Home Sweet Home: Playing in the streets

Evening News: Home Sweet Home versionThere’s a cake shop next door, a giant hamster over the road and soldiers are fighting zombies on the roof. MARY HAMILTON welcomes you to the new-look Evening News.

Breaking news: the postman has delivered a letter.

That’s how most of the news comes in to the Home Sweet Home offices of the Evening News. It’s delivered by a tall man in short trousers, a flat cap and socks, who leaves the envelopes leaning up against the front canopy of the 20cm cardboard building.

I built the office myself, from flat-pack cutout to fully-fledged busy office building complete with newspaper bundles and Plasticene journalists, sharing glue, card and colouring pens with neighbours and strangers.

I even recreated Bernard Meadows’ eyecatching bronze ball sculptures, carefully rolling and squeezing yellow moulding clay and poking it gingerly with a pencil, before giving the rest of my clay to an excited six-year-old who wanted to make bees for her garden.

It is part of a performance – or perhaps an exhibition – called Home Sweet Home, the brainchild of Goldsmiths graduates Abigail Conway and Lucy Hayhoe, in which participants build their own city from flat-pack parts and then experience its evolution as it fills with people playing along.

Watching the tiny town sprout from a black and white canvas into a riot of colour in the extravagant surroundings of Blackfriars Hall was both surreal and sublime, as bizarre buildings and peculiar personalities developed thanks to the imagination of neighbours.

But when the letters began to arrive the town took on a new and magical dimension, with stories, greetings, and feats of collective imagination all emerging thanks to the postal service and the presenters at the radio station.

My letter reads: “Dear Editor, An escaped swan ate my shoes!  Please put it in your newspaper! Yours, Joz Norris, No. 188”.

Immediately I spring into action. I post a breaking news update on the billboard outside the office – crafted from matchsticks, card and successive layers of paper posters – and dash off a return letter asking for more detail about the attack.

Over time, petitions spring up on the community notice board. A campaign to build a public swimming pool gathers pace. Disgruntled residents try to force an election. A little girl who runs a flower shop donates a sponge-and-cocktail-stick floral display to my office.

A small zombie outbreak spreads and threatens other city properties, so the Evening News drafts in a local militia to fight them off. Other businesses welcome the zombies, selling them vintage clothes and inviting them in to a night club.

And I get another letter from Joz saying that he’s bought another pair of Doc Martens but he doesn’t think he’ll be able to look a swan in the eye ever again.

The whole experience is a testament to the power of play. Adults and children alike tap into the storytelling possibilities of the town, expressing their personalities through their houses and opening them up as the community evolves around them.

While some people come along, build houses and leave, those who stay build stories around their houses, and the whole community evolves and changes as the project progresses.

A giant hamster in the back garden of one house is asked to join the Spiegeltent as a performer. A few hours later he has moved to the circus with signs advertising his upcoming performances.

I spend the weekend doing what journalists do: asking questions, writing down stories, monitoring the notice board and answering letters, preparing for a burst of activity on Sunday night as I put the Home Sweet Home edition of the Evening News together.

The following day, when I return to Blackfriars Hall with a stack of miniature newspapers under my arm, the Spiegeltent has disappeared, replaced by a giant hamster run with tunnels, hoops and a swimming pool.

I arrive at the office to discover someone has stuck a giant red ball to my door, in imitation of the large inflatable ball currently touring Norwich as part of the Norfolk and Norwich Festival. They are planted on the church, the fire station and the city hall, too.

For a short time this miniature cardboard community has been incredibly real. It has had action, politics, feuds, joy, fear and anger, and the people who created it have told hundreds of tiny stories that were, for a while, incredibly important, as they literally changed the way their city was constructed.

As the houses were dismantled and returned to their owners, I felt deeply privileged to have been present at the birth and the death of Norwich’s smallest suburb, and to have been able to tell just a few of the stories the residents created.

A version of this article and its accompanying miniature newspaper
were originally published in the Evening News
(www.eveningnews24.co.uk).

Online games as training tools

Second Life: Porcupine: Autism Memorial
Porcupine Autism Memorial in Second Life

Today via @jayrosen_nyu I came across a post by @brad_king arguing that journalism has a lot to learn from the history of online games when it comes to online community management.

He makes some great points about hands-off community modding, and I’m a particular fan of the idea that online news communities could benefit from something like Richard Bartle’s taxonomy of gamer types (which splits gamers into four rough categories and helps game designers cater for all types).*

But I do have to disagree with this paragraph:

MMORPGs don’t have much to offer in terms of developing the traditional journalism skills. These games can’t teach students how to vet sources, how to interview, how to copy edit, how to hit the streets and find stories.

Wait a minute. Why not?

These communities aren’t just there to be managed – they don’t just have histories that can be dissected as useful examples. They’re living and breathing today. They are audiences, readers, participants, and they could be a great training tool for new journalists.

I mentioned that Second Life – one of the biggest and most influential online environment ever created – has three online newspapers with hundreds of thousands of readers.

They cover topics ranging from issues in the real world which affect the game – server outages, technology changes, ToS issues – to in-game gossip and affairs. This sort of information is valuable, and you can get it by employing all those traditional journalism skills that King mentions.

Sure, the rules of these communities are different. They present unique and diverse challenges to reporters trying to hit the street cold and generate stories. But they’re no more unfamiliar or hard to learn than Afghanistan is to a Geordie, or a Norfolk seaside town is to a young woman from inner-city Birmingham. And surely part of the point of j-school is to train us in how to learn the community rules and structures, how to work it out for ourselves, and how to engage.

