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I am an experienced online journalist and political editor working for Trinity Mirror papers in the West Midlands and the North East, based in the Parliamentary Press Gallery at Westminster.

I understand how government, Parliament and political parties work. I am equally at home digging out stories from data, social media or interviews as I am covering major set-piece events or explaining how things work to readers.

I produce content which is shareable and promote my work on social media.

My experience with content management systems and knowledge of HTML allows me to include charts, embedded content from third parties and formatting in my work, to create content which encourages interaction and keeps readers on the page.

Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. (but please send press releases to my work email at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. as this is the email I monitor during working hours).

Sometimes just the facts will do

It's hard to believe, but the Government is trying to feed us information and we're turning them down.

The Office of Public Sector Information is busy making all sorts of facts and figures available for people to access using an application process interface (API) which allows them to get information from a Government database and re-present the facts on their own website, in their own way.

For example, you could let someone enter their postcode in a box on a website and present them with their local school results, crime figures, roadworks etc.

I'm not sure what's currently available, but the Government is actually asking people what they want and trying to give it to them. It's had plenty of responses, but how many of them have come from newspapers?

The average journalist doesn't have the technical skills to make use of this data (it takes some programming to grab the right info and present it well). But major newspaper companies should have people who can do this.

There are many other sources of information too. TheyWorkForYou.com allows people to access its database (it might charge a commercial business for this) and if local councils aren't doing it, we should ask them to.

For an example of what I'm talking about, take a look at US website everyblock.com.

Here's a small sample of information everyblock.com offers about the Midtown South neighbourhood in New York.

everyblock.com

Someone one day will do something similar in the UK. I think it's an obvious one for local newspapers. We should be adding a service similar to what EveryBlock provides to our websites.

Let readers choose their own news

As a rule, most newspaper websites replicate the print product in the way that they present content to readers.

The top stories or features are picked out by the website editor and given the greatest prominence, with the remainder placed on the page according to their category.

For example, the Times website has the biggest stories of the moment at the top, followed by "more news" (the best general news stories), then business news, then sport, then comment, etc.

This echoes the print format, in which the top story or splash goes on the front, with other stories presented in an order chosen by the editor, often divided into categories. Of course, print products have to do this.

But many successful websites outside newspapers take a different approach, customising their pages for readers and presenting them with content they are likely to be interested in.

For example, YouTube offers me videos based, as far as I can tell, on what I am subscribed to and what I have watched in the past.

Here is part of the Amazon.co.uk page is it appears to me:

amazon.co.cuk

It seems to me that newspapers could learn from this approach. Using cookies or, even better, by persuading people to register on our sites, we could use the stories they have looked at before, those they have rated highly and those they have commented on or e-mailed to friends to take a guess at what kind of stuff they are interested in.

If it's sport, then give them the sports stories at the top of the page rather than at the bottom, for example.

And when readers do register, we could also simply let them tell us what they want through a simple interface, in the same way that Yahoo lets people personalise their splash page, for example. I wouldn't depend entirely on this though, as what people say they are interested in may not be exactly the same as what they actually spend their time looking at.

I imagine we'd still want to push the top stories of the day in a prominent position (or maybe not?). But there's no reason newspaper websites should be static, and if we don't take the initiative in giving readers what they want then someone else will. Indeed, they already are.

Promoting Communities on Newspaper Websites

Newspapers have always been about communities, particularly local papers. We claim to represent communities and interact with them, and the internet provides new ways of doing that.

But how many newspapers are actually taking advantage of what the internet offers? As a general rule, we offer readers the chance to comment on stories and, um, that's it.

I believe we should be using our websites as places where readers can communicate with us and with each other. This is particularly important for local newspapers. People still care about their local communities. There are plenty of blogs about Birmingham (and no doubt about Liverpool and Newcastle too) - people have ideas and information they want to share. We should be presenting ourselves as the platform to do it.

And there's another reason for creating a community on our websites. People like establishing an identity online, for better or for worse. This is one of the reasons they create blogs. It's one of the reasons you get flame warriors on forums or among people who comment on blogs, and one of the reasons others try to establish a reputation for thoughtful, constructive posts.

It's possible for newspapers to go much further than they do in allowing communities to develop.

I have been playing with JomSocial, which is an application for websites using the Joomla CMS (like this one). It's inspired by sites like Facebook, and allows people to establish an identity online.

It costs around £100 and is very easy to use. Of course, our newspapers may not be using Joomla, but a major media company could surely develop their own app?

We shouldn't try to compete with Facebook, but I believe that readers of local newspapers would be interested in taking part in a specifically local community as well as, or in some cases instead of, the national or global communities they are also part of.

JomSocial allows people to create a profile, connect with friends, create groups, share RSS feeds (eg to promote their blog), share photos, share videos, add events to a community calendar, share their Twitter feed and share mini-blog posts (ie on a "wall").

It also interacts with the comments system produced by the same company (the one I use on this site) and with a blog platform they have developed. In other words, when people comment on a story, that comment also shows up in their profile. And we could allow people to blog on our own websites - keeping the "community blogs" separate from our "official" blogs.

One thing it does not do, but which I believe would be key for a newspaper website, is allow people to bookmark news stories - allowing them to share stories from our websites that they think others would be interested in, as well as rating them and commenting on them.

Although I point out that this particular application is dirt cheap in the context of a one-off investment by a major regional newspaper, I appreciate that developing something like it for ourselves might not be so easy.

But isn't it the type of thing newspaper businesses who want to adapt for the changing marketplace should be doing?

Jomsocial

Edit: I have created a demonstration site to illustrate what I mean. For more information, take a look at this post: A demonstration "social newspaper".

Making It Easy

Media organisations could encourage journalists to embrace new ways of working by making it easy for them.

For example, articles can frequently benefit from the inclusion of related links. One method of getting those links to readers would be to create a del.icio.us account and direct readers to it.

But a simpler method would be simply to input them with the story itself. This would also allow the business to make better use of them, as the links would be associated both with an individual journalist and with a specific story, as well as being stored on the organisation's own servers. (Links from a journalist's del.icio.us account can be accessed as an RSS feed but I think it would be technically difficult to associate the right links with the right stories this way).

One of the obstacles to journalists doing this is frequently the content management system they use, which may not be designed to accomplish what the media organisation is trying to do.

Media businesses should take the initiative and develop systems designed to make it easy for staff to achieve what they want them to achieve.

I also believe that, while it makes sense to use whatever applications and web services are out there for the taking, it would be a mistake to rely on them. We should deciding what we want to do and then doing it - inspired by what other people are doing, rather than depending on them.

Below is a dummy front end (for authors) of a content management system which I think would be easy to use and accomplish some of what a multimedia news organisation should be trying to accomplish.

The front end is a vital part of any CMS, but a small one. And what is below is only for illustration - it doesn't work. And it is probably missing things. It's simply an attempt to illustrate what I mean when I talk about making it easy.
CMS

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About me

Jonathan Walker Political Editor of the Birmingham Post, Birmingham Mail, Sunday Mercury, Coventry Telegraph, Newcastle Journal, Newcastle Chronicle and Sunday Sun.

Contact me:

Email jonathan@walkerjon.com (but please send press releases to my work email which is
jon.walker@trinitymirror.com, as this is the email I monitor during working hours).

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