Monday, 5 July 2010

Judith Townend: Online research and networking breaks down the journalism club

Confessions of a new media journalist: Guest Blog by Judith Townend

As a journalism student I didn't really understand the point of publicly blogging the method. I wanted to show off the final product: why on earth would I make public my grubby workings? The (Jeff) Jarvian 'process' / 'beta' journalism concept wouldn't have made sense to me back then. I still didn't get it for a while after training.
But two years of tracking an industry through social media, RSS feeds and blogs, has changed my thinking.
Some of the best and most illuminating work I've seen and read has been built up through, if not entirely based on, open conversation and discussion.
It's actually a combination of closed and public working. ProPublica, the foundation-funded investigative journalism organisation does the best of both: with its mainstream media partners, it sources and shares information through public channels, whilst putting in the dogged behind the scenes hours too.
My heart sank at a recent journalism conference at Westminster University. A very esteemed panel in broadsheet and tabloid commentary and investigative reporting (I've been trying to track down the video for this, with no luck so far) advised journalism students on how to break into the trade.
It included a lot about the different categories of the industry; what journalists are not; what they are; and who couldn't join in.
"Blog away, by all means," said former Daily Mail commentator Peter Oborne, but print is what you get paid for. "The idea that they [bloggers] are particularly important, I don't understand, actually. I don't see it. As a professional working journalist, it's what we write on the printed page."
For the Sun's Jane Moore too, the print presence was "all important". Apparently, people are far more "considered" in print because it's something "solid." "A lot of blogging is just verbal diarrhoea and they can change it 20 seconds after they've sent the first thing. I just think in print you're writing a set piece that is there forever, and you consider it and you're far more accurate and far more measured about what you're saying."
Whilst acknowledging the changing industry, some members of the panel gave the impression of rigid print 'club' for select members and it didn't sound very attractive.
Far more interesting and inspiring, I think, is the work of some of their more open colleagues, who work with grassroots groups, who use and read some (if not all) the comments underneath their articles and draw on the work of intelligent programmers and developers. That doesn't mean you can't charge for it: it will be really interesting to see if online conversation and participation can be sold, a model with which some publishers are now experimenting.
Professional journalism is a valuable asset to democracy, but not all of it. A lot of what makes the papers each day is tripe and as far from the public interest as you can imagine.
Instead, I suggest we support and endorse publishing projects that are genuinely collaborative and mutually beneficial for the parties involved. That might be called journalism, or it might not be - I don't think it matters. The rubbish content will still exist, and people will probably still buy it, but we don't need to argue its value.
Online and mobile technology has revolutionised the way we do journalism and allowed a freer, less prescribed way to conduct our trade/profession. The new method involves what Charlie Beckett calls 'networked journalism' and the whole point for me is that it involves bits outside the traditionally defined profession.
It does, however, involve silly-named and twee sounding terminology, as the New York Times standards editor recently pointed out. I completely agree that new start-ups come up with some daft names, but I don't think that means we should avoid using the word 'Tweet' in our journalism, as Corbett suggested. Instead we should make use of new tools appropriately it in our work and reference them accurately.
I admit, I'm an addict to this interactivity and have left behind final product focused journalism.
The signs crept up on me slowly at first: writing Twitter-style hashtags in text messages; distressed when I was unable to reference a hyperlink in print; I only recognised people by their gravatar. It got really bad, as I found myself surreptitiously tweeting during the general election, hiding my iPhone activity from those around me. I knew it was time to say hi, "I'm Judith and I'm an online journalist." But there won't be any AA-style meetings - I'm not giving it up.

Last week I left my full-time job as a reporter at, but as soon as I'd deleted the Twitter accounts from Tweetdeck and Twhirl, I was immediately adding others for my new projects and activities.
Already, as I was writing this, my public calls for information are leading to interesting tip-offs and leads. This social and connected way of working bears good fruit and I hope to apply the same principle to academic research.

Judith Townend is former reporter and co-organiser of the news:rewired conferences; she is now a freelance journalist and events co-ordinator and will be starting PhD research at City University's new Centre for Law, Justice and Journalism in the autumn. For more information visit her blog or email jt.townend [at] She's @jtownend on Twitter.

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