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April 13 2011

12:33

Which blog platform should I use? A blog audit

When people start out blogging they often ask what blogging platform they should use – WordPress or Blogger? Tumblr or Posterous? It’s impossible to give an answer, because the first questions should be: who is going to use it, how, and what and who for?

To illustrate how the answers to those questions can help in choosing the best platform, I decided to go through the 35 or so blogs I have created, and why I chose the platforms that they use. As more and more publishing platforms have launched, and new features added, some blogs have changed platforms, while new ones have made different choices to older ones.

Bookmark blogs (Klogging) – Blogger and WordPress to Delicious and Tumblr

When I first began blogging it was essentially what’s called ‘klogging’ (knowledge blogging) – a way to keep a record of useful information. I started doing this with three blogs on Blogger, each of which was for a different class I taught: O-Journalism recorded reports in the field for online journalism students, Interactive Promotion and PR was created to inform students on a module of the same name (later exported to WordPress) and students on the Web and New Media module could follow useful material on that blog.

The blogs developed with the teaching, from being a place where I published supporting material, to a group blog where students themselves could publish their work in progress.

As a result, Web and New Media was moved to WordPress where it became a group blog maintained by students (now taught by someone else). The blog I created for the MA in Television and Interactive Content was first written by myself, then quickly handed over to that year’s students to maintain. When I started requiring students to publish their own blogs the original blogs were retired.

One-click klogging

By this time my ‘klogging’ had moved to Delicious. Webpages mentioned in a specific class were given a class-specific tag such as MMJ02 or CityOJ09. And students who wanted to dig further into a particular subject could use subject-specific tags such as ‘onlinevideo‘ or ‘datajournalism‘.

For the MA in Television and Interactive Content, then, I simply invented a new tag – ‘TVI’ – and set up a blog using Tumblr to pull anything I bookmarked on Delicious with that tag. (This was done in five minutes by clicking on ‘Customise‘ on the main Tumblr page, then clicking on Services and scrolling down to ‘Automatically import my…‘ and selecting RSS feed as Links. Then in the Feed URL box paste the RSS feed at the bottom of delicious.com/paulb/tvi).

(You can do something similar with WordPress – which I did here for all my bookmarks – but it requires more technical knowhow).

For klogging quotes for research purposes I also use Tumblr for Paul’s Literature Review. I’ve not used this as regularly or effectively as I could or should, but if I was embarking on a particularly large piece of research it would be particularly useful in keeping track of key passages in what I’m reading. Used in conjunction with a Kindle, it could be particularly powerful.

Back to the TVI bookmarks: another five minutes on Feedburner allowed me to set up a daily email newsletter of those bookmarks that students could subscribe to as well, and a further five minutes on Twitterfeed sent those bookmarks to a dedicated Twitter feed too (I could also have simply used Tumblr’s option to publish to a Twitter feed). ‘Blogging’ had moved beyond the blog.

Resource blogs – Tumblr and Posterous

For my Online Journalism module at City University London I use Tumblr to publish a curated, multimedia blog in addition to the Delicious bookmarks: Online Journalism Classes collects a limited number of videos, infographics, quotes and other resources for students. Tumblr was used because I knew most content would be instructional videos and I wanted a separate place to collect these.

The more general Paul Bradshaw’s Tumblelog (http://paulbradshaw.tumblr.com/) is where I maintain a collection of images, video, quotes and infographics that I look to whenever I need to liven up a presentation.

For resources based on notes or documents, however, Posterous is a better choice.

Python Notes and Notes on Spreadsheet Formulae and CAR, for example, both use Posterous as a simple way for me to blog my own notes on both (Python is a programming language) via a quick email (often drafted while on the move without internet access).

Posterous was chosen because it is very easy to publish and tag content, and I wanted to be able to access my notes based on tag (e.g. VLOOKUP) when I needed to remember how I’d used a particular formula or function.

Similarly, Edgbaston Election Campaign Exprenses and Hall Green Election Campaign Exprenses use Posterous as a quick way to publish and tag PDFs of election expense receipts from both constituencies (how this was done is explained here), allowing others to find expense details based on candidate, constituency, party or other details, and providing a space to post comments on findings or things to follow up.

Niche blogs – WordPress and Posterous

Although Online Journalism Blog began as ‘klogging’ it soon became something more, adding analysis, research, and contributions from other authors, and the number of users increased considerably. Blogger is not the most professional-looking of platforms, however (unless you’re prepared to do a lot of customisation), so I moved it to WordPress.com. And when I needed to install plugins for extra functionality I moved it again to a self-hosted WordPress site.

