An updated timeline of journalism in a digital age.

Early last year I updated my timeline of journalism events in a digital age and I thought it was time to take a look and see what needed to be added.

So I’ve updated it including the following:

  • I’ve added the appearance of Buzzfeed in 2006: Who knew that this viral startup would be thought of the ‘preeminent media company in the future’.  I’ve also added the $50 million dollar investment from earlier this year.
  • The NSA leaks story:  The reach of this story makes it a defining moment for me.  It’s a story that brought security and net neutrality into the newsroom with some excellent (and innovative) storytelling along the way.
  • Jeff Bezos buying the Washington post – media buyouts don’t often break the mould but Bezos putting up $250million of his own money is an interesting one for me.  The fact that it’s the man behind Amazon – considered by many a successful online company  with experience in many of the areas where the media is playing ‘catch-up’.
  • Leaked NYT innovation Report – media orgs will fall on any intel on the industry and their competitors but this leak to Buzzfeed (there they are again) of an internal review of the NYTimes’ digital efforts was as notable for it’s view of who the competition was as it was it’s candid material.
  • The murder of James Foley: Many journalists have died in the process bringing us news from warzones. But the way the video of Foley’s death surfaced and the ensuing debate around how we shared the news (and the video) speaks to the changing way we view news and conflict.

I’m sure there are more and I’m sure that there are some that aren’t so US centric so I’d love to hear your views on what should be included.


Steve Matthewson Head of Business Professional Networks at The Guardian suggested including the closure of the News of the world. I’d considered it but it didn’t feel ‘digital’ enough. However, Steve makes a good point.

So I’ve included it!

Twitter user @sms2sms suggested a number of inclusions, including Flash!

I thought that was a great idea. Even if it was there as a motivation for people to create an alternative, I think Flash has shaped the way we tell multimedia stories online. So it’s in.@sms2sms also suggested Rocketboom, another good idea that’s now in.

American Univ Journo prof Andrew Lih offered:

I’d never heard of it but remember the later ‘clicks and morter’ attempts later on. This is a gem of an example and well worth an inclusion. Also worth a read is John C. Speer’s disseration on the subject.

The no-budget way to make BBC Instafax style video for Instagram

How to make fancy visual news videos on the cheap
How to make fancy visual news videos on the cheap

Last week I spent a very pleasant day at the Newsrewired conference in London.  I was moderating a panel on short form video. It prompted a lot of thinking about what that actually was. But one example of what it could be was the BBC’s project Instafax. I’m still a bit skeptical as to whether this a ‘new form’ as much as a nice use of a platform. (I’ll maybe blog more about that issue)

Actually I’m just more impressed that orgs like the BBC, Channel 4 and The Guardian are experimenting with visual story telling online. They aren’t alone.  A number of startups like NowThisNews are experimenting with using micro-video on platforms like vine and instagram to reach that much-desired mobile audience.

Anyway, above what I might think of the rhetoric around the experiments, I did think that it was an interesting idea to show to students. It struck me as a fun way to introduce images etc. and think about telling stories in different ways.   So I set about working out a way to do instafax style video on the cheap (well, free).

One of the things that was clear in the panel discussion was how much a lot of orgs still rely on quite expensive kit and infrastructure to make video happen. (The key seems to be in getting your initial settings right) Now we aren’t short of kit at the uni but we do have some restrictions on the tools we can use and things we can install.  So I was looking at a solution that was pretty much web-based and as universal as it could be.

So here it is:

Instafax on no budget.

The ingredients

  • Some nice images of news stories (make sure you have cleared their use before you start)
  • Access to an image editor. Photoshop and gimp are fine but in this recipe we will be using
  • Access to a youtube account
  • An instragram account
  • A phone with the instagram app to  upload your video.

The method

Making the image

  • Open up a new image in Pixlr.
    • Set the width and height to 640pixels.
    • cut-and-paste the image you want to use in to the image


  • Open up the image you want to use in your video.
    • Select the crop tool
    • Set the Constraint option to Output Size
    • Set the output Width and Height to 640px . Note. Be careful how you use this tool. The crop will resize to 640×640. If you highlight a small part of the image or your image was small to start with, it can ‘blow-up’ the selection and leave you with a blurry, pixel-ly image.
  • Use the text tool to add a suitable caption. It’s worth thinking about where you put your caption. It seems to be common practice to add a caption at the top or bottom but never in the middle of the image. I’m guessing that’s to avoid it being obscured by a play icon on some platforms.
  • Save the image(s) as a png file

Making the video

  • Open the
  • Click the camera icon and click Add Photos to the project
  • Upload the images you created
  • Add the image to the timeline. Remember your video has to 15 seconds so stretch or minimize to fill. A guide of 4 seconds a slide is not a bad starting point. It depends on the amount of text.
  • When you’re done, publish the video
  • When the video has been processed go to your video manager ( or click video manager on the video page)
  • Click the edit dropdown next to the video
  • Click Download MP4

The video looks something like…

Getting it on instagram

  • Copy the mp4 file to your device. Email is good or maybe dropbox would help here.
  • Upload using the instagram app as normal

When you add your video to Instragram, don’t forget the caption. You can get quite a lot in there are it works well as a kind of summary/intro/cue for the story.


