September 28, 2012

Hounded by tabloid journalists? Deleting your online presence doesn’t always work…

Tabloid sleaze ahead – turn aside now.

Let’s say you were a tabloid journalist covering the Megan Stammers Lost in France case. Let’s say you wanted to hunt down the other victim in the case and get some material on Jeremy Forrest’s betrayed wife.

Doing a Google search gets you a whole lot of blocked content – Twitter account deleted (@emilyjforrest), Flickr account deleted; WordPress blog ( now hidden behind password protection.

No go. Oh, wait, eager hacks – Google’s handy web cache allows you to access some of her Twitter timeline, plus all the written content from Emily Forrest’s blog from before she blocked it. Did you know that she has a pet rabbit? And she went to St Lucia on honeymoon? And she’s really interested in Japanese pop culture?

It’s a potential goldmine of tabloid information. So do we think that her absence from the wall-to-wall coverage is thanks to the tabloid media’s new-found respect for personal privacy? Or is it simply the inability of tabloid journalists to exploit Google’s search loopholes?

Whatever. It’s the kind of situation where Google’s URL removal request tool might come in handy. And it’s worth clicking on the “block search engines” box in your blog’s settings…

August 8, 2012

No, sports journalists – Team GB has not won its “biggest medal haul in the modern Olympic era”

Heard and seen everywhere today, some variant on “Team GB has won its biggest medal haul in the modern Olympic era”. Including – oh, dear, oh dear – on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme news bulletin at 8.30 this morning. Here it is on the Sky News website, too.

Here’s a test for sports journalists (and editors). When did the modern Olympic era begin?

Yes – it was 1896, in Athens, thanks largely to the efforts of Baron Pierre de Coubertin. Well done, that man. Which means that the London Olympics of 1908 definitely falls “in the Modern Era”. How many gold medals did Team GB win in 1908? Fifty-six (56).

And, no, just because we were only one of 22 nations competing and it included things like Tug‘O’War, doesn’t make it not count. It’s still one of the Games in the Modern Era®.

So, please, busy and important sports journalists and newsreaders, remember – in this context “the Modern Era” does not mean:

  • after the Second World War
  • after the First World War
  • in the past few decades
  • since my notion of history began around Britpop

It means “since the first of the modern Olympic Games, held in 1896”.

That is all. Except to say that the BBC seems to have caught up with it on the Today programme transcript page, and the rest of its online Olympics coverage is just fabulous, thank you very much, and the yardstick against which all multimedia, web-based sports coverage should be judged.

August 6, 2012

Tales from the trade press: so you thought it was a media agency’s job to talk to the media?

[UPDATE: Premier Foods is clearly a great British food company, a fine brand, and full of lovely, helpful people. I thought my speculative email to the generic marketing department address would be ignored or dismissed, but no! I had a nice prompt and informative reply. Thank you, Premier Foods. It does still seem a bit weird that they have a PR company for trade media but don’t actually want to use them, but who am I to question?]

Yes – another month, another exciting trade press feature. And what better way to spend a wet August?

But try getting some information for the business-to-business press from, say, “great British food company and Britain’s largest branded food producer” Premier Foods about its super new Bisto brand stock pot product (yes, I have no idea, either), and you might be in trouble.

Because Premier Foods has apparently asked its trade media PR company – the ingeniously spelled Cirkle Communications – to only talk to publications on a vetted list. And the title I’m working for isn’t on it. Of course.

I’ve whinged before about this (ahem, *Clinique*), but really it’s crap. I mean, Premier Foods bleats on about how “proud” it is of its brands, but is too busy, or prissy, to talk about them to decent, hard-working trade press hacks (or me).

It doesn’t even use the fig leaf of “I’m sorry, we won’t be able to help you this time, because we’re on holiday/too busy with end of year results/trapped in a burning elevator.” No – it’s clearly “you’re just too insignificant to bother with”.

Yes, I know – many people, even many journalists, (even myself) might agree. But, still – if you are a brand and employ an agency to represent you to the media, how hard can it be to actually, you know, deal with the media?

Monday whine over – time to walk the dog. At least she still has respect for the fourth estate…

August 1, 2012

How UCA is responding to the forces changing journalism education

Paul Bradshaw has been analysing the way in which journalism education has been and needs to be transformed to meet the needs of a dramatically changing industry. In the first part of his three-part post, he looks at the skills gap between journalism education (and staff) and what the industry needs.

Bradshaw cites a number of problems. In brief:

  • Courses are only redesigned as a whole every several years, and changes can take years to come into effect
  • Journalism and media departments face the same skills shortage as the news industry
  • Most courses have historically been platform-focused. Tutors designed the modules based on their own largely single-platform experience.

The Journalism department at UCA in Farnham has redesigned its Journalism BA largely to tackle some of these issues.

In conjunction with a shake-up in the way the university itself approaches it course structures, we’ve rewritten our courses to be very broad. This means our basic course framework doesn’t talk about platforms, tasks, editorial types – whatever.