Finally, when the site was the victim of repeated hacking attempts I moved it to a WordPress MU (multi user) site hosted by Philip John’s Journal Local service, which provided technical support and a specialised suite of plugins.

If you want a powerful and professional-looking blogging platform it’s hard to beat WordPress.com, and if you want real control over how it works – such as installing plugins or customising themes – then a self-hosted WordPress site is, for me, your best option. I’d also recommend Journal Local if you want that combination of functionality and support.

If, however, you want to launch a niche blog quickly and functionality is not an issue then Posterous is an even better option, especially if there will be multiple contributors without technical skills. Council Coverage in Newspapers, for example, used Posterous to allow a group of people to publish the results of an investigation on my crowdsourced investigative journalism platform Help Me InvestigateThe Hospital Parking Charges Blog did the same for another investigation, but as it was only me publishing, I used WordPress.

Group blogs – Posterous and Tumblr

Posterous suits groups particularly well because members only need to send their post to a specific email address that you give them (such as post@yourblog.posterous.com) to be published on the blog.

It also handles multimedia and documents particularly well – when I was helping Podnosh‘s Nick Booth train a group of people with Flip cameras we used Posterous as an easy way for members of a group to instantly publish the video interviews they were doing by simply sending it to the relevant email address (Posterous will also cross-publish to YouTube and Twitter, simplifying those processes).

A few months ago Posterous launched a special ‘Groups’ service that publishes content in a slightly different way to make it easier for members to collaborate. I used this for another Help Me Investigate investigation - Recording Council Meetings – where each part of the investigation is a post/thread that users can contribute to.

Again, Posterous provides an easy way to do this – all people need to know is the email address to send their contribution to, or the web address where they can add comments to other posts.

If your contributors are more blog-literate and want to retain more control over their content, another option for group blogs is Tumblr. Brumblr, for example, is one group blog I belong to for Birmingham bloggers, set up by Jon Bounds. ‘We Love Michael Grimes‘ is another, set up by Pete Ashton, that uses Tumblr for people to post images of Birmingham’s nicest blogger.

Blogs for events – Tumblr, Posterous, CoverItLive

When I organised a Citizen Journalism conference in 2007, I used a WordPress blog to build up to it, write about related stories, and then link to reports on the event itself. Likewise, when later that year the NUJ asked me to manage a team of student members as they blogged that year’s ADM, I used WordPress for a group blog.

As the attendees of further events began to produce their own coverage, the platforms I chose evolved. For JEEcamp.com (no longer online), I used a self-hosted WordPress blog with an aggregation plugin that pulled in anything tagged ‘JEEcamp’ on blogs or Twitter. CoverItLive was also used to liveblog – and was then adopted successfully by attendees when they returned to their own news operations around the country (and also, interestingly, by Downing Street after they saw the tool being used for the event).

For the final JEEcamp I used Tumblr as an aggregator, importing the RSS feed from blog search engine Icerocket for any mention of ‘JEEcamp’.

In future I may experiment with the Posterous iPhone app’s new Events feature, which aggregates posts in the same location as you.

Aggregators – Tumblr

Sometimes you just want a blog to keep a record of instances of a particular trend or theme. For example, I got so sick of people asking “Is blogging journalism?” that I set up Is Ice Cream Strawberry?, a Tumblr blog that aggregates any articles that mention the phrases “Is blogging journalism”, “Are bloggers journalists” and “Is Twitter journalism” on Google News.

This was set up in the same way as detailed above, with the Feed URL box completed using the RSS feed from the relevant search on Google News or Google Blog Search (repeat for each feed).

Likewise, Online Journalism Jobs aggregates – you’ve got it – jobs in online journalism or that use online journalism skills. It pulls from the RSS feed for anything I bookmark on Delicious with the tag ‘ojjobs’ – but it can also be done manually with the Tumblr bookmark or email address, which is useful when you want to archive an entire job description that is longer than Delicious’s character limit.

Easy hyperlocal blogging – WordPress, Posterous and Tumblr

For a devoted individual hyperlocal blog WordPress seems the best option due to its power, flexibility and professionalism. For a hyperlocal blog where you’re inviting contributions from community members via email, Posterous may be better.