As a process it’s a bit clumsy and the rendering up and down from youtube doesn’t leave the crisp edges that you would get from using better kit (or the whizzy transitions). But I think it does the job and with some music (which you could add using youtube’s own editor) I think it’s a viable, entry level way to explore image slideshows and mobile audiences.

What about adding video?

Instagram will crop out the sides of any video so framing is important.
Instagram will crop out the sides of any video so framing is important.

You can easily add video using the youtube editor but Instagram will crop the outer edges. So make sure you frame the video with the key elements in the middle. Also the youtube editor text tools are (very)very limited.


The big gap here is the ‘transfer to your phone’ bit.  There is site called Gramblr that will allow you to upload from the desktop but it wants your username and password. If that’s a price you’re prepared to pay (and I’ve no reason to assume that it isn’t safe) then it’s a workable solution. But I think Dropbox or email is just as easy and if you use the native app to upload you get all the other stuff like tags etc.

I’m convinced there is always real value in playing around with platforms. It isn’t just geeky tinkering. As I said, fair play to organisations that are experimenting in the way the BBC are.  For me, this was as much an exercise in something interesting for the students to try – exploring new platforms and playing with kit – as it was any attempt to prove it could be done.  But I think, like slideshows, this is an opportunity for those with plenty of image s to explore new narrative styles.

Let me know what you think.

Oh and hey BBC!  if you’re looking to drop the insta bit, how about something that sums up what it is. Facts that you can see. Maybe, seethefax…seefax…something like that.


International students die in groups of five. Or do they?

Update: They knocked back my second request on the grounds of anonymity. The sample was so small that giving me details might risk identifying someone. That seems fair, but if nothing else the very low number means that in the context of my original thinking the numbers are not in context large enough to suggest a broader story. (taking as read that the individual circumstances are sad and may have warranted reporting at the time) 

I always like to test out the stuff that I ask my students to do; don’t make people to do something you wouldn’t try yourself (apart from maybe fitting a gas cooker or disarming a bomb ). So I’ve been collecting data from various places to use in data journalism exercises including FOI requests via

I asked for details of people who had died whilst on student and Tier 4 visas. It was playing out a hunch (just curiosity) I had about a few things, in particular the number of those that would be suicides. I thought it would make interesting data and would be something that might interest students without getting in to the dangerous territory of ‘student stories’

Where possible I would like to know the date, location of their death, gender, age, cause of death and sponsor institution.If you could provide this information in digital form, preferably in a spreadsheet format, that would be very helpful

Here’s the data I got.

Not really what I wanted.  The main reason cited was that apart from the information above, was that they were “only able to report on data that is captured in certain mandatory fields on the Home Office’s Case Information Database (CID).” Most of the information I wanted would be in the  ‘notes’ section of any records which would need to be located manually.

The Home Office is not obliged under section 12 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 to comply with any information request where the estimated costs involved in supplying the information exceed the £600 cost limit. I regret that we cannot supply you with the information that you have asked for, as to comply with your request would exceed this cost limit.

Fair enough although I was a bit suspicious that some of the information that would seem to be pretty useful, like sponsoring institution,  would not have a field.  But I realised that I didn’t really know what fields were in there. In fact I didn’t really know that the Case Information database was where that stuff would be.

Thanks to an FOI by Helen Murphy, I find out that;

All data held on the Caseworker Information Database will fall within a
minimum data set. The Caseworker Information Database contains:
• Name
• Date of birth
• Nationality
• Arrival details
• Temporary admission address
• Detention details
• Refusal reasons• Diary actions
• Notes
• Removal details
• Photograph

More surprisingly it also reveals that “Currently there are over 75 screens on the Caseworker Information Database (CID)”. 75 screens No wonder they can’t find anything!

7 hour days

Helen’s FOI also helped illuminate  working conditions at the Home Office. In Helen’s FOI

The £600 limit is based on work being carried out at a rate of £25 per hour,  which equates to 24 hours of work per request.

In my response :

This [£600] limit  applies to all central Government Departments and is based on work being carried out by one member of staff at a rate of £25 per hour, which equates to 3½ days work per request.

Taking one as a different way of expressing the other ( a dangerous assumption) would suggest less than 7 hour days at the Home office. Still, that seams fair given the number of screens you’d need to wade through. I’d give up after 2 hours!

Groups of 5

The other thing that struck me about the data was the alarmingly uniform numbers that people die in – 5 at a time. It turns out that the figures are not entirely complete *.  A note on the data says:

Figures rounded to nearest 5 (- = 0, * = 1 or 2) and may not sum to totals shown because of independent rounding.

Why round them to 5? It’s not like half a person died! Update: In the comments Martin Stabe suggests “This could be an anonymisation requirement so that individual cases cannot be identified from aggregate data.”

Limits of being human

I’ve put another request in on the basis of the data I got, assuming that 10 cases would be manageable by someone in 3.5 days although 75 screens worth of content might yet fox my demand, so I may never get what I want this way.

