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Location: United Kingdom

Some people know me as OrangeBlossomer because that's me on Twitter. This blog is a random collection of daily musings about life and stuff I love, such as journalism, dog (sadly my dog died in 2010 so probably no more), women, love and lack of love, boobs (only seldom but it does get me extra online traffic), taichi (I practise) and spirituality (should practise more). I have a day job as a jetsetting publishing foreign rights manager but I am also an NCTJ-qualified journalist and a writer/columnist at heart. Writing is my opium.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

From blogger to Guardian reporter: deconstructing Josh Halliday's x-factor

Josh Halliday at Brighton Future of News Group
(photo by Sarah Booker)

The Brighton Future of News Group (BFONG)'s 10th meetup registered record attendance last Monday when around 35 members gathered in the function room at The Eagle in Brighton. There was a buzz of anticipation in the air.

They had come to listen to much hyped young journalist Josh Halliday talk about his success story from graduation from the University of Sunderland straight into a junior reporter job at The Guardian, no less.

At the News Rewired event last June, the 22-year-old media and technology reporter was one of four journalists mentioned by MSN UK's executive producer's Peter Bale in his keynote speech for their success in building their own 'brand' online. The other three mentions were Jemima Kiss from The Guardian, Robert Andrews, editor of paidContent UK and Will Perrin of Talk About Local, all of whom older and more experienced than Josh.

Find your inner brand
Notice the use of the word 'brand'.

To be able to stand out in a crowd and increase your chances for work, a degree, a polished CV and a few months of work experience thrown in for good measure no longer suffice. Being aware of one's strenghts and portraying them to the world in a distinctive way – in other words, establishing, and marketing, your identity as a journalist – is the best cover letter you could ever present a prospective employer. Are you  leaving a mark wherever you tread? Are you getting the right type of attention by the right group of people?  

Because there are far more graduates each year than there are jobs, "you need to do something to get ahead", Josh advises.  And at an age when digital permeates every section of the media world, having a blog, a website or, at the very least, a social media presence seems like an obvious card to have up one's sleeve, the 'edge' over the competition. 

Josh thinks even Dan Sabbagh was discovered and landed his job as Guardian's Head of Media and Technology, less because of his credentials at The Times than his 'extra-curricular' activities online – his news site Beehive City

It is worth remembering Joanna Geary, community editor of The Times, famously received a job offer on Twitter. Josh promoted his SR2 hyperlocal blog, which got him noticed by other journalists and eventually his future employers, also entirely on Twitter. He joined the microblogging site in December 2008; the following year he was already employed by The Guardian.

Former head of digital development at Telegraph Media Group, Greg Hadfield, a frequent attendee of the BFONG meetings, calls the phenomenon "the new fast track for journalists to success".

Rules of engagement
But Twitter does not always work as a 140-character notice board for jobseekers, nor does it replace traditional job search routes. Twitter, social media sites and blogs are mere tools. As with any tool, the outcomes will depend on whether you know how to use them.

The success of Josh Halliday's SR2 blog and the effectiveness of his brand can be attributed to a simple skill anyone can learn: knowing how to engage with people

His tips for the Brighton Journalist Works' students, who will be covering their own patches as community reporters, were crucially centred round communication with people: making friends with the local policeman, searching for tweeterers in the local area, replying to their questions about the nearest dry cleaner's. Building personal relationships, a skill universities do not necessarily teach, could determine whether you get to that breaking piece of news first, or not.


Several local journalists, including former Argus reporter Richard Gurner, talked proudly about the privilege of being able to "enter people's lives" as a journalist. "It is a key reason to be a journalist," he said. As a local reporter working under pressure, going out to meet people everyday was not always possible. 

Joel Gunter, sub-editor at, pointed out that, if you work for a smaller site, engaging with people through (moderated) comments left on news articles online, can compensate for the lack of direct contact with one's audience. 

Old-school print journalists may be struggling with the very concept of having one's piece commented on by readers, let alone engaging in dialogue with them, but I doubt dinosaurs will survive the digital revolution in media.

Journalism in the 21st century thrives on two-way communication. News, particularly online, is no longer static and final; instead it can evolve with the audience.

Watching the feel-good effect Josh Halliday seemed to have on the BFONG crowd I asked myself what this young hack's pulling power really was about, apart from being so young yet so enviously successful?

Skimming the attendees' comments on the meetup page, I notice the word "unassuming" appears more than once. I must admit that is also the quality I most admire in Josh: his modesty, his feet-on-the-ground attitude, the refreshing balance of a mature head on a young body. Despite all the public accolades received, he retains perspective and a genuine sense of wonder about the world in general.

My highlight of the evening was when Greg Hadfield asked him: "Where do you see yourself in five years' time?" The audience laughed, then held its breath in expectation. Unlike most journalists, who start their careers covering council meetings at a small regional newspaper and work their way up the Fleet Street ladder, where can one aim to go after a job at The Guardian at the age of 22?  