Instead, we’ve broken down our journalism education into “Content” and “Production”. i.e.: the stuff you produce, and the way you produce it. Research, newsgathering and storytelling in all its forms comes under “Content”; video editing, magazine production, web site building comes under “Production”. Each year group will tackle more advanced and sophisticated techniques and topics under this framework.

It’s a split that makes sense to some in the industry we’ve talked to, and seems a sensible  way to define the tasks young journalism graduates will do.

This also allows us to keep the detail of what we will try to teach open until we decide to teach it. Should we bring in something on Pinterest? Or mobile apps? Or some technology or medium as yet unborn? We can, without worrying that we will be breaking out of our course documents. Our courses are designed to be able to change in real time, without going through any academic red tape.

The course is now fully multimedia – ie no platform distinction. There will be no “print” versus “online” modules that students have to choose from. Instead, there will be emphasis on understanding how to tell stories using different media and why those media work (or don’t). Students will obviously still focus on the platforms they enjoy most and are best at. But the teaching will aim to be as integrated and flexible as possible.

Yes – our staff are old enough to remember strict platform demarcation and to have started work before the internet existed. Some of us even worked on magazines that used waxing machines to paste up galley text. But, you know, we are also happy to learn new stuff too.

Also, we plan to bring in visiting expertise to help teach some of the cutting edge stuff. Expect an email soon.

Bradshaw’s second point in his post is the problem of teaching journalism when the industry is shrinking and there don’t seem to be any jobs left.

We’re also keenly aware of this. In fact, a telling indicator is that our graduates tend to move straight into communications jobs that aren’t, strictly, journalism – such as social media marketing or PR.

As Bradshaw points out, “journalism” describes activities now that would have been unheard of before – producing mobile apps, online community management, multimedia production, blogging and social media content. With luck, our approach will acknowledge this more fully and prevent us having too blinkered a view of the opportunities open to our graduates in the future.

Watch this space for more painfully transparent progress reports as we get going…

July 29, 2012

Apple forgets to add a “download here” button to its Safari software page

Running an earlier version of Safari and realise you need to download the latest version to make sure you are as web-compatible as possible? No problem – just head off to Apple’s dedicated Safari web pages on its site and download it.

Uh – where’s the download button? Surely the masters of usable technology design haven’t forgotten to add it to the page.

It looks like they have. That’s weird. Maybe it’s only available from the App Store (a note to that effect would be useful, guys). Nope – that’s not it.

I’ll have to hunt the rest of the web to see if there’s a link somewhere else to a download of Safari 6. Aha! Thanks, PC Advisor – that’s really helpful. A shame Apple can’t offer the same basic functionality on its own fancy site.

Not sure this would have happened if the boss had still been around…

[UPDATE (if only): the kind and helpful @ffffelix points out there is “small print” at the very foot of the page that explains Safari is available through Software Update. Which begs the questions: (a) why couldn’t Apple put that slightly higher up the page and slightly larger and (b) why my Software Update still keeps me on version 5-point-something with no suggestion I can update to the latest version…]

[UPDATE 2: Duh – of course, Apple wants you to only get the update to Safari, your free web browser, by updating your expensive operating system to the next version (Mountain Lion, in this case). I should have realised straight away…]

July 9, 2012

Heather Brooke at #BathLitFest – restore Enlightenment values to protect freedom


Podcast: Play in new window | Download

Months late, here’s Heather Brooke – author of The Silent State and The Revolution will be Digitised speaking at this year’s Bath Literary Festival on March 8.

It’s posted so late because I had hoped to clean up the audio file better. As it is, it’s a bit echoey, there’s some crude sound cleanup that sounds a bit horrible, and Brooke had a cold, so most of the coughing is hers. But it’s generally audible.

It’s an intriguing and relevant discussion, given our seeming willingness to sacrifice any protections of civil liberty in exchange for ‘security’. Brooke’s key quote is here, but the rest of it is worth trying to listen to:

“It shocks me how our world has just ditched Enlightenment values wholesale […] Governments argue that they need to do things to protect the nation. But what is the nation but a series of values? In a democratic society those values are open justice, the rule of law, the right to privacy, not to be interfered with unless there is probable cause. So if the state then ditches those values, I don’t see how you can justify that in the name of national security”

Running order
0-20 minutes: Heather Brooke presentation (with a slideshow you can’t see)
20-43 minutes: on-stage discussion with chair James Runcie
43-60 minutes: audience Q&A