The truth is that, as data, what I got is next to useless – no real context and the numbers aren’t even accurate, – but it reinforced a few things for me:

  • Good FOI’s rely on good planning and some prior knowledge. I’d done a bit or work understanding the whole Tier4/student thing but clearly I needed to do more on understanding who held the data, how and why. Data, in fact journalism, is all about context
  • Good FOI’s rarely stand alone. Often an FOI is an enabler. It opens doors, avenues for further questions. That makes it valuable even when the data might be useless.
  • Visibility helps. Helen’s FOI answered questions I had. Maybe mine won’t but It’s in the mix.
  • Open government doesn’t just rely on data. It relies on the capacity to retrieve and search that data. Government is really good at collecting it and shockingly bad at having it in a form that is usable even to themselves. (but we all knew that didn’t we)

Not new or startling revelations but it never hurts to be reminded of these things from time to time.


* for ‘not entirely complete’ read ‘bugger all use’ 

Diagnosing the noble disease – how we treat journalism in the 21st century.


This is the original script to a short presentation I gave University of Northampton’s ‘Imagine Journalism in Ten Years’ Time‘ mini-conference chaired by Kevin Marsh,  and organised by John Mair. Other speakers included: Professor Jay RosenMatt Andrews who has his talk here ;Teodora Beleaga, who has her slides here, and Judith Townend who has put her slides and talk online. The talk is a development of one I gave last year at last years Nordic media festival and an ethics lecture I gave a few weeks ago. (which I may put up here soon)

Journalism education is at an inflection point. The mix of disruption in the journalism industry and in the education market has created a growing movement demanding a radical rethink of the what, how and who of journalism education. This paper takes the position that this also calls for a rethink of the way we frame journalism when considering how we might react to this changing environment. It rejects the idea of journalism as a profession in favour of the idea of journalism as a diagnosis.

In thinking about where journalism is going to be in ten years or so, I’ve been thinking a lot about big toes. I want to take the next 10 minutes or so to tell you why.

A few years ago now we actually got some people from industry in a room and asked them what the journalist of 2015 would look like. The first thing they said was quarter-past-eight was a more realistic goal. Twenty-five past eight is still not quick enough.

Here are some of the things the identified:

  • Technology and practice
  • Design principles.
  • Content management and online publishing
  • Storytelling and the impact of new mediums
  • Multimedia – video, audio, photography and image manipulation
  • Web technologies
  • Social networking and Web 2.0/3.0
  • Semantic web and what that means for journalists – Tagging, Geotagging
  • Search engines and their impact on content creation
  • Budgeting, business practice and legislation
  • Developing entrepreneurial skills
  • Building a personal brand
  • Interpersonal Skills
  • Identifying, developing and pitching an idea for a multi platform project
  • Building Networks and Managing Relationships
  • The editorial, legal and ethical challenges of developing and managing UGC
  • Managing a complex multi-platform production

Thinking about what I teach, this is pretty much how things break down:

  • Social media
  • Curation (real time curation) –
  • Data Journalism – big data. Transparency vs accountability.
  • Community
  • Multi-platform – the impact of community and persistence
  • Innovation
  • Entrepreneurship

Much of that could be dissmissed as overly practical – lots of digital toys. But I just want to point out how much conversation they generate around law, ethics and personal and professionalism identity. This is not just playing on the web!

To try and some that up in to the kind of person we want to produce – the journalists of that future we are talking about today will be 

an innovative, social media savvy, data aware, community-connected, curator, working across multiple platforms…

Given where I am and who is the room I think it’s valid to take a little detour from what we teach to How we teach.

Like the journalism industry, education has been disrupted by new technology (and no small amount of political and social disruption too).

Howard Finberg one of the directors at the  American Poynter institute told an audience at the European Journalism Centre that Journalism education is at its own inflection point. He sees one possible response to this as 

 the unbundling of a journalism education from a journalism degree. Think about the unbundling of news and information from the traditional mass media delivery methods, such as a newspaper or television broadcast.

He questions who we care about the most in journalism education claiming that making about the faculty the center of the decision making process is a recipe for what Eric Newton at the Knight Foundation refers to this as a “symphony of slowness.

There is an element of the Utopian in a lot of the rhetoric around this idea; the idea that the internet will solve the problem; it will make information accessible to everyone. But there is also more than a good deal of commercial concern, often unspoken; can we make money?

One of the unbundling projects at Poynter’s News U (one that Finberg cites) charges $65 for their introduction to journalism module but (as of yesterday) it’s only available to registered students at Florida state.

In one sense might not seem so revolutionary when it’s not quite as unbundled as the ideal would have it – it’s more an extra to the Florida degree bundle. But the level of student engagement tells a story about the way that people want to learn as much as the state of the industry in general tells us about the way people want to consume news.

So, like the journalism industry, the education industry looks to change the way we do things.

Clearly that’s as much about the way we teach as what we teach.

For the progressives, looking to the Internet enabled mass teaching movement, that’s as much about understanding that we need to engage with more than our students. We need to open up and engage with the community around us. Now I bet that does sound familiar to the industry people in the room…

A popular peg for this is the teaching hospital analogy. The idea of learning by doing is not new in journalism – education or industry. But the importance of community engagement comes idea comes from a heavy commitment to the Civic and participatory Journalism movements: It can’t just be an issue of practicing on the community it has to be practicing with them.