Josh's reply was unexpected and made me gasp for its disarming candidness: he would love to do what he enjoys the most, i.e. being a local reporter...

Perhaps the shortcut to success then is staying true to one's heart, no matter where one is in the journey. For that alone, Josh Halliday has a captive audience in me.

BFONG organiser Sarah Booker's live blogged the event here, and I tweeted under the usual hashtag #bfong. For news and reminders about future meetups follow @brighton_fong on Twitter or join the Brighton Future of News group. The group is open to all and attendance is free.

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Saturday, 15 January 2011

Why the Freedom of Information Act makes GPs vulnerable under the new NHS

[This post first appeared in The Help Me Investigate blog]

The National Health Service is about to undergo a major overhaul, with strategic health authorities and primary care trusts being abolished and GPs gaining control of the NHS budget and responsibility to commission healthcare services. 
Some GPs are not happy about the pressure imposed by their additional administrative duties, which could detract from their primary role as doctors. Others may see the change as empowering, but more power probably also means increased public scrutiny – for doctors are not immune to the spying eye of Freedom of Information Act.

The resolution of case reference FS50295954 of the Information Commissioner's Office involving a general practice in County Durham illustrates the point. 

The case was referred to the Information Commissioner, when the complainant failed to obtain full disclosure of the information he had requested to the practice. The ICO ruled in favour of the complainant. 

What happened? 
1. The complainant wrote an FOI letter to Weardale Practice requesting information on eight points mainly relating to the Practice's Health and Safety regulations. 
2. Some of the information was released after the Information Commissioner intervened but some remained undisclosed.
3. The Practice tried to justify withholding information by using section 40 (2) of the Freedom of the Information Act, which refers to exemption on the grounds of personal data protection.
4. The Commissioner did not think disclosure of the information requested would cause damage or distress to the individuals whose data would be made public through it.
5. The ICO considered that Weardale Practice was in breach of the Freedom of Information Act.

You can read the Decision Notice in its entirety here

The law is clear on doctors' accountabilities. Schedule 1 of the Freedom of Information Act covers which public authorities the Act covers. Part III of Schedule 1 relates to organisations and individuals in the National Health Service, with paragraphs 44 and 45 referring specifically to GPs and other medics:

"44. Any person providing general medical services, general dental services, general ophtalmic services or pharmaceutical services under Part II of the National Health Service Act 1977, in respect of information relating to the provision of those services

45. Any person providing personal medical services or personal dental services under arrangements made under section 28C of the National Health Service Act 1977, in respect of information relating ot the provision of those services." 

Under the Freedom of Information Act, not only a practice but individual doctors working at the practice are considered to be public authorities and can therefore be held accountable. 

Nothing new there. The novelty could be in the fact that we may be evaluating our GPs less as healers of our ailments, more as politicians in charge of public affairs that impact our welfare. 

As long as the Freedom of Information Act rules, it is the patients who will have their fingers on the doctor's pulse.

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

News:Rewired -- valuable digital lessons for the book trade

Since its launch in January this year, I have been a 'serial' delegate at the News Rewired events (hashtag #newsrw  on Twitter) aimed at online journalists and anyone working in the digital field. Last December I went to event no.3, which was about building a brand and digital products to support and share content.

A link-by-link coverage can be found here, including reactions from delegates, and video footage of all sessions taken by the BBC College of Journalism are now available on YouTube.

To avoid repeating what dozens of other delegates have already blogged about in the journalism context, I will focus this post on what I learned at News:Rewired form the point of view of a publishing professional.

Doherty and C Words
Anthony Thornton , group digital editor at IPC Meda, talked about building a community, although 'building' sounds like a misnomer, since he says communities do not need to be built – they are out there already on the Internet, or they are people who just need to be connected and gathered into a community.

And how?

According to Thornton, there are four Cs to be followed:
  • Connection - go out and link out to people
  • Conversation - engage in a conversation, don't just host a forum
  • Consultation - ask what people are thinking about something
  • Collaboration - get people to help you with what you have built
He illustrated with his own success story of how his 2006 book on Pete Doherty's band, The Libertines Bound Together (Little Brown), ended up in eigth place in the coveted Sunday Times' Top 10 bestsellers' list, despite his publisher's naught marketing spend.

Thornton set up a page to promote the book on MySpace [today it would probably have been on Facebook] (Connection), ran tailored competitions for the band's fans, formed and interacted with a community of 1700 followers (Conversation).

He then persuaded his editor to allow readers to decide the book's cover design (Consultation); even the book's appendix was fact-checked by a number of key fans and 'influencers', who having been involved themselves, recommended it to others (Collaboration).

Going native
Thornton's success could have been partly down to the fact that The Libertines' fans already had a strong active online presence; even so I was delighted to hear how a little creativity on a non-existent budget went such a a long way in boosting the sales of a book.

