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]

This blog is one

This blog is one today. I started a year ago in order to consolidate some of the writing I was doing in various places around the ‘net. Suffice to say that’s happened. Or rather, I’ve ignored the other spaces and just write here instead.

My stats indicate I’m updating this space regularly enough (176 posts = twice a week) and getting a modest amount of comments (408 in total, about two per post). I have no idea what a good measure is for traffic but feedburner tells me I have about 100 subscribers to my RSS feed and 20 people subscribe via email. I was averaging about 30 unique visitors a day although lately (and especially since Sunday’s London Marathon) that’s jumped to circa 150-200 visitors a day all looking for information on this year’s Birmingham half-marathon. You’re all very welcome, do take a look around.

The top five posts that best represent what I hope this blog is about are below:

My Long Lost Family
On finding a whole new branch of my family. A podcast I made that I still struggle to listen to this without welling up. Some great Irish accents here.

Social Media’s Hidden Legacy
On Birmingham’s social media scene and what it says about the city.

Getting Birmingham Businesses Online
On what I do for work and how I’m trying to think it through.

Allotment Year One
On the stuff we grow in our allotment patch

Tour of Bournville
A series of posts on running with my clubmates at Bournville Harriers.

Thanks for all your contributions over the past year – Birmingham is a good place to be blogging in and about; a really strong sense of community. Hope you’ll stick with it as I enter year two.

(pic monroe’s dragonfly)

Social Media ‘Seminar for Success’

I did a presentation at one of Aston Science Park’s ‘Seminars for Success’ this week – I don’t do many 7.30am starts so that’s almost worth a post in itself. All I want to do here is say thanks to those that sent me positive feedback afterwards and a general hello to some new followers on Twitter and LinkedIn. All the speakers’ presentations are posted up on the Science Park website and for reference mine is below also. It looks a bit brief without the arm-waving and additional anecdotes but you get the general point. Any questions please get in touch (in the comments or dave [at]

Writing about worms & business

I’ll avoid cross-posting in future but my first posting at the Digital Birmingham blog is about a useful example of how social media can be used by small businesses:

I’m always looking for examples of how social media can support small businesses. I’ve raised the question before using the local builder as an example. Why on earth would the bloke who knocked a hole in my wall have a reason to use any kind of social media tool?

Well I found a partial answer to that in a video from Herefordshire firm, Wiggly Wigglers (amongst other things they sell worms for composting). Founder Heather Gorringe explains how a shift to social media over tradititional media helped cut her advertising costs without cutting her customer base.

What’s clear is that Heather knows her customer extremely well: “we sell stuff that gardeners may not know they want”. Of course Heather’s firm have had an e-commerce presence for quite a while but they’ve embraced social media in a big way.

She has a blog, a facebook group, uses podcasts and is all over Youtube. I can’t help wonder why Wiggly Wigglers aren’t on twitter (there’s certainly plently of chat about them). Social Media is ideal for building a community around your products, for ensuring customers value the advice you give them and the knowledge-sharing that comes from connecting to each other. Increasing value-added rather than cutting prices sounds like a good strategy in an economic downturn. Previously Wiggly Wigglers had bought in customer lists, now in effect they create their own customer lists for free through word-of-mouth on social media.

For her efforts Heather has won a global award for Small Business Excellence – that’s right, a worm seller from Hereford beat off international competition. Well done to her. We need more local and regional social media champions from the wider business community. Here in Birmingham I think we’re certainly adept at knowing how to make a buck by playing the local card – but maybe we could take tip or two from a rural worm-grower about how to build a global community who care enough to come back again and again.

10 things I learnt on Tour

Here are ten things I learnt during this week’s Tour of Bournville:

  1. Using the same number every night is better in theory than in practice although it does allow for some interesting improvisation.
  2. Sean Rose is faster than me. Actually I already knew this. We all knew this. The best I could have hoped for was some astonishing loss of form from him but it wasn’t to be. Despite the occasional claim of sore calf muscles I knew he was playing with me. He beat me by 1min 53secs overall.
  3. Birmingham is a lovely place. During my marathon training I used to run down the Bristol Road to Longbridge and then up through West Heath amongst other grim urban routes. More fool me as South Birmingham is full of parks and quiet lanes if this week is anything to go by. 
  4. I look ridiculous when I’m running. In every single shot I’ve got my thumbs up. What is with that? Next time you see me please break both my thumbs. 
  5. Doing all five races allows you to eat crap all day. One of the most frequent things I get asked about my running is: “do you have a special diet.” Yes, I have a special diet comprising fry-ups and chocolate. This week I have averaged two breakfasts, several large lunches and quite a bit of mid-morning and mid-afternoon snacks. Yum.
  6. The club has some good photographers. I’m unsure if this one below is a Paul Foot, Mark Lynock or Mike Scotney pic but it’s my favourite of the bunch – shows us all working hard. Those thumbs though – I really need to do something about them.
  7. Race 5

  8. The tour is good for socialising. I’ve chatted to more club members this week than ever. Partly because of the blog but I’ve had good chats with lots of people about all kinds of stuff. I even managed to get rid of some of my allotment rhubarb to Tony A’s other half. Apparently I’m to get a rhubarb pie as payment. More yum!
  9. Blogging rocks!. More of you should do it. It’s really very easy to set up. One of the good things about it is that people can comment on what you write. I haven’t had many comments this week but just having a few people say “good run” or something similar is really quite heartening. Our club website operates a bit like a blog anyway but having your own space to write your thoughts allows you to connect different aspects of your life and interests together and to connect to others who share those interests. Blogging about running also increases traffic to your website. My stats show a three-fold increase in readers of this blog since the link from the club website was made. Yes, that’s up from 3 visitors a day to 9 – wow!
  10. Some male members of this club are way more popular with the ladies than I am. I got a polite round of applause when I went up to receive my hat and bottle of wine but at least one of our male colleagues was rewarded with a chorus of female yelps and wolf whistles when he went up. What’s his secret?…
  11. Finally, something I already knew: we’ve got a great running club at Bournville of which I’m proud to be a member. Well done to everyone who took part in the tour and thanks once again to the organisers. Now it’s back to the grindstone of training – the cross-country season will be here before you know it.
Thanks to all those Bournville Harriers members who are new to this blog. Please keep reading as I do write about my running from time to time. Now in order to demonstrate the power of blogging you all need to write something in the comments about how this week’s Tour was for you…