Storytelling and London

How and why we tell stories has always fascinated me. Having lived in London for nearly 2 years, I’ve noticed that it’s not just professional storytellers who spin their experience of London in the form of a narrative. It’s something we all do, whether it’s comparing our social lives or arguing fiercely for our side of the river against the other.

To try and understand why, I wrote a piece for London New Journal, inspired by Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere and his conception of two sides of London – London Above and London Below. The article’s title comes from In Capitals by Johnny Foreigner, a song exploring the reasons people are attracted to capitals.

Check out an extract below or head here to preview the article and download the last issue of London New Journal (iOS only)

” The real life Richard “Dick” Whittington was nowhere near as poor as the fictional version, but still came to London to find his fortune. His 14th century journey is one so many of us have recreated.

The story has remained so popular throughout the centuries because it reflects a journey that so many of us embark on. We come from around the country to London to seek our fortune, believing it to be the place we can forge a career and make a story of our own. “

Does Location Matter

A post I wrote for Ubelly (The unofficial official Microsoft blog for developers who love the web)

Here at Ubelly we care passionately about what our community thinks and we’re always considering ways we can hear more from all of you. Recently we’ve been debating whether it matters where comments and feedback are shared.

Traditionally, blogs and websites have looked to drive engagement towards the comment boxes below articles or to their own forums where they can manage and if necessary edit discussion. But, with the rise of social media, we increasingly see people discussing content off-site. This has caused a lot of head scratching as people across the web have tried to figure out if this is a good thing.

Comments below articles are great for two main reasons – everyone can read them without having to put any extra effort in and it gives readers a sense of how everyone else reacted to the piece they just read.

Traditionally these comment systems required registration – which isn’t great, as it creates an extra barrier between the user and them doing what they want. Lately, we’ve seen more and more blogs implement a system which allows users to sign in with their Twitter or Facebook accounts – but if they’re using these platforms as their main source of conversation why should we expect them to come to us? If you build it they will come is a phrase the web design community should be running away from, not towards.

On one level it’s an ego boost – we all like to see a string of comments below our article. On another level it’s sheer laziness, if all the comments are on our blog, we don’t need to spend time looking around for them. There’s also some evidence to suggest comments help boost your SEO ranking – though with Google’s recent changes, it’s hard to tell if this is still the case.

But, none of these are compelling enough reasons to prioritise comments on our own sites. Ultimately, if our content is compelling and worthy of discussion users will join that discussion, regardless of the platform it takes place on.

And if we really want to show off how popular our article is on Twitter, we can always compile the tweets in a Storify so everyone can read them.

As we thought more about this it led us to look at ways to integrate discussion on social media onto the site and that’s why we’ve installed LiveFyre, a comment system which incorporates discussion from Twitter into the comments thread. Is this something you’d like to see more sites do? And how have you handled the comments challenge for projects you’ve been working on?

Leveson & The Digital Grey Area

The Leveson report is due out on Thursday and amidst the shouting matches about the future of the printed press and whether they’ll be given one final chance to prove they can effectively self-regulate, one crucial question has been largely ignored.

What happens to internet news sites and blogs? Will the post-Leveson world see the Huffington Post, Politics home, etc treated in the same way as the Guardian and the Independent? They can already join the political lobby, so there is a precedent for treating them in the same way. But is this enough, or will they continue to exist in a grey area?

No one seems to know and even more puzzlingly, no one really seems to care. While article after article has been written on the merits of self vs. statutory regulation (neither is perfect, but the former is preferable) almost nothing has been written on whether the average blogger will be regulated in the same way.

Currently the Press Complaints Commission only covers organisations who have signed up to be part of it and it’s hard to imagine any of the previously mentioned sites signing up for membership. We don’t know whether the Leveson Inquiry will recommend a mechanism that compels media organisations to sign up – but if he does it would be surprising if this applied purely to the printed press.

But if it does apply to online publications, where does it end? At what point does society draw the line and say your site is too small to require regulation? 10,000 page views a month? 20,000? Or are we going to say that every site, no matter how small, which posts topical news and comment pieces will be expected to sign up. The latter is obviously an unworkable option, but such is the lack of debate around the issue that we simply don’t know what will happen.

Even if in the short term, Lord Justice Leveson decides to only recommend changes to the system governing the printed process, this is an issue which will not go away. It’s only a matter of time till The Guardian goes digital only and other papers will surely follow. Does a switch to digital only mean they are suddenly exempt from regulation? And if not, will we have to undergo this whole process again as the government scrambles to figure out how to regulate the online press.

This is not to underplay how fast misinformation and rumour can spread on the internet and how vital it is that people can correct false articles or rogue websites. But that doesn’t mean we should be comfortable with the idea of the government being able to regulate material published on UK based sites.

This post was originally published on the 33-Digital blog

The Laws of Twitter

A man turns to his friend at the pub and makes an obscene comment about a recent tragic incident. He gets a stern look from the regulars, but nothing more comes of it. What he’s done may have offended people, but he hasn’t broken any laws.

Barely 10 minutes down the road, a student makes a similarly offensive comment about the same situation – but he chooses Twitter, not the pub as his platform. The next morning he’s awoken by a summons to the local police station where he learns he’s going to be charged with a criminal offence.