Digital as well as media literacy often go hand in hand in civic journalism.  Alberto Ibargüen, Knight Foundation’s president and CEO commented on the importance of this (as he said thanks for a whopping great grant to help facilitate it):

“In the 21st century, successful communities will be those who can best connect with each other and the world using digital media. ”

The connection between what often gets called Media literacy and democracy is one that journalism has never been afraid to co-opt in to the formulation of its own identity the fourth estate. In that sense I suppose we could also say media literacy has never been too far removed from discussions of media ethics  – You need to understand what and how journalism works to be properly critical of it. A challenge for journalism at the best of times let alone, at least in the UK, in this post-Leveson world. 

So the idea is that we (journalism education) should educate people to the way we do things (essentially the practical stuff) in journalism as well as equip them to understand the way what we do affects their world is not just a key part of us surviving the disruption but a key part of sustaining democracy.

Enabling a plurality of voices is something that is meant to be part of what we do in journalism. But what is being suggested here is that we are also about aiming people to do it without us – to fill the gaps. It should be part of journalism educations job to enable the bottom-up corrective for the mostly top-down perspectives of the news media.’ Gans (2003:103).

This perspective inevitably gives rise to the idea of citizen journalism – trust me, it does!
And in that conversation about the way we teach this new cohort of semi-journalists to be media literate (how gloriously pompous is that!), draws our attention to the elephant in the room : Who we should be teaching?

So, as much as the journalist of the future may well be:

an innovative, social media savvy, data aware, community-connected, curator, working across multiple platforms…

 they may also be someone:

…who doesn’t work for a media organisation.

Perhaps we could call it unbundling journalism from the media.

At the very least its about finding a different way to talk about it that isn’t bundled so heavily with the institutions of journalism and journalism education. That’s why I like to think about the idea that journalism is a diagnosis not a profession

To finish, let me make sense of the big toe reference. I want to talk about gout.

Gout is a disease that’s typified by an inflamed, red, very painful big toe. It’s been referred to as a noble disease. One respect a noble disease is one that comes with no stigma – like cancer but unlike mental illness say. But in the case of gout, noble means: distinguished by rank or title.

It’s been called the patrician malady – “Historically seen as a disease afflicting upper-class males of superior wit, genius, and creativity” The The Oxford Illustrated Companion To Medicine notes that the Roman poets suffered a lot from Gout and notes that there was an effort to frame it as a noble disease whose sufferers could trace their family line back to Ulysses (Odysseus) the legendary Greek king of Ithaca. You know, the big poem.

The truth is it’s called that because you often get it from a rich and privileged diet – over eating and too much rich wine.  It’s confusing noble with privileged and trying to spin the negatives.

In some ways I think we have come to think of Journalism as a noble disease. You’re special if you have it. Second only to “kings and poets”.

Of course anyone can catch gout just as, in my view, anyone can catch journalism. Maybe we are guilty of building up a structure that simply sustains a romantic view of  what has essentially become an industrial disease.

When we talk about the future of journalism it’s clear we need to think about journalism differently. The core concepts of democracy and social responsibility are coming to the fore and in a practical and collaborative way that goes beyond simply claiming them as defining parts of a professional ethic – they are symptoms.

Clearly many people think that it’s the job of education to break out of the sanatorium business and help those who have caught it to manage the condition in a way that is beneficial to them and society. In that sense  trying to understand the future of journalism is an exercise in epidemiology rather than forensic pathology.


As seductive as the teaching hospital model may be I don’t think it quite holds up in respect to its community service remit beyond filling a media hole.

When questioned about an apparent contradiction in the idea of caring about the people you work with in a community – something I talked about in developing the broad themes I teach, I made the point about the difference between the care and commitment an individual journalist makes to a person or audience vs a media organisation, both different in their own way, For me the model of the individual, socially responsible journalist is the more robust in the future. The institutional social responsibility of the media organisations (you get what we think is best for you) is, for me, one of the key factors in msm’s engagement problems.

You have no idea how long I have been searching for diseases to use as an analogy. I think gout works well but maybe the fact that I looked so long says that the whole endevour may not be worth the effort.Sorry for those who have had to sit through me trying it out and  I’d love to know your thoughts on the whole thing.

Image from Wikicommons and officialpsds

It’s not SEO it’s human linkbait

Quinoa: When popular stories go against the grain (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As optimisation (and seo) are on my mind at the moment, it was nice to see an article on the fears of populism in the age of search engine optimisation by Guardian readers editor Chris Elliott.

Serendipitous as it was, it was also a little frustrating. Essentially the article (in a stereotype busting style for the Guardian) is about an article about quinoa – Can vegans stomach the unpalatable truth about quinoa?

With a headline like that, you can imagine that it generated a good deal of controversy. But Elliott used it to highlight another point:

Notwithstanding the controversy, the article generated a massive amount of traffic through the Guardian’s website. On the whole, generating traffic, like selling newspapers, is crucial. But in the last six months three colleagues have written or spoken to me to express concern that the entirely reasonable desire to attract people to the site may be skewing news and features agendas.

He continues”

One conflicted colleague said: “There have been occasions recently where stories have been commissioned by editors who have talked about how they hope it will ‘play well’ online – this appears to have been at the very forefront of their mind when commissioning. Certainly this is the prime driver of many online picture galleries. Obviously … we want to be well-read and popular, but it is a slippery slope, and it now appears that in a few cases we are creating stories purely to attract clicks.”

