Afterthoughts

International News Production I is over.

I’ll be frank from the start: from how it was presented, I expected more Snowfall and less Buzzfeed.

That was a provocation. I’m not regretting my choice at all. Of course, not everything clicked with me. Some things I found painfully slow, like learning to work on Photoshop and Premiere (which I already knew how to use). Nevertheless, there was always room for improvement: what does this button do? Is there a more time-efficient way to do this?

But of course, it wasn’t just a how-to module. I was pleasantly surprised by the training in basic news reporting, which I feared I’d be missing out on when I skipped on the Broadcast pathway.

Not every day was brilliant, of course. At times I found groupwork quite slow. But then again, that is the norm in every newsroom. If nothing else, I feel like my cooperation and leadership skills gained from it.

What I enjoyed the most, though, is undoubtedly the CMS and SEO teaching.

These used to be two mysterious acronyms that I saw on every writing job posting and regularly prevented me from applying. However, once I gained an insight into them, and learned which elements actually do what, I felt like I had truly mastered the art of information engineering.

Well, that was a bit pretentious. But hey, at least I know how to make my portfolio pop up on the first result. Hopefully that’s a start.

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Who clicks on InterCardiff?

Or, put another way, who does InterCardiff click with? We turn to the website’s analytics to find out.

Statistics lie. Regularly. That goes for web searches too. Google Analytics can be both a blessing and a very confusing tool for a site administrator.

It’s intersting, for example, to have a look at InterCardiff’s demographics. As expected, the site is most popular with millennialls. But also of note is the fact that – surprise suprise – InterCardiff is way more popular with females than males:

demographics

Categories of interest for users are mostly lifestyle and news. Again, little surprises here:

interests

Not all statistics are that reliable, however. Take, for example, the location of InterCardiff’s visitors. First place is the UK, which is no surprise, but then… Russia? Malaysia? That’s a strange audience, isn’t it?

location

Alas, “international” the site may be, the explanation is rather boring. Russia and Malaysia are usually hubs for bots who “ping” to websites for spam referrals.

However, once you take that into consideration, the rest is rather interesting. Quite a few visits from English-speaking countries, like the U.S., Ireland and Australia, and also Austria and France. Some alumni from those parts, perhaps?

There’s a more intersting data to be seen, however. 72% Of visitors were first timers (New sessions), and 69% simply “bounced” on the page. That is, they visited InterCardiff’s main page but didn’t interact with it by clicking further. What’s more, they spend on average just a minute and a half on it – way to little to have a thorough read at the articles.

To top it all, the overwhelming majority of visitors only open InterCardiff’s once and don’t return:

sessions

Good enough for advertising revenue, perhaps, but a bit disappointing from our – the writer’s – point of view. Then again, a large number of visitors are probably interviewees who wanted an idea of what InterCardiff was all about after that kid from Cardiff University contacted them.

Finally, it’s always useful to have a look at the devices used to access to the website:

devices

While more than half of visits come from desktops, a huge amount of users are on mobiles. InterCardiff should then be optimized (if it isn’t already) to be browsed on a smartphone as well as a regular computer.


So, where does this leave us?

Unfortunately, InterCardiff’s analytics aren’t significant enough to tell us if we need to steer direction. However, that might not be an issue. InterCardiff is fundamentally a showcase for the Multimedia student’s work. It’s one of the few times in our careers when we’re allowed to write about what we genuinely like, without caring too much about catering to the audience’s tastes. And we should enjoy it while it lasts.

Across multiple senses

So, you think you can be a journalist because your writing ain’t half bad, eh?

Think again.

A lecturer of mine (and former sports writer) once told me that when computers first started entering their newsroom, twenty or fifteen years ago, the overall reading quality of the paper dropped dramatically. “We were so focused on learning to use these strange new machines that we didn’t pay attention to the writing itself.”

Sociologist W. F. Ogburn spoke of “cultural lag”: a situation in which culture and customs “lag behind” the advancements in a particular technology.

I think Ogburn’s concept applies perfectly to the new, “multimedia” journalism. Design-wise, we had the coding technology to produce amazing features already ten years ago. However, far fewer PCs than today – let alone mobiles – had the processing power necessary to properly play those presentational features.

