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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 03 2011

17:39

Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 3: The production line has been replaced by a network

This is the third part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. You can find part one here, and part two here.

The production line has been replaced by a network

The problem is that most media organisations still think they are manufacturing cars, and they still see journalists as part of an internal production line.

Even the most progressive simply expect existing staff to become multiskilled multiplatform journalists, doing more work – but still on the same production line.

But we can redraw that diagram of the overlapping of newsgathering, production and distribution as a network diagram. And the problem with the production line approach becomes more apparent.

The news industry is caught trying to straddle the gap between the physical, and the digital.

It also highlights an opportunity for new, collaborative ways of organising production.

Who’s doing this already? Well Simon Rogers at The Guardian is doing it with their data blog. Talking Points Memo do it with their operation. Slashdot do it with technology news, Global Voices with international news. Reed Business Information do it with Farmers Weekly.

Most other traditional news organisations that try to do this immediately hit a cultural problem. Many journalists would like to see themselves like Clark Kent.

But most people see journalists like this:

And sources who have had bad experiences with journalists and publishers are talking about them to larger and larger audiences. Like this. And this. And this. And this.

Now, wanting to be a great journalist and wanting to create great journalism used to amount to the same thing.

But in a networked world, those two desires can come into conflict. And as journalists it is our egos that are our biggest weakness.

It is ego that leads us to report on a story without linking to our sources.

It is ego that prevents us from reading the comments on our articles and updating the original accordingly.

And it is ego that leads us to ask questions like ‘Is blogging journalism?’ or its latest variant: ‘Is Twitter journalism?’

Asking ‘Is blogging journalism?’ is like asking ‘Is ice cream strawberry?’

It is to allocate qualities to technology that it simply doesn’t have. Is writing journalism? Is printing journalism? Is broadcasting journalism?

In the 19th century Soren Kierkegaard made the same mistake when he said of newspapers that:

“It is frightful that someone who is no one… can set any error into circulation with no thought of responsibility & with the aid of this dreadful disproportioned means of communication”

And 50 years ago journalists were making statements like this:

“TV newspeople … have the intellectual depth of hamsters. TV news can only present the “bare bones” of a story”

In my first class here at City a student asked why they should waste time engaging with people online. I rather testily replied ‘Why publish your work at all? Why bother dealing with editors and subs and your colleagues? Why bother talking to sources and experts? Why not keep your precious piece of journalism locked away in your basement where it will never be sullied by the dirty gaze of other people? If you don’t want to engage with people, write fiction.

But if you want to tell great stories – and have them be heard;

if you want to hold power to account – and have power listen;

if you want to empower readers and viewers and listeners, then you have to engage with them.

It is the height of arrogance to believe your journalism cannot be improved, and it is the height of ignorance to fail to care if anyone engages with the issue you are reporting on.

Read part four of ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’ here.

17:37

Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 2: Cars, roads and picnics

This is the second part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. The first part can be found here.

Cars, roads and picnics

Throughout the 20th century there were two ways of getting big things done – and a third way of getting small things done. Clay Shirky sums these up very succinctly in terms of how people organise car production, road building, and picnics.

If you want to organise the production of cars, you use market systems. If you want to organise the construction of roads, you use central, state systems of funding – because there is a benefit to all. And if you want to organise a picnic, well, you use social systems.

In the media industry these three line up neatly with print, broadcast and online production.

The newspaper industry grew up in spite of government regulation

The broadcast industry grew up thanks to government regulation

And online media grew up while the government wasn’t looking.

Now some media organisations have generally organised along the lines of car production, and others along the lines of road construction. And there were some examples of alternative media that were organised like picnics. Different media organisations got along fine without treading on each others’ toes: The Times wasn’t too threatened by the BBC, and the NME wasn’t too threatened by the fanzine photocopying audiophile.

But digitisation and convergence has mixed these businesses together in the same space, leading to some very confused feelings from publishers and journalists.

This is how news production used to be: a linear process, limited by physical constraints. You went out to get the story, you came back to write it up, or edit it, and then you handed it over to other people to edit, design, print and distribute.

Production was the first part to become digitised, turning a physical good into an intangible one – this saved on transportation time and costs but it also meant that there were limitless, identical copies. And it lowered the barrier to entry which had for so long protected publishers’ businesses from competition.

Newsgathering was the next element to become digitised, as an increasing amount of information was transmitted digitally. In fact, in some cases journalists began to write computer programs to do the grunt work while they got on with more important business of investigating and verifying leads.

