – he got himself a date.

But after a couple of days of media attention from the likes of Time magazine, the Daily Mail and the BBC, Ralph, who describes himself as “impossibly shy and totally lacking in confidence”, admitted feeling “completely overwhelmed” by the attention.

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What started out as a drunken bet among mates spread like wildfire. The #GetRalphADate tag was used by people in the USA who didn’t even know what was going on. Someone created a worryingly convincing spoof movie poster.

By the end, the man himself said he wanted to “built a fort at home and hide from Twitter in nervousness and embarrassment”. Ralph, I know exactly how you feel.

I first joined Twitter as a trainee reporter in 2008, and my interactions have always been fairly parochial. But this week I got a glimpse of a forbidden land, where there are an awful lot of people sitting around idly fiddling with their phones. It was as if I had been playing on a casino slot machine for the last five years and this was the day it decided to pay out. But the coins were all covered in a thin layer of regret. (At this point I may have run out of metaphor.)

I love technology. I love how it looks, I love how it feels, I love its potential, the electricity it generates – both literal and metaphysical – and its addictive nature. Nevertheless, all this freaked me out a bit. I felt like I needed a break.

In his superb Channel 4 show How Videogames Changed The World, Charlie Brooker referred to Twitter as simply another “massively multiplayer online game.”

“You choose an interesting avatar and roleplay a persona loosely based on your own, attempting to accrue followers by repeatedly pressing lettered buttons to form interesting sentences”, he said.

“Gamification means applying to rules of videogames to real life. Often this comes down to incentivising people to perform the same action over and over again.”

Brooker says the way Twitter is designed “compels you to interact over and over again”.

“These are games we don’t even realise we are playing.”

Perhaps it’s time to log off, go outside and take a breath of fresh air.

Mmmmm. #FreshAir.

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The dangers of fast fingers: Why we must all learn the basics of media law

by Sam Blackledge

If you are reading this article online, you more than likely have the tools to publish a response. You could leave a comment below the line, telling me how wrong I am about everything that follows. You could start a blog, expressing your dismay at falling standards in modern journalism. Or you could log in to Twitter, and instantly let all your followers know what a frightful cretin I am.

But before you jump at the chance to convert this wide open goal, take a second to reflect. Could your quick-witted insights land you in hot water? By all means, give it your best shot. Label me as the worst sort of stuck-up, patronising prig to ever to put fingers to keyboard. Go ahead, I can take it. But if you disparage my profession, by indicating for example that I am illiterate, corrupt or simply cannot write for toffee, then we might have a problem.

Do not panic, dear valued reader. I am not about to sue you for defamation. But recent events have thrown up a new slant on that old maxim – tweet with haste, repent at leisure. Last week Peaches Geldof – described so curtly by Marina Hyde as “model-journalist-whatever” – was the latest celebrity to be given cause to curse her fidgety fingers. Peaches tweeted the names of two women who allowed their children to be sexually abused by Lostprophets singer Ian Watkins, opening up the possibility of jigsaw identification and putting herself at risk of breaching a serious law.

The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 is one of the first things taught to trainee newspaper reporters. The act states that when a sexual offence has been committed against a person, “neither the name nor address, and no still or moving picture, should be published in that person’s lifetime if it is likely to lead members of the public to identify that person.” In other words, lifetime anonymity. This can be waived by the victim if they wish to tell their story, but it is rare and requires certain careful steps to be taken by reporter and editor.

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Peaches issued a mealy-mouthed half-apology, saying: “The question of whether or not to give anonymity to criminals in cases like this will go on forever.” She is right about this. It is a constant debate, along with the issue of whether defendants in rape trials should be named before a verdict. But at the moment the law stands, and Peaches could face a criminal investigation for naming the women, which could have led many people to identify the victims, their children.
This is hardly new territory. The rise and rise of social media has inevitably leads careless users to say the wrong thing. Just ask Alan Davies or Sally Bercow, both of whom were watching a BBC documentary last year when their enthusiasm got the better of them. Or the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of faceless tweeters who just can’t help themselves every time a famous face is arrested.