My answer to that would be…“and your so called point would be?”. Doesn’t having a web site that’s built on the strategy of community rather than paywall or another model mean that you can, no, must reflect the audiences interest as well as serve the demand to inform? Hmmm. Maybe that’s why I’m not working at the Guardian.

Thinking about it reminded me of the evidence that Paul Staines (Guido Fawkes) gave Leveson (Vol 1: P170) – I know, I’m just so street!

Mr Staines also stated, in a parallel that he himself has drawn with the former editor of The Sun, Kelvin Mackenzie, that he would run stories that are single sourced if the story was of little consequence, or in keeping with the overall tone of the Guido Fawkes site, namely, that it was gossipy or humorous in nature

I’m sure many at the Guardian would be happy being lumped in with Paul Staines and less with Mackenzie but, in the end, isn’t it great to be able to have parts of your output that make the distinction between news, gossip and comment so clear? Isn’t part of the deal that you are setting a tone for the Guardian?

Anyway, what got me frustrated was not the apparent dissonance that ‘open journalism’ seems to be creating at the Guardian. No, What bugged me was that the article isn’t talking about SEO. It’s talking about Social media optimisation (marketing if you insist).

There isn’t anything in the headline or otherwise that would suggest the classic SEO habits alluded to in the article (it’s more complex than that anyway). It’s link bait to be sure, but community link bait – there to catch humans not machines. Equating popularism with SEO is a little old school and over simplifies the complex dynamic that newspapers manage with their audience online.

Aftermatter and updates

Chris Moran, SEO editor at the Guardian has been tweeting about the guardian article:

@ Genuinely understanding our traffic doesn't suddenly remove editorial insight and also helps us promote good journalism
Chris Moran

In a related post “Guardian Mol” Alley Fogg ponders the value of reader interaction and the ‘bottom half of the internet.

Ivory tower dispatch: Headlines, SEO and

Online Journalists can learn a lot about optimising content from the likes of the Daily Mail but can we put it in to practice on blogs?

Over the last few weeks I’ve been talking to first year journalists about blogging and the starting point is why blogging is a a bad idea.

In the past I’ve tried to make the case for blogging – of course you need a blog – but the upshot of that is that some students dismiss it as ‘something they have to do’ and file it as ‘look at when the assessment is due’. At least by talking about the downsides – time, dealing with trolls etc. – you can discuss motivation in a constructive way. So they all start (or, for many, restart) a WordPress blog.

Outside of the usefulness of blogs to them as journalists,  one of the reasons for introducing blogs in the module (essentially basic online journalism practice) is that it gives them a platform to experiment with things. This week it was a way to look at headlines.

When you deconstruct how and why headlines work differently online you end up taking about two main themes:

  • Grabbing attention – not only how your headlines have to grab attention and get people to read on the page but also outside your site – different platformsaggregation etc.
  • Serving different audiences – how you need to tailor you headline for the reader, search engines and social media. 

It’s clear that there are a number of different strategies to do this and all require levels of optimisation and it was interesting to explore how accessible ways to do this in practice are when you’re using 

Getting noticed in search

We know that search engine optimisation has become a more complex thing than simply loading your headline with key words. That’s great news for the reader as headlines are now slipping back in to the more descriptive eye-catching headlines we might associate with print; stuff that is as useful to the reader as it is to your ranking.

A simple, but not always obvious way this works is to take advantage of technology (and your CMS) to use different headlines in different places.

The Daily Mail are experts at this.Take this story on the Eastleigh by-election:

  • Front Page: ‘Beastly in Eastleigh’: Conservatives in crisis as UKIP push Tories into THIRD place after Lib Dems hold onto must-win seat with dramatic by-election victory
  • Article Headline‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP in Eastleigh by-election as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat
  • HTML Title: Eastleigh by-election: ‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat  | Mail Online 

That last one is in the code (Right-click and look for something like view source and you’ll find it in between <title> </title>).

What’s immediately obvious about this, outside of the technical, is that writing a headline for the web is really writing headlines for the web. Who says technology simplifies things!

Each one of those headlines, in it’s own way, is designed for attracting attention. But, at risk of oversimplifying things here, although each one contributes to improving the searchability of the piece, it’s the title that does a lot of the heavy lifting (find out some more about the title and seo).

So can we do something similar with our The short answer is no.

In a WordPress blog, unless we spend money on a fancy template, getting a ‘magazine’ style layout where we can trail content on a front page is nearly impossible. Even if we splashed out on a custom template it’s still almost impossible to specify a custom headline for the front page. So our attention grabbing front page headline is out!

At a post level, the title for the post and the title in the html are the same.  So whatever I put in the title box, WordPress will use that as the html title as well. The only difference is that it will add the blog title to the end.

  • Post title: SEO headlines are tricky to write
  • HTML title: SEO headlines are tricky to write | andydickinson,net

The only thing we could conceivably do at this point is to change our blog title to include some keywords that generally relate to everything we write about. A little generic though. So no search engine headline ‘hidden’ in the code.

We are left trying to write a headline that balances the needs of the reader who wants to know what’s in a story and if it’s for them, and the benefits we would get from a little tweaking to suit a search engine. Luckily all the evidence points towards a happy medium.