Then finally, media companies simply lost control of distribution. This has gone through a number of phases: initially distribution was dominated by curated directories and portals like Yahoo! and MSN, which then gave way to search engines like Google, and these are now being overtaken by social networks such as Facebook.

And this is not over: the net neutrality issue could see distribution dominated by telecomms companies – an issue I’ll come on to later.

This move from a linear physical production process to a non-linear one online is one of the bases for the Model for a 21st Century Newsroom that I published three years ago.

Disintermediated, disaggregated, modularised

As the media went online, three things happened:

It was disintermediated by the web,

Disaggregated by links,

And modularised by digitisation.

Put in plainer language, once newsgathering, production and distribution became digital they could be done by different people, in different places, and at different times – including non-journalists.

It’s important to point out that there is no ‘natural’ way to do journalism. There are hundreds of ways to tell a story, to investigate a question, or to distribute information. Institutions and cultures have grown up out of compromises over the years as they explored those possibilities and their limitations.

When you remove physical limitations you remove many of the reasons for the ways for making those compromises.

Read the third part of ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’ here.

17:36

Is Ice Cream Strawberry? Part 1

The following is the first part of my inaugural lecture at City University London, ‘Is Ice Cream Strawberry?’. The total runs to 3,000 words so I’ve split it and adapted it for online reading.

The myth of journalism and the telegraph

Samuel Morse was a portrait painter. And he invented the telegraph. The telegraph is probably one of the most mythologised technologies in journalism. The story goes that the telegraph changed journalism during the US Civil War – because telegraph operators had to get the key facts of the story in at the top in case the telegraph line failed or were cut. This in turn led to the objective, inverted pyramid style of journalism that relied on facts rather than opinion.

This story, however, is a myth.

The tale of civil war reporting and the telegraph was investigated by David Mindich, in his book on objectivity in journalism. He found that the inverted pyramid style didn’t actually become anywhere near common in newspapers until after 1900. In fact, he credits a government war secretary with the innovation: Edwin Stanton, a sort of 19th century Alastair Campbell who wanted to manage news of President Lincoln’s assassination.

(By the way, he was also the first US lawyer to use the defence of temporary insanity)

But in addition to Edwin Stanton, there were other key factors in the rise of modern journalistic style: in particular, institutions such as the Associated Press – which explored the new business models made possible by the newswire – and cultural change, such as the rise of the scientific method.

The telegraph didn’t change anything about journalism. Instead, it was the culture of journalists who had experienced higher education, changes in the culture of education itself, and the commercial demands of wire services, who over a period of decades changed their style so that news stories could be adapted by dozens of regional clients.

So: people, culture, and institutions. Not technology.

Fast forward a century and the world is still riddled with mythology about technology’s effect on the media. We ask if Google is making us stupid, if the iPad will save newspapers, if Twitter can save democracy.

We seem to forget that it is people who invent technologies – and that they generally invent technologies to solve problems. Then people use the new technology to try to solve those problems – and others besides. And that raises new problems, so we have to invent more technology to solve the new problems, and so it goes on, and on, with new problems replacing old problems and inventors never being out of work.

And boy does the media industry have problems.

Digitisation and convergence: The Legacy of Leibniz and Lovelace

The media’s current problems begin with two more people: Gottfried Leibniz, a 17th century mathematician credited with inventing the binary system. And Ada Lovelace, who helped develop the first computer program in 1843. They were solving problems of their own, and identifying new ones, which in turn were solved again, and so on.

Now at some point people in the media industry came across the legacies of Leibniz and Lovelace. And they thought: “Hm, this looks interesting. Perhaps we can use these technologies to solve our own problem?” And their own problem was the same as that of every company: how can we make more money? How can we produce our product more cheaply? How can we sell the same thing twice?

The solution, they decided, was to digitise as many of the processes in news production as possible. They wanted convergence.

And at first, it worked. Production costs went down, productivity went up.

(I’m reminded here of a small fact about Gutenberg – that the earliest known examples of printing using Gutenberg’s technology are indulgences, suggesting that the church – or at least individuals within it – saw printing as a way to solve their own problem of raising funds. Of course by flooding the market with these indulgences, the Roman church found itself with a new problem: Protestantism)

But over time new problems came up – and the news industry is still trying to solve them.

Part 2, Cars, Roads and Picnics, can be read here.

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