It sounds harsh, but the common theme here appears to be ignorance. Ignorance of how their comments might affect others, and how they could be misinterpreted. But also ignorance of the law. Media law is complex, but the basic points are pretty simple, and mostly common sense. A person is innocent until proven guilty. Nothing should be published that could cause a substantial risk of serious prejudice to a trial. Nor should anything appear that could lower a person in the estimation of society or expose them to ridicule without the required justification or proof.

Things get a bit more complicated when court orders are imposed, most commonly prohibiting identification of young people or key witnesses. But such orders are a matter of public record, and there is no reason why a member of the public shouldn’t be able to check before they tweet – or, if in doubt, don’t tweet at all.

Newspaper reporters recite these rules and regulations in their sleep, when not dreaming of our next big scoop. They are hammered in to us from the moment we step into the training room. This is not to say we do not make mistakes. Sticking with the Ian Watkins case, US website E!Online mistakenly used a picture of the Steps singer of the same name to illustrate the story. This was, as the perplexed star observed, “shoddy journalism”. If bona fide members of the media slip up like this, there are consequences. These should apply to everyone else too.

A study by Kinetic Worldwide earlier this year suggested that 28 per cent of all UK internet users are active on Twitter, more than double the number from two years ago. This would mean there are more than 12 million UK Twitter users, surely a conservative estimate. Only a very small fraction are trained in media law.

The freedom and sense of community that comes with social networking is a wonderful thing, perhaps the most wonderful thing of the online age. But it comes with responsibility. If you intend to write about current affairs, publishing your unmoderated comments to however many pairs of eyes around the world, you must have an understanding of what you can and cannot say. It is no longer good enough to simply say “I didn’t realise.”

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Rejecting social media would be a big mistake

by Mike Wright

THESE are hardly halcyon days for journalism. There has been a dense gloom filling newsrooms for as long as I have worked as a professional reporter. The atmosphere veers from a nihilistic acceptance to unrestrained despair. I have seen more colleagues and friends than I care to recall handed their P45s and had my value as a human resource quantified on an employment matrix.

All this has been accompanied by the mood music of euphemistic management-speak. The company is “operating in challenging conditions”, “cost-bases” need “streamlining” or “centralising” into “hubs”. The tragedy can lapse into farce. I remember at an earlier stage of my career being on a team of reporters congratulated as our paper saw its circulation drop least in the group that year. Needless to say no champagne accompanied this announcement.

Over time I think most hacks have become inured to this unrelenting state of decline and it’s now as much a part of newsrooms as the Bic Biro and notepad. On both sides of the Atlantic the printed press is the industry shrinking more violently than any other. I am thoroughly inured by now (possibly even jaded). But I am regularly disheartened by how of some elements of the fourth estate fail to recognise the context of print’s continued decay.

More so when I hear of the “the web” talked of as though it is some malicious conspiracy to send us all skidding down to the Job Centre. There is no great enigma. We are living through an information revolution, equal in proportions to those which have sparked geopolitical evolution and upheaval before.

There have been three major previous information revolutions. The invention of writing around 3,500 BC which meant we could store information accurately and indefinitely beyond what our limited memories could hold. Then from around 1,000 BC there was the development of the phonetic alphabet, which meant all human wisdom could be encapsulated in around 30 symbols. For these two we have little or no record of the direct effect they had on the people who lived through them. We do for the third.

In the 15th Century the invention of the Gutenberg press in Germany gave birth to the mass printed word. It upended centuries-old establishments and lit the touchpaper for the Reformation. (As an aside, it was a Bruges-based English businessman William Caxton who brought Gutenberg’s press to Britain in the 1470s. He set up his printing business in the precinct of Westminster Abbey, which is why print unions are called ‘chapels’ and their leaders ‘father’ or ‘mother’ of the chapel.)

We are living through the fourth information revolution: the digital word. so far this revolution is still in its infancy yet has already helped overturn a series of entrenched and brutal dictatorships in the Middle East. It is also causing economic tectonic plates to shift. One of the myriad consequences is that fewer people pick up newspapers. But it is the format, not the content they are rejecting.

I know that I now consume most of my news by plucking stories from social media feeds with scant regard of the publication behind them. It is a much more efficient and contemporary news environment. Also when I see papers on display they are generally a digest of stories I have already read and had my fill of in the previous 24 hours. Not to perceive this and evolve our business practices to match these new market realities seems about as wise as rejecting the phonetic alphabet.