If you can get strong keywords – in journalistic terms the who, where and what of a story – in to the front part of your headline then you’re on to a winner – both readers and search engines like it when you put proper nouns up front. Taking the Daily Mail example above, the HTML title headline

Eastleigh by-election: ‘Gutted’ Tories plunged into crisis after being pushed into humiliating THIRD place behind UKIP as Lib Dems cling on to must-win seat  | Mail Online – would be our best choice.

There’s plenty of advice for picking good keywords including using tools like Google Trends and Google ad words tool to help identify good keyword contribution.

Social media optimisation

Making the effort to strike the balance between search engine and reader friendly optimized headlines is worth the effort but search engines are not the only place we find stuff these days. Social media plays a big part in the recommendation and discovery process so optimising our content for those platforms is going to be worth some effort.

Ensuring our headlines travel across and round social media whilst retaining that ‘attention grabbing’ quality is a challenge. Take twitter for example. We don’t just have the headline to worry about, we also need to leave room for a link and, maybe, space for anyone who wants to retweet to add ‘RT @ourname’. So we actually have a limited amount of space to work with.

The advice is to work with a headline of around 65 characters. That gives you a headline that will appear on Google searches without getting truncated and if you wanted to tweet it, used along with a URL shortner like Bitly or’s  built in shortlink generator, you leave enough space for people to add their own stuff. Using something like Bitly also give you the added bonus of some nice stats to help track your social media traffic.


It’s worth noting at this point that the excerpt function in can play a really important part in selling your content. Some WordPress  ‘magazine’ style themes use it as the article summary, but if you add an excerpt it is used as the meta description for your article.

That ‘code’ won’t necessarily peak the mechanical interest of a search engine like the title tag does but it’s what appears under your (carefully crafted) headline in search engine results. It’s your chance to reinforce what the article is about and draw the reader in.

It also gets a lot of use in the social side of things. Look at this code from the header of a wordpress post using the standard 2012 template.

<meta property="og:type" content="article" />
<meta property="og:title" content="SEO friendly headline here. It&#039;s the headline and html title as well." />
<meta property="og:url" content="" />
<meta property="og:description" content="This is the excerpt but it&#039;s used as the META description which google will use as the &#039;snippet&#039; under the title." />
<meta property="og:site_name" content="Andy&#039;s Testpress: its great" />
<meta name="twitter:site" content="@wordpressdotcom" />
<meta name="twitter:card" content="summary" />

The og in there means open graph and that means Facebook. This code essentially controls the information that Facebook uses to display details of your post when someone shares or likes the link on Facebook. The Twitter one does the same thing for the twitter card that’s displayed.  The title is the same as before.

On the face of it, using for blogging  may not give us the flexibility that the big players have to craft different versions of headlines. To get that you need to install your own version. But out of the box it does a lot of stuff for us. All we need to do is pay a little attention to the content.

If we want to get the best out of our headlines then they need to be attention grabbing, relevant, hooks for our articles that are no longer than 65 characters and front-loaded with appropriate keywords. And if we want to start optimising for social media we need to give the excerpt some attention as well.

Note: Clearly content optimisation (search or otherwise) is a complex and rich process – I’ve not even scratched the surface of some of the stuff specific to let alone SEO in general! Simply tweaking a headline or excerpts is only the tip of the iceberg. I’m not suggesting that working your headline is in anyway SEO or that good content, carefully crafted for your content is not just as (if not more important). Just saying 🙂

Note 2: Not all wordpress themes are the same. As much as we might argue that HTML is not something journos need to engage with (btw, yes they should) having a root around the header of your chosen theme to see what meta is kicking around is not a bad or techie thing to be able to do.

Note 3: Paul Bradshaw has a great blog post about using the wordpress editor which has some good stuff to say about URL’s and links – two factors in google ranking.

In praise of the Final Salute

having to do the knocking yourself.

Gauging a respectful distance, knowing when to ask the question or point the camera/microphone in the face of someone grieving or dealing with something life changing, and when not is a real skill, hard won and one that gets my deepest respect.

Whenever I think about that I think of a piece of multimedia journalism called Final salute by a newspaper called the Rocky Mountain News. It was produced in 2006 as part of an in-depth feature:

Rocky Mountain News reporter Jim Sheeler and photographer Todd Heisler spent a year with the Marines stationed at Aurora’s Buckley Air Force Base who have found themselves called upon to notify families of the deaths of their sons in Iraq.

It (rightly) won them a Pulitzer prize.

What drew me to the piece was not just the effort that went in to making the online version as rich and as deep as the print version. It was the first time I had seen an audio slideshow really used to it’s best effect.


One slideshow follows Katherine Cathey as she met the body of her husband, killed on duty. Heavily pregnant she spends the night sleeping next the coffin. The access is intimate – in the slideshow we hear her voice – the coverage immensely emotional. It got to the point that I had to leave the room when I showed it to a class. I wish I could show it to you. But I can’t.

In 2008 the paper closed.

The website is still there, a bit of a memorial now. The Final Salute page is still there too but the files (save a few places that have some of the print pdfs) are gone.