So why not include a bit of MMO training for budding reporters? Lessons in:

  • interview technique via in-game chat and email
  • fact checking and how to spot a scam or a rumour online
  • vetting sources for legitimacy
  • editing copy – perhaps by crowdsourcing folks to tell them what they did wrong
  • engaging with readers as equals
  • learning a patch – getting to know the movers and shakers and the big issues, who to talk to, where to get quotes

All that and community management too. Bargain.

* Incidentally, I’m 67% Explorer, 67% Achiever, 40% Socialiser and 27% Killer.

The economy of not linking

Chain linkSo the New York Post printed a story without crediting the blogger who originally broke it – and the journalist whose byline is on the Post piece claimed it was an editorial policy not to credit blogs for scoops.

There’s been some controversy over this, with Zachary M. Seward at Nieman Journalism Lab saying “It’s hard, of course, to defend this rule on journalistic grounds”.

There’s a clear and obvious line between nicking someone’s words and rewriting their story – and individuals and organisations who fall on the wrong side of that line tend to get publicly and appropriately told off.

But news organisations routinely borrow or steal story ideas from each other. Newspaper ideas go back and forth, nationals write up local stories, local BBC newsrooms interview people in the evenings who were in that morning’s paper. It might not be nice, but it’s the way the traditional media world seems to work. It’s even happened to me.

Should it be the case online? Print journalists sometimes get very upset when online news outlets summarise their stories even with links – for example, see Ian Shapira‘s response to Gawker’s write-up of his Washington Post article.

Most papers, though, nick stuff and don’t bother to attribute it. Like the New York Post, they take an idea from somewhere and run with it, usually without crediting where that idea came from.

Sometimes it’s to get individual credit, sometimes to avoid looking slow, sometimes editorial policy, and sometimes – believe it or not – it’s because the journalist in question doesn’t know how to put links on their online stories.

At the moment, where I work, we can’t add inline links within stories. We can only add boxed links, which makes it very difficult to link specific content – I couldn’t link to more than two or three sources without confusing the issue. There’s no way of separating links by category or by subject, so internal and external links are lumped together.

This week at work I trained two people to add links to web stories using our current content management system. Before that, if they had found a story on the web they couldn’t have credited it in the way bloggers expect – they lacked the skills to do so. It takes up to three minutes to add a link – time that some people don’t have.

It’s hard to believe in a time when linking is considered potentially vital to paper’s survival, but for some papers and journalists technology and training – and the financial issues involved in acquiring them – are preventing them from following good web etiquette.

Journalists and bloggers can agree (not that they always do) that online sources ought to be clear and obvious, that raw data should be available wherever possible and that linksharing is both important and necessary.

But when the technology isn’t available, sometimes we fall down before we’ve even started.

NCE results

Exams - AlexFrance on Flickr Today, like a fair few other British journalism trainees, I ended up on Hold The Front Page, glued to the examiners’ comments on this season’s NCE results in the vague and desperate hope that there would be some magical alchemical formula there to help me pass the exams.

There wasn’t (that won’t stop me doing it again in three months’ time) but there were a few interesting points in there that gave me some pause for thought.

Apparently, the pass rate has fallen by 16% but 50% more people are sitting the exams. Because of the way the exams work – they are supposed to come after 18 months of training – that makes me wonder what started to happen 18 months ago that prompted the massive upsurge in trainee numbers.

It also makes me feel sorry for those that aspire to print journalism, because for most, if they aren’t already working, they probably won’t get work in print any time soon. Most of them will be going it alone, and while that has its advantages it’s not easy or cheap.

The examiners’ comments, though, are fascinating. According to the senior news report examiner:

Those who did not pass should take note of the skills needed by a reporter in a 21st century newsroom. Publishers quite rightly have a focus on changing technology but core journalistic skills must not be forgotten. It does not matter what platform is being used to tell a story, the basics must still be there.

In today’s crowded market where there are so many news outlets, it is important to get the best story, the story that will make your publication stand out and be the first that readers will trust.

Another comment from the newspaper practice examiner:

Anecdotally we hear that reporters are increasingly tied to their desks and unable to get out to cover stories. If this is the case it may be that they are not amassing enough experience to do themselves justice on the practice questions.

I understand that the NCTJ has standards to uphold, but it’s difficult to reconcile the newsroom reality with what the examiners are saying.

We’re told to write for web first, print second, and time is paramount – it is more important to have the first story on the web, the most SEO-friendly and up-to-date, than it is to have beautifully crafted prose. Some of us are learning to report for the web, not print, and it requires a completely different writing style that doesn’t seem to pass muster with the examiners.

Many of us write many stories twice or three times or more, in multiple styles for multiple platforms and papers, and that ties us to desks – spending more time writing leaves less for reporting. And redundancies are forcing us to write more stories and report in person on less, so we have to do phone work and pick up stories that not long ago we would have staffed.

I’m glad the examiners have noticed this, but I’m confused about how we’re meant to get the skills we need to pass – and whether it’s worth it.

If the newsroom priorities have changed, what’s required of us has changed, the skills we need and the training goals and methods have changed, why aren’t the exams changing to reflect this?

A link to begin with – 12 things multimedia journalists should do

LA Times

Vadim Lavrusik over at Mashable has a post up detailing 12 things newspapers should be doing in order to survive. I’m going to try and start this blog on a positive note – I get enough “print journalism is doomed / ad revenue will never recover / there’s no way out of the decline / we’re all doomed” at work – and talking about how to survive the digital revolution seems like a good start.

Continue reading A link to begin with – 12 things multimedia journalists should do