So what’s the difference? Why is it ok for the man to say offensive things in a pub, but a criminal offence for the student to tweet them?

The answer lies in Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which states:

“A person is guilty of an offence if he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character.”

Crucially, nowhere does it say that the message must have been sent to the individual or organisation it is offensive or menacing to. This has been highlighted in two contrasting cases. First the Robin Hood airport case – where a joke tweet about wanting to blow an airport up if the weather meant the individual missed his flight, led to a case going all the way to the high court and a debate about freedom of speech. This case was eventually thrown out; with the Court of Appeal concluding that the tweet was clearly a joke and could not be considered to be a message of ‘menacing character’.

The second case – that of Liam Stacey highlights the danger of tweeting something offensive to your own followers, only for it to be widely shared and the reach multiplied thousands of times. . It’s doubtful that Stacey ever intended or dreamed that his tweet would gain such publicity or that he genuinely meant the message to reach Muamba. But the public and media outcry about his undeniably offensive comments led to him being jailed for a comment that would have been shouted down or ignored in a pub setting. Stacey has since expressed remorse and will have this hanging over him at every job interview or meeting he ever attends – surely the public shame is sufficient without the need to jail him for one idiotic decision?

A new development, and one with potentially far-reaching consequences is the comment made by Keir Starmer during a talk at the London School of Economics that retweeting a tweet found to be in breach of the act was an offence in its own right – something prominent legal bloggers and journalists are still digesting. But this raises a further question – last week many people retweeted and commented on Nick Griffin’s ‘threatening tweet’ towards a couple involved in a landmark gay rights case. Does their clear disagreement with Griffin’s actions make them safe from prosecution should the Police believe he has a case to answer?

What is clear is that much more needs to be done to examine how the existing laws can be used regulate social media sensibly and in a way that means the courts are not having to make kneejerk reactions to public outrage.

For a more detailed examination of the relationship between Twitter and the law the Guardian have put together a list of the 10 legal risks you need to consider.

This post was originally published on the 33 Digital blog

What makes a live blog?

Is live blogging a skill in its own right, or is it something anyone can just turn their hand to? It’s a conversation I’ve had more than once and I’m firmly of the belief that it is a skill and should be treated as one. Reporting on events as they happen is fundamentally different from putting together coverage once its finished and the reporter and participants alike have a chance to dwell on what occurred.

On the surface liveblogging looks easy, you just sit and write about what is going on. But it’s one of those things which looks far easier than it actually is. As journalists we’re almost always one step removed from proceedings, both by time and medium, but for the audience of a live blog, the journalist is their direct link to what’s happening, as it happens.

This change means a different writing style is needed and also a different emphasis on what you report and when. There’s no inverted pyramid to guide how you write the article and the main angle of your subsequent report of the event may not appear until the end. But, with a live blog, you can’t just sit and wait for an angle to come, you have to keep your coverage interesting from the word go, and this is where the real skill lies.

It can also be something of an endurance test, while on placement with, I liveblogged the Murdoch’s testimony to Leveson and over the course of 3 days, wrote something along the lines of 27,000 words. And that’s before the news editor had added comment and links to other articles about what was going on

What makes up a good live blog?

1. There should be a clear separation between reporting and commenting.

Too often when reading coverage of events, it’s easy to confuse what has been said by a speaker, questioner or panelist with opinion or comment injected by the blogger. A mix of both is essential, but accurately reporting what has happened has to come first.

2. Adding value is essential.

Placing what people have said in context is what makes a live blog worth reading and will also encourage other attendees of the event to keep an eye on what you’re doing. Whether it’s providing background information or facts about the event, or a link to an article or video that’s been cited, providing reader’s with additional context is what’s going to encourage them to stick around. Regular summaries of what’s happened also provide an easy way into the event for people who are trying to catch up and few do this better than Andrew Sparrow’s live blog of the day in politics.

3. Preparation.

This follows on from the previous point. Sometimes the best coverage is on the hoof, with no preparation, but this tends to be done through Twitter and people reacting to unexpected events/ rather than pre-planned coverage. Knowing what you’re seeing/who you’re listening to allows you to give your audience more information and avoids you looking stupid by reporting the wrong thing. Having this background information prepared also allows you to fill the inevitable downtime.

4. Interaction.

One of the most interesting bits about running a live blog is how you can engage directly with your audience, while the story is ongoing. Blog comments, polls, twitter hashtags, whatever you can think of can be used to engage the audience and add value to your coverage.

BBC’s sports live coverage of matches is a masterclass in audience interaction, with polls and Twitter discussion used to fill time when little of interest in the actual event is happening. They also serve as an example of how interaction can work both ways, the blogger answers audience questions, while pitching more of his own. It also provides the chance to bring in outside analysis, when covering Cricket, the BBC will often embed tweets from people like Michael Vaughan to provide an expert opinion on the state of the game.

And finally, like any other skill, practise really does make perfect. Although it’s not the most exciting thing to do in the world, if you have an interest in covering events live, it’s well worth signing up for an account on a live blogging platform, sitting down and actually covering an event yourself. Even if you don’t show anyone what you’re doing, it’ll help you get a feel for the flow of events and how surprisingly quickly things happen.