It's the new academic year, and I've got a new set of students for my Online Journalism class. So now we do some blogging... and they should all read this before they start
The students in my online journalism class at City University are all building weblogs this week.
Some have them already, of course, since they’ve realised that engaging with the new media is a sensible option for any journalist, but the others are taking their first tentative steps into posting entries, commenting on what other people say and trying to attract an audience, however modest.
They don’t have to write personal journals or reveal anything about their private lives: they’ve been asked to blog interesting stories in the area of online journalism and new media, which may be a bit self-referential but is at least relevant to the course.
So it’s more like John Naughton’s Memex 1.1 than Belle de Jour’s confessions.
The idea is to give them a better understanding of how the technology works, and show them just how easy it is to publish online even if you have no idea how the web works
or what HTML is.
There are many good reasons for any journalist to have a weblog – or two – although I don’t believe that they’ll need blogs when all the mainstream media sites go out of business. I think that professional journalism will endure, even if it has to change.
It’s useful for my students to understand how things get online, since most online publications these days insulate the content creators – whether journalists or not – from the detail of website creation by offering content management systems of more or less sophistication.
The BBC News website isn’t build by hordes of dedicated coders who carefully hand-craft each page but uses such a system to let editors copy and paste text into standardised page layouts.
It’s also important for any journalist or would-be journalist to have an online presence to supplement their cv and portfolio, since more and more people looking for jobs are going to find their online activities scrutinised as part of the application process.
And of course having to write a blog entry as part of their coursework forces students to read the papers, look around websites and generally take an interest in what is happening with new media, something I want to encourage.
But the real point of getting a journalist blogging at this early stage in his or her career is that the bloggers, in all their variety, with all their different skills and abilities and interests and biases, are reshaping the world in which professional journalists operate just as much as the telephone shook up the profession in the first half of the twentieth century.
On some stories, like the provenance of the letters claiming to be from George W Bush’s commander in the National Guard, or the use of white phosphorus as a chemical weapon by US troops in Iraq, careful digging by bloggers has done a job that the mainstream press failed to tackle.
Elsewhere every journalist now knows to expect comment and criticism from the blogosphere, and those who might once have cut corners by not checking facts or cutting and pasting phrases from other people’s work should now find their lives less comfortable.
A few years ago readers of the Cluetrain Manifesto were exhorted to see the market as a conversation where customers engaged with sellers. This was presented as a break with the one-way advertising and marketing model that used to hold sway, made possible by the internet.
The blogosphere is doing the same sort of thing for journalism, whether in print or broadcast. It’s no longer enough to write or say something and consign any responses to the letters page or occasional ‘have your say’ programme.
My students have to get used to this. They have to engage with their readers in a way that respects the shared values of the online world. They have to get used to being harshly criticised and dissected by those who disagree with them, and they have to accept that sometimes the people reading their work will know more about the subject than they do and may have a valuable contribution to make to their thinking.
At a later stage they’ll need to come to terms with Flickr and the other photosharing sites, and the way that any event attended by large numbers of people effortlessly generates it’s own online community, with hundreds of photos linked by common tags.
I noticed it vividly last month at WSIS, the World Summit on the Information Society, but its just as true for a White Stripes gig or a major sporting event. And of course, it’s true for newsworthy events, no matter how tragic.
Figuring out the relationship between the press and those who see the news happening and post their photographs of it is the next major challenge
But we can’t expect to adapt to this changed world unless we engage with it now, and understand it from the inside as well as observing it from our editorial offices.
The growth of internet use and the emergence of easy-to-use publishing tools could well be the best thing that has happened to journalism since radio and then television offered new ways to reach people, but that requires a certain degree of modesty and a great willingness to learn on the part of a profession that is not noted for either attribute.