In among all the things that we might regret about the way the industry is dealing with everything it has to face especially the loss of jobs, perhaps it’s a bit churlish to regret the loss of a bit of content – is 6 years a respectful distance? But I’ve yet to see such a coherent and emotional piece of reporting that makes such great use of multimedia.  Yes, multimedia packaging like Snowfall is stunning and, in their way no less emotional and journalistic and of course there is plenty of powerful journalism going on. But this was 2006.

This was benchmark, defining multimedia journalism. It’s a shame it’s gone.

Potholes make for good content. No.Really!

I always make a point of looking over the local and free papers when I visit a place, it’s a nice snapshot of a place. So, visiting the out-laws in Plymouth over new year gave me a chance to catch up with The Herald

One story that jumped out was about Potholes. A perennial of local papers (along with dog muck and traffic chaos!) but given a fun spin with the introduction of Pothole Pete. That’s him below.

Oh No! Pothole Pete. The caption to this picture read “CALAMITY: Pothole Pete poses to show how he may have looked if he had crashed his bike in a pothole”

Pothole Pete will doggedly search down the potholes in the area and get a good pic of them.He even has a twitter account!

It may not be to everyone’s taste and some may think it’s a little twee (a little too local newspaper perhaps) but I have to admit it  I kind of liked it and it did make me smile.

Looking at the images, it’s generated a new angle on an ongoing problem (as well as some great trick perspective photos!). And whilst the idea doesn’t need the web to work, the social element of Pothole Pete adds a nice dimension to the conceit –  an appropriate use of the medium to develop an idea.

You could say the same thing of this fantastic video that (in the serendipitous way the web has) came my way on Twitter today.

STORYBOARD: A Day With New York City’s Pothole Repair Crew from Tumblr on Vimeo.

The DOT in NYC have a Tumblr called The Daily Pothole which obviously caught Tumblr’s eye. The video, produced with the help of the great Tumblr storyboard crew, follows the NYC pothole repair crew. As Bob says in his tweet:

Video storytelling doesn’t need to be boring: check out this one on potholes from Tumblr’s video team:


bob sacha

One mans pothole…

One of the things that teaching journalism does is force me to see the different perspectives and editorial drivers across the ‘types’ of journalism the students engage with. The differences in what a sports journo may consider newsworthy compared to a local newspaper journo etc.

Potholes couldn’t be a better example of that. The kind of idea that would have a good number of my students (and many Journos) turning their noses up. But a bit of imagination and a bit of fun and you’ve got good content.



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What instagram tells me about newspapers

Dear reader, I have an admission to make.

I got caught up in all this talk of the end of days.

I know, it was foolish but like many others, I gathered all my belongings, closed up shop and headed for higher ground.

I ran from the instagramocalypse.

The news that Instagram was going to take all of my pictures, photoshop Kim Kardashian and Justin Beiber in to them (drinking Bud) then sell that on Facebook was just too much to take.  So I downloaded my pics and went to Flickr until someone explained the point of Kim Kardashian to me.

Silly me, some would say. All you have done is run from the frying pan in to the fire. ‘Fool, we told you this would happen’ said the smuggers who never went on Facebook in the first place because it is evil. (and wander round comment threads like the bloke with the ‘end of the world is nigh’ sandwich board around their virtual necks).

The truth of it is that I was an avid user of Instagram. I don’t know why, it just tickled my fancy; I’d grown quite attached to it. What made me move was not the idea that they were going to sell my pictures but that it wasn’t clear what they were going to do (and the tech commentators made it no clearer).  A communication problem then. One that’s still food for thought as Tim Worstall over at Forbes said

Is it really true that a business valued at $1 billion just recently cannot in fact find someone able to draft a clear explanation of their terms and conditions? I have to admit that if the answer to that is “Yes”, well, it doesn’t make me any happier about Instagram to be honest.

It’s funny isn’t it. When one person starts something that’s a lot of brain for a small thing – makes them look like a genius. When it turns in to a huge corporation that is still run by one person, that brain begins to look pretty small. Like putting Einsteins brain in a whale. Big stuff often acts really dumb! But I digress.

Social quid pro quo

We all know that in the social media world there is a quid-pro-quo. You give me the service and I give you my content. As long as we are both open and honest about what we get from it then I’m happy. I get what I want and, well, good luck making anything from the drivel I produce.

When you don’t like what I do you can ban me from the service. When I don’t like the way you work then I can withdraw my labour. And that’s what I did.

Some people cited the heavy hand of the evil Facebook empire behind the changes (Some easy tech-commentator maths here –  (Flop share float / platforms to monetize)*Facebook = evil corporate sell outs) But trust or respect for Facebook was not the issue for me here. My main worry for Facebook’s involvement is always that they would just render the whole thing unusable with their shitty user interfaces and api’s. If I sense anything it’s a huge corporation that doesn’t really know what it’s doing (see Forbes quote above).

So, I’m not the naive idiot that some commentators would paint those of us who left Instagram. When I talk about ‘open and honest’, that has some pretty strict limits. I just played the game and made the point.

And that’s what got me thinking about newspapers.

Print’s instagram moment

When was the Instagram moment for the newspaper industry? At what point did they cock-up communicating what they did so badly that people just upped and left? When did they change the T&C’s of what they did?

