A couple of weeks ago, I came across the article on Journalism.co.uk: “Why all would-be journalists need to blog”.
Have a read of that, and then read on. It was really insightful for me. I’ve always felt that having a blog was beneficial. Not only to keep up my writing and experience in this, but also to learn more about the industry, demands of web-writing and social media. I contacted Sue Greenwood who wrote the article, to ask for some advice that I could share on this blog, and also learn more about the web-based journalism that she teaches. On my NCTJ I don’t feel like I learnt much about writing online, we rarely covered blogs apart from ‘It’s helpful to have a blog’ (which the majority of us did), and our experience in online journalism was a series of three two-hour afternoon workshops. They very much covered the basics of Facebook, Twitter, WordPress, SEO and to be honest, I didn’t feel that we learnt much that we didn’t know already.
Sue is part-time as a senior lecturer in the School of Journalism, Humanities and Social Sciences, and specialises in web-based and entrepreneurial journalism, teaching students how to use the web to communicate, how to value what they produce, and how to make money from their ideas. I asked her a few questions about her experience in journalism and what she teaches to share on the blog.
What initially interested you in journalism?
When I was a kid, my dad would buy The Mirror on his way to work every day and we’d get the Hull Daily Mail delivered every night. He’d give me both to read after he’d finished and always made me feel that he was passing something important on when he handed me each newspaper.
Later at uni, I did film and photography but it was the documentary projects – talking to people and shaping their story, that interested me most. After uni, I volunteered at Viking Radio, in Hull, I was there on the day the station opened and it was massively exciting even through I spent the day filing! That experience led me to do my post-grad.
How did you find your post-graduate diploma in radio and TV journalism?
Fabulous! It was the first year of that particular Diploma so it was a smallish student group and the lecturers had joined straight out of the industry. They brought with them a bit of a maverick approach and, even though we did shorthand, law, public affairs – all the things we still expect journalism students to do – we spent as much time arguing over the rights and wrongs of journalism as we did learning the skills. It was an incredibly intense and full year and being encouraged to question journalism as well as do it has shaped the way I’ve approached the rest of my career.
What roles have you had in journalism?
Definitely not a traditional route! It took me about two years to get a proper job after uni and my first was as a funding officer for film and photography projects at Yorkshire Arts – so nothing to do with journalism. I moved into voluntary sector management running projects for CSV media, which did TV/radio back-up stuff such as running campaign helplines and media training. While I was there I also created a ‘pop-up’ cable station. I recruited around a hundred volunteers, raised cash, borrowed equipment, and broadcast a 48-hour community cable station, backed by Yorkshire TV.
Then I needed to move to back to Hull with my family and used that to try get into journalism directly. I persuaded the then editor of the Hull Daily Mail (HDM), John Meehan, to interview me but wasn’t convincing enough! A few weeks later I applied for and got a page designer’s job putting together advertising supplements and a few months after that, Meehan noticed I was at the HDM and put me in charge of their web team. We won awards and I started moving up – eventually becoming regional managing editor for websites across half-a-dozen of Northcliffe’s newspapers.
But for lots of reasons I really wanted to get closer to news so I took a big pay drop and joined the HDM’s newsdesk as Assistant News Editor. I went from there to Deputy News Editor at the Sentinel, in Stoke-on-Trent, then News Editor at the Telegraph and Argus, in Bradford. After that I moved into teaching journalism half-time while working on other content-led projects or businesses, and I’m also halfway through my PhD.
How would you define web-based journalism and why is it important?
Journalism that happens first on the web and journalism published for the web.
The web is more important than any other media we use right now. We spend more of our time online than we do with other media and it plays a bigger part in the way we gather and share information. The internet as a medium for delivering news and information is global and social in a way newspapers, TV and radio have never been. At the same time, it’s a very different medium for news and information. What makes it unique is that it’s interactive – we don’t decide how long a site visitor stays with a story; and that it has hyperlinks – a visitor can drill down and through a story, even to places we didn’t plan for them to go. The ability to package a story and for a visitor to spend as long as they want with that story and wandering around it, it is what makes the web so important to journalism.
What are some common questions you frequently get from your students?
How do I get a job? Are there any jobs? How do I make my blog better? How do I get people to read my blog? What mark did I get?…
What would you describe a poor blog to be like? How can we avoid these mistakes?
A poor blog is one that’s written as a sounding board for the writer without any understanding of the audience. If you want to write just for yourself, keep a journal, but a blog is public and you need to give people a reason to read it – information, entertainment, ideas – whatever. You’re writing it for someone who doesn’t know you and you have a responsibility to be clear to them what you’re offering and to deliver what you promise. There are other things you can get wrong – poor navigation, poor design, etc. you can create something that is written well but is just too hard to read. But writing for an audience rather than for yourself, is the most important thing to get right.
Can you explain the context behind setting up wreckoftheweek and what it taught students?
I like to try something myself before I teach it and in this case I was developing ideas around how to build an audience and how to monetize a basic blog. I think the idea itself came because I used to love looking at the “wreck of the week” property in the weekend newspapers and then I realized the domain was available. The starting point for optimizing a site in terms of search engines is the name – so I bought the domain and set up the site with a couple of sample posts on it and started playing around with other SEO-related ideas.
At first it was just a way to test what I was teaching in relation to SEO but I then started to really enjoy writing it and, as the audience grew and I started to get emails and feedback, it became even more important. Now it’s another thing I do and that I have fun doing – even when, like today, I’ve spent six hours on one post because I had to start digging around to find out more about a house I wanted to feature! I think that’s back to my point about blogging for an audience. If ‘Wreck’ was just an exercise to help me teach, it wouldn’t be so successful and I’d probably have stopped writing it by now. But now I’m at a stage where I get emails and photographs from people who’ve bought houses I’ve featured and are renovating them and I feel responsible to them.
What is entrepreneurial journalism and what message do you like to get across to your students?
Audience again – thinking about who you’re producing your journalism for. It’s not about getting a story past your news editor or through conference, it’s about understanding who the market is for that story, that information; and the best way for you deliver it to them. The audience is your responsibility too, not just your boss’s. It’s also about a more creative approach – whether you’re working for someone or not. It’s about taking responsibility yourself for getting that content out, or for solving that problem, or for finding work. Being entrepreneurial is about doing it yourself – and that includes finding the right people to help you and work with you.
Why should every journalism student set up a blog?
I’m starting to repeat myself! Audience again. Understanding that you’re writing in order that people will read what you have to say. Too often as a journalist you’re in a workplace where the goal is to impress your news editor/editor with your story. The journalist isn’t expected to think about how many people read their story or shared it. I’m definitely not saying popularity should be the criteria for assessing the worth of a story (its not about Buzzfeed) but I am saying that journalism students have to appreciate the line from them to the audience for the story they produce. Blogging helps that to happen. Plus, blogging keeps you writing, keeps you producing and gives you something (hopefully impressive!) to show a potential employer.
How do you approach the subject of generating money from a blog?
I tell my students they don’t have to monetize their blog but they do have to make a decision one way or the other, based on whether it’s right for their content and their audience at that point. I show them what other people make from blogging (the students usually like that bit!) and I tell them that it’s not about making money but about recognizing that everything they produce has a value and the first person who has to value what they produce is themselves. Just because they’re students, they shouldn’t assume everything they do is unpaid. Even if all they make from their blog is a tenner, that’s a tenner more than they had before and it means they’re earning from what they produce.
Follow Sue on Twitter: @SueGreenwood