Notes on pretending to be a journalist

[Or: ‘Onward Chocolate Soldiers‘ as I was going to call this blog post]

As I’m minding shop at Bournville Village blog at the moment I thought I’d write up some thoughts on what has been a really busy couple of weeks for the blog. This might offer some insights to those, like me, dabbling in ‘hyperlocal‘ (yes I know that links out to an unanswered question – like me, they may not know the answer).

(Lack of) preperation is everything: When I agreed to take on the blog in the new year I’d kind of forgotten about the Cadbury thing. I certainly didn’t take on board how big a story it might be should Kraft or someone else finally get their hands on the company. So when the phoney war ended and the Cadbury story kicked off big time on the 19th January, for the life of me I couldn’t think how best to cover the story. What kind of blog is Bournville Village anyway? Is this a good time for the blog to come over all Socialist Worker? As it turns out I didn’t have time to reflect as the hits on the site went a bit bonkers (we already score high for ‘Cadbury’ or ‘Bournville’ searches as it is).

The Voice of the People: Almost as soon as we’d published our own story breaking the takeover bid news, there began a series of enquiries from international journalists. CBS News shot a short interview with me (that they then cut), a lovely French journalist from Les Echos conducted an interview with me at Bournville station and seemed scandalised that the station was painted purple: “in France, this would not be allowed.” There was an interview for Smooth FM and an appearance on the Carl Chinn show on Radio WM as well as a host of other emails from Canadian, US and European journalists. They all thought I was some kind of ‘voice of the people’ for Bournville. I’m not, but if your blog is getting this kind of attention, play along, it could useful in the long term.

Why Journalism skills matter: I studied a couple of undergraduate modules called ‘newswriting’ in the early 90s and I was involved in the student newspaper for about three years. The former taught me the art of the ‘intro’ – get the first paragraph right and the rest falls into place. A skill I could really do with though is shorthand, especially when you’ve got Lord Digby Jones in front of you barking out great quotes and you need to be quick and accurate. I was neither, so went back with a video camera and got a really good interview with him.

You’ll miss stuff, don’t worry: I drop the kids to scool in the morning at two different locations in Bournville and Selly Oak. I was desperate to cover the coach leaving Bournville taking workers to Westminster for a demostration. I missed it by a whisker and was a bit cross with myself. Not to worry though as I think the following makes a useful golden rule:

If you see other journalists, go somewhere else: When the takeover was actually completed I thought I’d better get some immediate reaction. I went down to the front of the factory only to find the place ambushed by journalists. They were clearly waiting for workers to emerge so I thought better of it and went round the back of the factory to the Village Green to find not a single hack there. I shot a couple of interviews with local business people, some moody Bournville at dusk scenes and had them uploaded within an hour. Generally I’m intimidated by journalists, they have bigger cameras, shorthand and can think of better questions than me – best steer clear.

Use the medium you’re comfortable with: However, try not to use it like others do. I enjoy using video as it relies on some previous training I have. So I know why you should shoot an establishing shot or two (for cutaways; jump-cuts are so 1960s), why you should generally prevent people looking direct into camera (your blog is not their broadcast platform), and why if you have two interviewees with opposing views you should shoot them looking in different directions (it reinforces their postions in the viewers’ minds). You can do all the above and still avoid your stuff feeling like the stuff produced by mainstream broadcast media.

I don’t care about technology: I’m sure if I had slicker technology I could get things online quicker but I don’t. I have a Canon DV cam and a Canon compact stills camera. They share the same battery type which can be advantageous and the still camera shoots nice video (example above). I have the world’s worst phone.

Experiment but don’t be upset when it fails: On deadline day, when the offer had to accepted by Cadbury shareholders by 1pm, I had to be at work. So I decided instead to countdown Cadbury’s final hours by doing some live blogging with coveritlive. The end result – a bit lacklustre and little external engagement. It wasn’t really a live event as such since we didn’t find out the takeover result until 5pm.

So overall I’ve had fun covering the Cadbury story but am grateful that things will go quiet for a while and we can cover the issues that really matter to Bournville residents. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you what is still our biggest story to date, upping our unique visitors by ten times: Tesco at Christmas – store opening times.

[Thanks to Hannah Waldram for giving me the chance to take on the blog and to the BBC Radio WM people who were kind enough to treat me like a proper journalist whenever I met them and linked to the blog from their own coverage]

9 thoughts on “Notes on pretending to be a journalist

  1. Pingback: links for 2010-02-10 « Sarah Hartley

  2. Really interesting reading. Particularly the stuff about following the language of journalism — to me it’s part of the power of doing this stuff for ourselves that we don’t have to follow any conventions if we don’t want.

    For example a blog doesn’t have to do stuff to help separate the opinion in people’s minds (the angles, the different backgrounds), which is (gentle perhaps) editorialising — a blog can of course choose to do none of this or loads, or anywhere in between.

    Watching various local blogs decide how “media” they are going to be (some are pretty much just online papers, some single voice opinion) is fascinating.

  3. Thanks Jon. ‘Gentle editorialising’ is a good phrase. Understanding the rhetorical devices employed by media (and in particular news media) and then working out how much of them you’re going to use, or not, is where the fun is. We’re a long way from writing a Bournville Village style guide but ‘anywhere in between’ is as good a place to begin as any.

  4. Thanks for this Dave – great inside story! Extending Jon’s point – maybe an opportunity for a comparison of hyperlocal and mainstream editorial styles … and what the locals think of different coverage.

  5. A great read and insight into your approach to writing a blog of this kind. Love the tips too but I think that it is important to note that blogs come in a multitude of types and styles the majority of which do not require, or in some cases even want, a journalistic approach. For me personally, blogging opens up avenues of expression that are not tied to traditional rules.

  6. great post dave and excellent hyperlocal coverage

    although i still prefer toblerone (made by kraft)

    (ducks for cover)

    at the bbc the other day they siad they wished they had linked to you from their national news site rather than to the Birmingham Mail

  7. Ta Will. Nice to know I was mentioned in dispatches. They did link to me from their page that covered the debate but not from any of the news stories. Still, I got a decent amount of traffic on the back of it!

  8. Great post, and especially think your fifth point is very important. It’s always confused me on a big story when you see a pack of journalists chasing around after the same thing. The result is often the same content appearing in multiple publications, and while that means each journalist won’t have missed something another member of the pack has, it does mean so much will go unreported. Good luck with the site.

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