But if you want to publish a hyperlocal blog and have never had the time to do it justice, Tumblr provides a good way to make a start without committing yourself to regular, wordy updates. Boldmere High Street is my own token gesture – essentially a photoblog that I update from my mobile phone when I see something of interest – and take a photo – as I walk down the high street.

Personal blogs

As personal blogs tend to contain off-the-cuff observations, copies of correspondence or media, Posterous suits it well. Paul Bradshaw O/T (Off Topic) is mine: a place to publish things that don’t fit on any of the other blogs I publish. I use Posterous as it tends to be email-based, sometimes just keeping web-based copies of emails I’ve sent elsewhere.

It’s difficult to prescribe a platform for personal blogs as they are so… personal. If you talk best about your life through snatches of images and quotes, Tumblr will work well. I have a family Tumblr, for example, that pulls images and video from a family Flickr account, tweets from a family Twitter feed, video from a family YouTube account, and also allows me to publish snatches of audio or quotes.

You could use this to, for instance, create an approved-members-only Facebook page for the family so other family members can ‘follow’ their grandchildren, and publish updates from the Tumblr blog via RSS Graffiti. Facebook is, ultimately, the most popular personal blogging platform.

If it is hard to separate your personal life from your professional life, or your personal hobby involves playing with technology, WordPress may be a better choice.

And Blogger may be an easy way to bring together material from Google properties such as Picasa and Orkut.

Company blogs

Likewise, although Help Me Investigate’s blog started as two separate blogs on WordPress (one for company updates, the other for investigation tips), it now uses Posterous for both as it’s an easier way for multiple people to contribute.

This is because ease of publishing is more important than power – but for many companies WordPress is going to be the most professional and flexible option.

For some, Tumblr will best communicate their highly visual and creative nature. And for others, Posterous may provide a good place to easily publish documents and video.

Blogs – flexible enough for anything

What emerges from all the above is that blogs are just a publishing platform. There was a time when you had to customise WordPress, Typepad or Blogger to do what you wanted – from linkblogging and photoblogging to group blogs and aggregation. But those problems have since been solved by an increasing range of bespoke platforms.

Social bookmarking platforms and Twitter made it easier to linkblog; Tumblr made it easier to photoblog or aggregate RSS feeds. Posterous lowered the barrier to make group blogging as easy as sending an email. CoverItLive piggybacked on Twitter to aggregate live event coverage. And Facebook made bloggers of everyone without them realising.

A blog can now syndicate itself across multiple networks: Tumblr and Posterous make it easy to automatically cross-publish links and media to Twitter, YouTube and any other media-specific platform. RSS feeds can be pulled from Flickr, Delicious, YouTube or any of dozens of other services into a Facebook page or a WordPress widget.

What is important is not to be distracted by the technology, but focus on the people who will have to use it, and what they want to use it for.

To give a concrete example: I was once advising an organisation who wanted to publish their work online and help young people get their work out there. The young people used mobile phones (Blackberrys) and were on Facebook, but the organisation also wanted the content created by those young people to be seen by potential funders, in a professional context.

I advised them to:

  • Set up a moderated Posterous so that it would cross-publish to individuals’ Facebook pages (so there would be instant feedback for those users rather than it be published in an isolated space online that their friends had to go off and find);
  • Give the Posterous blog email address to the young people so they could use it to send in their work (making it easy to use on a device they were comfortable with);
  • Then to set up a separate ‘official’ WordPress site that pulled in the Posterous feed into a side-widget alongside the more professional, centrally placed, content (meeting the objectives of the organisation).

This sounds more technically complex than it is in practice, and the key thing is that it makes publishing as easy as possible: for the young users of the service, they only had to send images and comments to an email address. For members of the organisation they only had to write blog posts. Everything else, once set up, was automated. And free.

Many people hesitate before blogging, thinking that their effort has to be right first time. It doesn’t. Going through these blogs I counted around 35 that I’ve either created or been involved in. Many of those were retired when they ceased to be useful; some were transferred to new platforms. Some changed their names, some were deleted. Increasingly, they are intended from the start to have a limited shelf life. But every one has taught me something.

And those are just my experiences – how have you used blogs in different ways? And how has it changed?

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March 02 2011

13:24

Signals of churnalism?

Journalism warning labels

Journalism warning labels by Tom Scott

On Friday I had quite a bit of fun with Churnalism.com, a new site from the Media Standards Trust which allows you to test how much of a particular press release has been reproduced verbatim by media outlets.