For a profession that prides itself on being astute, we can be remarkably blinkered and naive about our current predicament.

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How Facebook Subscribe can change online relationships

by Rhys Griffiths

Facebook’s introduction of Subscribe in September last year and its resulting transformation into an asymmetrical social network has presented a new opportunity for connection – but is it an opportunity that is passing many journalists by?

Social media use has exploded among journalists in recent years. What only a few years ago was considered by many in the industry at best a fad, and at worst a time-wasting distraction, has now become a valued part of the reporter’s toolkit.

And the evidence around me – in newsrooms, in conversations with colleagues and online – suggests that Twitter has become the tool of choice for most. Where once Twitter was an unknown quantity, now it is almost surprising to discover a journalist isn’t using the micro-blogging service. But is this really the best approach for us to be taking?

Is Twitter the best place for journalists to engage their audience, to attempt to build an online community around their reporting? Especially since Facebook, and even start-up of the hour Pinterest, drive more web traffic than Twitter.

After all isn’t one of the aims of all this social networking – the very activity old-school editors feared would be such a drain on our precious time – to direct our online audience towards the content we are creating, which largely exists away from the social sites?

I understand why Twitter has emerged as the journalists’ soapbox. We looked at the options out there and decided to go with the one that didn’t involve opening up our entire online existence to the prying eyes of the world. And having seen newsdesks trawl the profiles of those who fell under the public gaze, who can blame us.

In our professional lives we wanted to follow and be followed without making the connection of “friendship” that the previously symmetrical Facebook demanded of us. The only way around this was to create a fan page and ask people to “like” you. An awkward sell at a time when journalists as a profession, rightly or wrongly, are unlikely to win any popularity contests.

Now the advent of Subscribe has changed the basis of relationships on Facebook, and made the site more akin to Twitter and Google+ in the sense that being interested in the thoughts, feelings and actions of another user doesn’t demand reciprocation.

So why have journalists, particularly at local and regional level, been so slow to embrace professionally a site that accounts for one in every seven minutes spent online while throwing themselves wholeheartedly into Twitter? The answer appears to be that many are simply unaware of the changes Facebook has made to its site and to the kinds of connection it allows users to make.

Recently I tweeted asking my followers for examples of local and regional journalists who are using Facebook Subscribe. I didn’t receive a single positive response. But I did get replies from a number of reporters who were unaware that the rules of Facebook engagement had changed.

That’s not to say there aren’t individuals out there exploring the new potential for engagement and collaboration made possible by Facebook Subscribe. Benjamin Cohen is one reporter who has seen a highly-engaged community grow up around his use of the feature.

The Channel 4 News technology editor has seen his audience grow to the point where he has, at just over 40,000, around four times as many Facebook subscribers as Twitter followers. In a blog post published last month he explained why he values this new community he has built on Facebook.

“Before I allowed users to subscribe to me, viewers could become a ‘fan’ of me,” he wrote. “But only around 1,500 did and it was a pain to manage two identities. I also felt like a bit of a vain idiot asking people to ‘become my fan’, I’m hardly Kylie Minogue. But, with Facebook’s subscribe feature, you have to use your real world Facebook identity.

“I think Facebook Subscribe allows the audience to gain a new and frankly amazing level of interaction with the people making the news.

“It breaks down barriers and it allows collaboration – my most recent special report, on Pinterest, was as a result of me asking my Facebook subscribers what they’d like me to report on next.”

I think it’s time more journalists opened up their public posts to subscribers on Facebook. At present the interactions I have on Twitter are split 50/50 between those with people within the media industry and those outside.

Anecdotal evidence suggests many of my friends who don’t work in the media have yet to embrace Twitter, let alone relative newcomers like Google+ or Pinterest, so I want to ensure that my stories about the community we live in are accessible to them on the social network they use the most.

Currently around one in five interactions on my Facebook profile – comments, like and shares – are from “non-friends”. I would love to see a greater balance emerge in the coming months.

Facebook has around 845 million monthly active users. Why would anyone producing content they want the world to see not want a piece of that?