Same goes for smartphones. If you’re writing an interactive or multimedia feature today, chances are pretty high that it will be read on a mobile phone, perhaps in a noisy subway or in the silence of an extremely boring lecture (don’t do it, kids).

To give you an idea. Source: Statista

The great wager for a journalist in today’s environment is being able to tell the story across different formats and outlets – but not the same story.

Nowadays, explainer videos, infographics, video snippets are all standard complements to the text package on any feature website. However, while this makes the story much more shareable, there is a tendency to merely re-present the same information in a variety of formats.

What the skilled multimedia journalist should do, instead, is produce “bits” that are understandable and interesting by themselves, and at the same time that encourage you to click and “read more”.

Never before have more senses been involved in an online reading experience. However, to master them is still a work-in-progress for journalists.

My own worst interviewees

Sometimes it’s them questioning  you.

When you’re not an expert in anything particular – and in journalism, that’s often the case – half of your journalistic activity is simply about finding the good person to talk to.

Most of the time they’re nice fellows that are more than eager to guide you through their world of expertise. Alas, one other occasions you may end up hoping the whole thing will be over as soon as possible. Here’s the most awkward situations one can get into as an interviewer.


The guy that simply doesn’t want to speak face-to-face

I’ve met (well, been in touch with) academics who spent more time replying to my emails and ask for clarifications than they would have with a short phone call. At times I suspected they had a whole collection of pre-formatted replies for every scenario.

Also, cue the myriad hyperlinks to their papers, “in which I explore the issue more in depth”. Oh gee, thanks, I totally didn’t look for you on Google Scholar before writing.

Still, a written interview is better than nothing. Plus, it makes transcribing a breeze.


“Well, that’s simply not true”

That’s it. The guy doesn’t want to be pressured on that one point. He just won’t answer. I was speaking to a Plaid Cymru press officer once, regarding an allegation a former party member had made, and the only comment I got was “Well, that’s simply not true”. No matter how I tried to go around the issue, or reformulate the question, she just didn’t have anything to say.

In fairness, most of the time it’s press officers you’re dealing with. So when they say that they have nothing to say, it’s probably true.


The patronising bastard

When being a journalism student makes you a second-class journalist.

The patronising bastard comes in degrees. The worst kind is when they will simply decline to give an interview because “we don’t reply to student queries”. Thankfully, most of the time being patronising equals being accommodating, so your interviewee ends up being more informal than he would with a professional journalist.

As a student journalist, you’re supposed to be tame. That’s why some armor-piercing questions might come as unexpected. Whether that’s a pro or a con is to be seen.


The binary answer guy

“Do you enjoy having an interviewee that gives only short answers?”
“No.”

…..

See what I mean?!

Don’t lift your arse from the chair before you have something decently useful. That’s the only way to go. Or get kicked out.

Of videos, infographics, and attention spans

I’m afraid I’m a little conservative when it comes to infographics, explainer videos and the like.

In an age when readers are less and less willing to read long-form pieces, one-minute long videos seem to water down journalism even more. If we can even talk of journalism, that is.

buzzfeed-skeleton

Err… Right.

However, this is just ol’ me being all grumpy and technophobic. Sure, the most “shareable” videos aren’t exactly masterpieces of critical theory. Nevertheless, even sites notoriously more on the entertainment side, like BuzzFeed, occasionally produce genuinely interesting works:

buzzfeed-electoral-college-biased

Truth is, even the most avid Financial Times reader may not have the time or the interest to read a full-length profile of a public figure in the time that it takes him to commute in the morning. Still, he may want to know the basic facts, so that he’ll be able to get in on the talk during coffee break. Well, that sounds just like a journalist’s job: give a clear and concise picture of a topic.

asma-al-assad-guardian

News is complicated. There’s no pretending that’s not the case. Our brain needs to schematize things in order to understand them. But is that a task we should leave to the reader? Well, at that point, we may as well give him Excel spreadsheets.

That’s where infographics come in truly useful. To get a grasp on things, we need a mental map, and journalism needs to provide it, now that it’s able to do so.