The site has an API, which got me thinking whether you might be able to ‘mash’ it with an RSS feed from Google News to check particular types of articles – and what ‘signals’ you might use to choose those articles.

I started with that classic PR trick: the survey. A search on Google News for “a survey * found” (the * is a wildcard, meaning it can be anything) brings some interesting results to start investigating.

Jon Bounds added a favourite of his: “hailed a success”.

And then it continued:

  • “Research commissioned by”
  • “A spokesperson said”
  • “Can increase your risk of” and “Can reduce your risk of”

On Twitter, Andy Williams added the use of taxonomies of consumers – although it was difficult to pin that down to a phrase. He also added “independent researchers

Contributors to the MySociety mailing list added:

  • “Proud to announce”
  • “Today launches”
  • “Revolutionary new”
  • “It was revealed today” (Andy Mabbett)
  • “According to research”, “research published today” and “according to a new report”

And of course there is “A press release said”.

Signal – or sign?

The idea kicked off a discussion on Twitter on whether certain phrases were signals of churnalism, or just journalistic cliches. The answer, of course, is both.

By brainstorming for ‘signals’ I wasn’t arguing that any material using these phrases would be guilty of churnalism – or even the majority – just that they might be represent one way of narrowing your sample. Once you have a feed of stories containing “Revolutionary new” you can then use the API to test what proportion of those articles are identical to the text in a press release – or another news outlet.

The signal determines the sample, the API calculates the results.

Indeed, there’s an interesting research project to be done – perhaps using the Churnalism API – on whether the phrases above are more likely to contain passages copied wholesale from press releases, than a general feed of stories from Google News.

(Another research project might involve looking at press releases to identify common phrases used by press officers that might be used by the API)

You may have another opinion of course – or other phrases you might suggest?

September 15 2010

07:40

Hyperlocal voices: Jon Bounds (Birmingham: It’s Not Shit)

Hyperlocal blog Birmingham: it's not shit

Jon Bounds surely has the claim to the most memorable title of a hyperlocal blog. Birmingham: It’s Not Shit (“Mildly sarcastic since 2002″) is a legend of the local and national blogging scene in which Jon has been a pioneer. In the latest of my ‘Hyperlocal Voices’ series, he describes the history of the site:

Who were the people behind BiNS, and what were their backgrounds before setting it up?

There was, and to a large extent still is, just me Jon Bounds. Although I’ve now got a couple of ‘columnists’ and feel that there are people around that I can call on to let me have a break.

I’ve an odd background of a Degree in Computer Science and a postgrad (CIty & Guilds) qualification in Journalism (and a brief, not entirely successful time as a freelancer on very poor music publications), but it was really working on internet design books in the late 90s that made me think about “the web” as a method of sharing.

As a kid I’d run fanzines (computer games and later football), but there were real creatives getting to grips with the web at that time and that was exciting.

What made you decide to set up the blog?

The blog part of the site came a couple of years after the site itself — which was originally a much flatter website with funny articles/video and a forum. The idea behind the site came as a direct reaction to the terribly drab view of the city that Marketing Birmingham/the Council put forward for the European City of Culture bid in 2002 — and the fact that all of the local media went unquestioningly with it.

Birmingham wasn’t – and still isn’t – a city of loft living and canalside bars, yet “organisations” only seemed comfortable with that little bit of it. To cover the bits of Brum that real people recognise and care about is still the main thrust of the site.

The forum was the real heart of the site, it was a great source of inspiration and support — but it waned after the switch to more in-depth blogging: people migrated to commenting instead. The community still exists, it’s just spread more widely — across people’s own sites, Twitter etc.

When did you set up the blog and how did you go about it?

The first pass was hand-written by me in PHP — it was an easy way to add new content to the site, and be more flexible about what that was (with the link log/blog I could justify covering smaller and more time dependant things).

I later expanded it to a separate blog with Blogger, but that wasn’t very connected — so I quickly moved over to a self-hosted WordPress install so I could integrate the whole site.

For content, it started mainly giving links and information about local events — stuff which wasn’t and still to a certain extent isn’t easy to find in one place. It came from me searching the web and the media by hand. There wasn’t an attempt to do “news” as you’d conventionally see it.

What other blogs, bloggers or websites influenced you?

There were very few blogs around when I started, at least none that were covering local areas that I’d seen — it was mostly inspired by the attitudes and community around Popbitch.com and b3ta.com. They handle community and real events in a very grown-up way — trusting people to contribute, self police and comment without hyperbole on news events and history.