As a digital enthusiast, I am surprised we do not hear more stories like this on a daily basis. After all...

(Image borrowed from James Lowery's presentation at News:Rewired on search optimisation for B2B and specialist media.)

Whether they have even heard of e-books or not, there is no denying consumers are spending more and more time online and not only through computers. In the age of Internet and information overload, attention spans are known to be shorter, reading habits hugely fragmented. But even those who don't have time to read books or newspapers, do find time to surf the Net on the go on their smartphones and iPads.

In order to get the attention of those time-poor but digitally savvy readers, and retain their custom, publishers should be learning to speak a language they can relate to, foreign as it may seem.

Forget discussions on iPad apps versus e-readers, debates about Google, Amazon and the agency model. They make great topics for forums and conferences for publishing types, but the average reader is hardly likely to be interested in what pricing issues are making book people hot under the collar. What readers seek, what all consumers seek, is added value for money – not only BOGOFs.

Social media sells brands
A valuable message I keep hearing at News:Rewired was that whatever the product, online exposure do help sell, and with minimum to naught PR cost involved.

A recent article in The Economist about public relations explained that, as mainstream media start to play less of a central role as the traditional gatekeepers of news, the value of their advertising slots also decrease for the PR man.

It is interesting that Nike, which, like Apple, is known as a brand so strong that it came to represent a certain type of lifestyle, uses both paid ads in mainstream media as well as Facebook, where, when I last looked, 3.5 million people had "liked" its page.

Anne Gregory, professor of public relations at Leeds Metropolitan University, however, explains that few PR firms run social-media-only campaigns. She told the Economist:

"All that is happening is that social-media elements are being added to traditional marketing plans."
So, a bit of the old, a bit of the new.

Nothing prevents publishers from taking a leaf out of Nike's book and maximising returns through free PR on social media outlets, building and managing an online community of 'likers' and 'followers'. There is of course the good old blogosphere, micro-blogging sites such as Twitter, plus a myriad of other social networking sites, but every publisher also has a website that serves as a portal to its products.

The questions that remain are: is that portal open wide enough and how many visitors are actually coming back?

Retention vs. acquisition
There are far worse things than paywalls to stop people from wanting to access what you have to show them, and that is a site which is closed to the outside world, a site that does not engage, invite participation or acknowledge users as a member of the community.

Joanna Geary, keynote speaker at News:Rewired, was inspirational in confirming the old sales motto that "the customer is king". Geary is communities editor at The Times, which is currently under a paid-for subscription model. From her days as a business journalist at The Birmingham Post, she was uncomfortable with the fact that an article's only measure of success was whether your editor was pleased with it. There was something missing: the reader.

Her new business strategy at The Times was based on engaging and building 'relationships' with the reader, something journalists are not accustomed to. Amassing numbers of what she calls 'eyeballs', or unique visitors to the site, for the sake of the advertisers, is less important than identifying and retaining those repeat customers/readers with a tribal sense of loyalty, she says.

The Times Online may have gone behind a paywall but Geary says there is now stronger loyalty among their regular readers, who keep traffic to the site stable. They feel they own and belong to the site they have to paid to get into, so they keep coming back. The site has become a place where community members meet to have grown-up conversations with each other. That makes sense.

You can see the video footage of Jo Geary' talk below, courtesy of the BBC College of Journalism.

Enhanced interacti..on
If building and servicing your community can keep readers loyal to a newspaper, why should it not be equally effective in the publishing industry? Imagine a book club type of space, where fans of an author could feed back impressions, write their own reviews, exchange recommendations on what to read next.

What if every book you bought came with a unique code that allowed you entry into such literary chat rooms? Similar fan sites may already exist for certain authors or product lines, but what about transforming entire pages within publishers' websites into community pages, where a staff member(s) in a sales/marketing+creative/editorial combination role could regularly talk with, not 'at', its public? Would it not make commissioning jobs easier, sell more books, create more buzz, keep readers feeling they are part of the tribe, and ultimately, loyal to the publisher's brand?

The really good news for cash-strapped publishing houses is that none of these possibilities require more than a good web developer and a personable community manager.

  • Passive content creation and static, one-way PR are a thing of the past. Publishers of content, be it facts or fiction, ought to take heed and start re-evaluating their roles. Why shouldn't curated information be part of the creative process? 
  • While UK publishers are obsessing about the future of digital books en masse, not enough are actively seeking to understand the 'lingo' the future consumers of digital products speak. What better way of doing that than reaching out for your own niche community in the online world?
  • It is not what you sell but 'how' you sell it that will give you an edge in the future.
The News Rewired event may have been about digital tools and processes, but, as Neil Perkin, founder of digital and media consultancy Only Dead Fish, wisely said, we should not forget that ultimately...
 "It's not about the technology; it's about the people." 
A good place to start.

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