Would you rather read this as a two-page-long list? (from the European Commission website)

Images convey information quicker than words, there’s no denying that. And in an era where information needs to move faster than ever, lest it be stranded in oblivion, journalists need to make use of this new language.

Eyes wide open

Never before in human history has it been easier to find information from a single location. Yet not every piece of discourse can be neatly packaged into news.

I dare not think of what being a journalist was like fifty, thirty, even just twenty years ago. There’s no pretending that the internet has made it much easier – for me at least – to produce a writer’s first, humble pieces of journalism.

Surely there are some nostalgics who look back fondly to the times when news came – if it ever did – from a chat at the counter, or from a phone booth call. Perhaps you were best buddies with someone at the police office, or the Crown Court, and they’d give you a tipoff flying over their superior’s head.

Even if such a reality ever existed, I doubt it allowed for better journalism than the one we do today. Those that think of modern journalists as little more than copywriters probably don’t understand the full potentiality of sources we have today.


Seminars and conferences

More than a good story can begin by going to that lecture your university has been promoting. They say it’s bad practice to expect your interviewee to tell you what the story is, but if you could invite that certain lecturer to have a private in-depth discussion, you might get occasion to dwelve on issues other journalists ignore. That is how I got the prompt for an article on the flaws of EU research funding (which, may I add, I’m rather fond of).


Statistics

God bless YouGov. Living in an open society means having access to statistics, and some outlets are goldmines for journalists: the Office for National Statistics, Statista, Interpol, Europol

tampa-bay-times-statistics

From the Tampay Bay Times series, Failure Factories

Of course, as the saying goes, “Lies, damned lies, and statistics”: sometimes the numbers may look interesting on the surface, but actually be completely in the norm. In that case, however, it’s your job to debunk attempts to spin the figures in a misleading way. Governments often try to pass percentages as proof that they’re doing a good job with the economy, when actually they just fit in a routine trend.


FOIA (Freedom of Information Act) requests

Tony Blair probably didn’t realise how powerful a tool he was putting in citizens’ hands when he enacted the Freedom of Information Act. Being able to request any information of public interest is one of the best things to happen to journalists in years, and they were quick to make use of it.

rewrew.PNGObviously, it takes practice to master the system, and there will occasions on which politicians will hold onto certain documents with their teeth. Nevertheless, it’s an incredibly powerful tool – and some people are understandably unhappy with that.


Of course, not all of this is possible in every country. Britain is an extremely transparent society, and thanks god for that. Some may say it’s a weakness when compared to other countries like Russia or China. We journalists, however, like to think it’s actually a sign of strength.

I’m okay. Thanks.

Last night, I stayed up until 6 am, to watch the presidential election unfold.

I’ll avoid going over the pain that was watching counties and states go red. We know how it ends. No point in rewatching the reel.

We were all in the lecture theatre in the Bute bulding, where our school is. We weren’t many to begin with – 20 people, maybe – but by 5 o’clock in the morning, only a handful remained. We few. We not so happy few.

I’m white. I’m male. I’m of European citizenship. I come from a country where we’re hardly outraged anymore, so used we got to the mediocre status quo of things.

Perhaps that’s the reason why what I saw next, as Trump’s victory loomed closer, deeply unsettled me: my friends, my American friends, were struggling to hold back the tears.

This morning (well, afternoon) just like after Brexit, I woke up feeling bitter, but normal. Then, hour after hour, a subtle and unsettling feeling kept crawling up my back.

I spent most of the day reading articles on what will happen next, on how a Trump presidency can be just as bad as it sounded in predictions. This is the year I finally stopped the seeing the world as inherently rational, where politics and rhetorics are one big bluff, and started words at face value.

I’m not latino. I’m not black. I’m not a woman and I don’t live in the USA. However, I’m European at a time where Russia is becoming more and more aggressive, I’m a journalist in a society where populism and “illiberal democracy” are on the rise, and most importantly, I’m a human in a world that can’t seem to tackle climate change. And the most powerful man in this world is now a climate change negationist who wants to scrap the Paris Agreement.

I suddenly feel tense. I’m laying on the sofa, and my back isn’t relaxed at all. I feel a slight knot in the throat, my breathing slightly deeper than usual.

Here’s hoping to a better morning.