For all that the communities are built around the creation and consumption of seemingly trivial they are fantastic sources of information. Popbitch was the only site still working on 11/09/01 and the people there handled the unfolding story in a genuine way — something that mainstream media just didn’t do.

When transitioning to a more standard blog format, Pete Ashton’s series of posts on Birmingham were useful (sorry best link is http://peteashton.com/page/2/?s=%22brum+blog%22) as something contemporaneous — Diamond Geezer (despite being about #thatlondon) was and is somewhat of an influence too.

How did – and do – you see yourself in relation to a traditional news operation? How are you different and how are you the same?

I didn’t see any relation to trad news when BiNS started. We got a little bit of coverage (some patronising, some ‘shock horror’) when the site first started and then were roundly ignored for a good few years (except when the Sunday Mercury would dip in to the forums every so often for some filler).

There was originally no attempt to cover the same things — the site was a reaction against how the city was being shown. There was deliberately uncensored commenting (bar removal of libel/racism – of which there was very little) and a tendency to cover the more esoteric of Birmingham’s charms.

While I’d like to think that that’s how BiNS still operates, it has moved slightly towards news coverage – particularly in attempting to hold an eyeglass to the operations of the larger orgs that run the city. It’s also had a bit of a campaigning zeal to point out any churnalism or obviously uncritical reporting of (council especially) activity. There is a lot of this in Brum still.

What BiNS doesn’t try to do is to cover the same stuff that people will see in the trad news media — that would stretch resources and dilute the voice — when facts are there it’ll just link.

There has been a movement towards BiNS’s style by some of the proper outlets (including them asking me to contribute) – BBC Midlands Today’s coverage of the “Wolverhampton Ring Road Tramp” seemed to me to be something that they really wouldn’t have done when Birmingham: It’s Not Shit started – it tried to be sentimental and have an arched eyebrow about a story that it probably wouldn’t have touched years before. I’m not saying BiNS was responsible, but the way people could converse on the net has changed the media.

I think there are certain journalistic standards (although not the same often-false idea of neutrality) that the site shares with trad media – and some where I (unbowing to commercial or sales pressures) am free to have higher standards.

What have been the key moments in the blog’s development editorially?

Interestingly, I feel it’s what I could leave out as other blogs and sites started up in Birmingham — the success of Created in Birmingham of rounding up (in a fairly uncritical manner) a lot of the creative stuff going on in the city meant that BiNS could concentrate on what it does best rather than trying to cover everything. The more blogs, the more linking there has been to replace what would otherwise be dry stuff as I don’t know enough about it — people with more knowledge and interest do it better.

My leaving the BBC, years ago now, gave me more freedom to comment on things — but it sort of coincided with the mainstreaming of the blog (a little after came the Birmingham Post putting me at number 14 in their Power 50 list).

Certainly being known personally (and knowing, to an extent) the people that I was covering made some posts more circumspect — and some items not covered at all. This could well be an inevitable problem for the more successful local blogs.

That said, knowing that some people in authority are irritated by it gives some reason behind some of the more campaigning coverage.

Anything else you feel has been important in the development of the blog that hasn’t been covered?

That I’m not a journalist, nor have aspirations to be one gives the site freedom — that it doesn’t solicit adverts (the few on the site are unpaid favours to friends) gives it a strength. A strength to not cover things that aren’t interesting, and to be seen as independent.

The name of the site was critical in both positioning it and getting attention in the early days, and while it no doubt hampers it at some junctions (it rarely gets a link from the press, for example) it sort of keeps it on track — there’s no point in going ‘mainstream’ with “shit” in the URL. It’s also a template for the sort of humour that I’d hope is still part of it.

February 01 2010

08:40

Come to the West Midlands Future of News Group February Meetup

The Future of News gathering first organised by Adam Westbrook has its first West Midlands meetup next week (organised by The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John. I’ll be there, along with leading Portuguese blogger Alex Gamela, Brummie alpha blogger Jon Bounds, Andy Brightwell of Hashbrum and Grounds Birmingham; the UK’s top student blogger Nigel Barlow and Pits n Pots‘ Mike Rawlins, among others.

It’s taking place from 6.45pm on Monday February 8 at Birmingham City University. Places are free but limited – book at http://www.meetup.com/The-West-Midlands-Future-of-News-Group/calendar/12461072/

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