This piece first appeared at rhysdgriffiths.wordpress.com

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People Still Care About Newspapers

by Sam Blackledge

THERE has been much huffing and not a small amount of puffing about the use of Twitter in recent times.Paul ChambersSky NewsJoey BartonWayne Rooney – it seems barely a day goes by without someone somewhere putting their proverbial foot in their technological mouth.

So it feels slightly retro to be writing a piece about newspapers. Remember those? Silly, old fashioned, cumbersome things that left you with inky fingers and something to wrap your chips in. Believe it or not they’re still around, and every day thousands of journalists put their heart and soul into producing them, for millions of people to pay their money and leaf through them, with not a re-tweet or hashtag button to be found.

The death of print media has been predicted by many so-called experts ever since Tim Berners-Lee sparked the digital revolution. But despite the inevitable and seemingly endless progress being made online, we are a long way from live-blogging the funeral of the good old newspaper.

You can tweet all day, set up as many Facebook groups as you can muster and “like”, “tag” and “follow” to your heart’s content. But nothing beats the feeling of walking into a newsagent on publication day and seeing your name across the top of a cracking front page splash.

If you’re lucky, people will buy it. If you’re luckier, they will read it. And if you’ve hit the jackpot, they will write in and tell you what they think. Sometimes they will phone you up. Sometimes they will come to see you in person. And sometimes they will shout.

This week I received such a visit from two gentlemen who made it clear they took exception to a series of articles I had written. I spent a painful hour listening to their complaints, doing my best to appease them and occasionally getting a word in to justify our coverage.

The details of the issue are complex, convoluted and probably not very interesting to anyone beyond our immediate readership. But after I had shaken off the experience, licked my wounds and filed another story, I reflected that it might not have been as bad as it seemed.

Our readers often disagree with what we write and how we write it. But the passion they have for the issues that affect them is as strong as ever, as far as I can see. If we were producing papers full of news that no-one gave a stuff about we would soon find out. The post bag would shrink, the phone would stop ringing and the angry visits would be a thing of the past.

But for now we will continue to don our tin helmets and take the flack. It shows people care.

This piece first appeared at The Huffington Post.

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Where do the facts end and the rumours begin?

by Emily Friend

IT seems everyone has something to say about this week’s unrest across the UK, and thanks to social networking they can say it to all their friends at once. It is a subject that is dividing people and it’s not just journalists who can comment on events, it’s everyone.

But how well informed are the people relaying news via these sites? In some cases these ‘citizen journalists’ may be far more up-to-date than the journalists remotely reporting on them.

In the case of the riots the papers were miles behind the collective internet information bank, not just thanks to the demise of evening editions but also the fact that anybody can share up-to-the-minute information online. Some media commentators have argued that local news websites weren’t up to the flow of traffic and the masses turned to larger sites to stay informed.

Twitter was awash with photos and reports of the latest activity on the streets of London and further afield. A photograph of a woman jumping from a burning building in Croydon was circulated and viewed by millions of people within hours of it being taken. The same photo was used on most of the following day’s newspaper front pages. By the time I saw it in print the initial impact of the picture was gone.

 

As a trainee journalist this era of the ‘internet exclusive’ could either be disheartening or encouraging. I see it as positive development, that I would be capable of reporting up-to-the-minute, exclusive news and photographs to the world via live blogging or social networking. But there is a part of me that struggles with the idea that anybody can contribute to this endless flow of information.

Some of the sweeping generalisations about class, race and even music taste that littered my feeds this week were shocking. As I sat in my bed on Tuesday evening frantically refreshing my Twitter feed to find rumours concerning Guildford, Redhill and Reigate I didn’t know what to believe.

Perhaps I had naively put my trust in previous tweets and reports of events in Croydon and Ealing? Having not seen these events unfold in front of me, or even on the television or in print, I suddenly didn’t know where the real facts ended and the rumours and internet trickery began.

How do we, as readers, choose who or what to believe? What makes a ‘real’ journalist worthy of commenting on these events? Why would Telegraph or Guardian employees be more capable of commenting than any other person witnessing what is going on? I can’t answer these questions, but the riots have definitely played a part in influencing my ever-evolving view of the role of a journalist in today’s society.

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