Was it the threat of a newspaperpocalypse? Whilst the high priests of journalism where sacrificing another celebrity, could we all see the countdown of the ABCe’s getting close to zero and the end of times (democracy)?

And look at the way they have dealt with it. Whilst Instagram (and others before themtook to their blog to explain their thinking, the press got the Leveson Enquiry. The (probably equally expensive) equivalent of eavesdropping on the Instagram/Facebook lawyers meeting where they cooked-up their ill-conceived changes.

You’ve got to think differently in this day and age. Where is my ‘we are listening’ article from the owners and editors of newspapers? Where is the quid-pro-quo?

Maybe we need to draft some new T&C’s for the newspaper industry.

You need me to put effort in to finding you online, to helping you with community/social material. I’ll do that. Every so often you do some proper democracy protecting stuff that’s useful for me so I’ll maybe even keep buying your product once in a while. But like Instagram it’s got to work for me. Work for me enough that I’ll even come back when you make stupid mistakes. And like Instagram it’s got to come with a little openness and honesty.

I’m not being naive here by using a word like honesty when it comes to newspapers.  I know the corporate strings get pulled, the few bad apples etc. etc. Like Facebook, I’m less worried about evil empires (Murdoch etc.) than I am the apparent ease with which newspapers seem to cock-up every possible opportunity with corporate cack-handedness and closed-shop mentality.

So, dear reader, I’ll be going back to Instagram in the New year. Confident that my pictures could just as easily end up being sold without my knowledge, still with no idea what the point of Kim Kardashian is but confident that’s what they intended all along.  I want to say the same thing about newspapers.

Happy new year.


On blogs and social media ennui

Image from

My social media habits have changed over the years. I’ve never been particularly organised or disciplined so I tend to drift in and out of things – I have no strategy for my social media use.  That may come as no surprise to some but what little impression I give of being consistent with this kind of thing really comes from the fact that I’ve been doing this a (relatively) long time. That more than anything else has helped smooth some of this scattergun approach and focus my attention.

I was lucky enough to start blogging, at least in the guise you see it now, when there wasn’t much journalism blogging going on. I’ve been around for the start of many of the platforms that are now common place. (it was all fields in my day) That means that I’ve developed my online presence over time  – it was allowed to evolve. It took me a while to get to where I am but no one was really telling me how I should use it. Ironic given what I do!

During all of this, I’ve seen ‘waves’ of people appear in the j-sphere and each wave has had to work that bit harder.  So I saw (and was influenced by) loads of good people, in the industry and those entering it, old and young, using blogs to build their profile.  People like Jo Geary, Alison Gow, Josh Halliday, Dave Lee, Sarah Hartley, Ed Walker in the UK, people like Dave Cohn, Richard Koci Hernadez, Marc S Luckie in the US. There are of course so many others.

They felt like simpler times. But I saw that, as each new ‘wave’ came through they had to be that little more on the ball; across the debate as the community grew. Pretty soon there was an established community; a legacy newcomers had to get to grips with. Not much room for quietly finding your voice.

A place for blogs?

The new-waves of journos appearing online have a much richer and dynamic pot to call on. First port of call for most is now Twitter; get the profile, engage in the debate and engage with the individuals. Blogs, with notable exceptions like Wannabe Hacks, don’t really feature in that thinking. If they do, they tend to be as platforms for CV’s and work.

That shift away from blogs is something that I think about a lot, but it was reading Martin Belam’s excellent post on the guardians facebook app that motivated me to post. It made me realise just how vital a blog is in giving a place to step back and reflect and how much I miss that in the face of the realtime debates that demand our attention.

Social media ennui

I think it’s that real-time element that is partly responsible for my intermittent engagement with social media these days. The fact that the debate is so dynamic means that it is often repetitive. The same issues and debates get stirred up as new people enter the discussion; a kind of social media ‘what are you guys talking about’ kind of thing.  Often the debates and the views are depressingly familiar. I’ve found myself thinking ‘didn’t we sort this one already?’, ‘why is this still an issue?’.

The best way I could find to describe it is social media ennui (I’m not alone in that).

Of course all this existential pondering is self-indulgent – picture me retiring to my digital loft with a wet flannel over my eyes.  In a dynamic conversation, newcomers are going to express ideas that have been expressed – and there is little time for the context that old debates give to be raised. That’s not their fault at all. It reflects more on me than the tone or quality of the debate or any of the people who engage with it.

Blogs are the new….

That’s why blogs are still important to me. Just when I get fed up with the fast but often shallow debate in the realtime sphere, they are little moments of calm reflection and inspiration. They add depth to the person I see tweeting. They tell me what they think as much as twitter tells me what they say.

I never forget that, for the new-waves, it must be really hard to pitch in to the j-conversation. More challenging is now you have to come out of the traps fully formed. You have to have a strategy and, to be frank, work your arse off across a whole range of platforms to get a profile. You have to listen to people like me telling you how you might do that.

When I started, there was an opportunity to find a voice because, well, not many people were listening. Now, just maybe, there is that chance again because everyone is distracted by that real time, ever demanding river of content that is the statusphere (status as in update not reputation). Get a blog in whilst no one is looking!

I’d love to see more newcomers to the j-sphere blogging. It’s not just that it may be the cure to my social media ennui. A blog might just be the kind of thing that gets you noticed. again.

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