Key points

  • Information could be contained by and in nation states – once it is digitised it becomes global. So the way the powerful control it no longer works.
  • Power is shifting in the most dramatic way since the invention of the Gutenberg press.
  • The idea of the Panopticon and universal surveillance – an 18th century idea that is now being facilitated by modern technology. On the internet we are being watched all the time.
  • Some states have managed to control the internet (China, Iran), but part of the reason that people in Tunisia could use it to facilitate their revolution is because it’s very difficult to centrally control the mechanism of the internet.
  • The internet gives you the freedom to speak truths beyond the orthodoxy.
  • Examples: women in Saudi Arabia posting videos of themselves driving and using a Twitter hashtag to link up and support each other in a wider movement to protest the country’s restrictions on women’s freedom of movement.
  • The internet’s managed chaos has started to distil into centres of power: Google, Facebook, Twitter (discuss).
  • States are starting to wise up to how powerful the internet is. Initially, Mubarek didn’t realize the power of the internet and who the players were. This is no longer likely to be the case.
  • Increasingly, nation states are trying to find ways of controlling the internet – it’s too challenging. Law enforcement agencies are starting to use the centres of power of the internet as de facto intelligence agencies – demanding user data from Facebook, Google and Twitter.
  • Facebook never fights government subpoenas; Google and Twitter do.
  • According to the annual Freedom House survey, the number of “partly free” and “not free” countries is increasing rapidly.
  • One way of controlling global information is to extend its jurisdiction – the US has been doing this with copyright to crack down on file-sharing sites anywhere in the world.
  • One tool of control is the internet domain naming system, which is controlled by the US and can be used to justify blocking access to web hosting.
  • This kind of approach legitimises online repression by countries such as Russia and China, which have moved to demand that information be delineated by national boundaries.
  • Read my book!

At about the 22-minute mark, there’s an interesting discussion about the rights and wrongs of over-zealous copyright protection.

“Somebody has to pay for artistic production – the problem is it’s too restrictive.”

Brooke also tackles the “if you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear” position: very few people are targeted for surveillance, but the potential for surveillance is unlimited.

“I’m more concerned about the government than the hackers – there are always criminals around, and by all means the state should  investigate those criminals, but the energy is going into hackers who are challenging the authorities about what they are doing”

Other themes
Thanks partly to Wikileaks, laws are being tightened up making it more difficult to whistle blow or protect your sources as a journalist. Plenty on the personal issues of Julian Assange – who Brooke argues shouldn’t have used the morality of his stated cause to justify his personal moral shortcomings.

Journalists will be pleased she thinks they will still be needed to make sense of the food of leaked and other data that is becoming available.

  • Checking – to make sure it is true and unhampered with
  • Verifying – talking to sources to back up claims

Audience Q&A

  • Does the Freedom of Information Act make it harder for Government to make decisions? (Maybe – but accountability is vital)
  • What is Brooke’s position on Phorm and RIPA(Phorm is out of the remit of the book, RIPA is murky, difficult to understand and the safeguards it promises are not enforced)
  • A long, rambling question that ends up in a discussion about how we can know what is true in a sea of information and dis-information. (We need a renaissance in Civics – teaching people how society works and the importance of the rule of law. Just because we have technology, we mustn’t throw out core values. Technology makes the law seem too slow – so we are tempted to simply throw it out.)
  • Do we need identity theft protection insurance (No – it should be part of the package of citizenship)
  • Does freedom of communication mean a free pass for criminals? (No – the key issue is ‘are people innocent, or are they always potential suspects online’. That is not democratic – and it’s a waste of resources. It’s lazy policing. It’s not that countries with blanket surveillance don’t have any crime)

“Surveillance is not about making people safer – it’s about control. The concentration of power by the state has always been the biggest danger to humanity”

July 6, 2012

From the archives: The four pillars of successful freelancing

How do you make it as a freelancer? Here are four key approaches that should see you building a solid foundation for success.

Originally published on the late-lamented FleetStreetBlues as a four part series, the Four Pillars vanished when FleetStreetBlues managed to libel a PR firm (allegedly), and the blog was pulled.

This underlines the vulnerability and lack of longevity of online content. It’s also a warning to guest bloggers to keep their own backup of their guest posts.

I thought that the Four Pillars had been lost during one of my many hard drive failures of the past few years. By chance, I came across a draft on a USB stick in the back of a drawer. So here, for the record, are the Four Pillars of Successful Freelancing, collected in one handy volume for the first time…

A few years ago I gave a talk to eager young journalism students at Kingston University about the delights of the freelance life. I took the chance to ask them what they thought were the most important attributes of a successful freelancer.

Unsurprisingly, they came back with a skills-and-competence-based list. Diligence, hard work and basically being good at your job were suggested as the key to a successful freelance media career.

Certainly, lazy, sloppy and inept freelance journalists don’t tend to get very far (though I’m sure everyone out there knows one or two, inexplicable, exceptions).

But for a really successful freelance media career, you have to think a bit laterally about this. Here’s my take on the four key attributes of a successful media freelancer – especially in this uncertain day and age.

1) Get on with people

The key ability you need as a freelancer is affability. People need to like you enough to keep you around when it comes to office-based production shifts, and the same holds true for freelance writing commissions (though antisocial misfits can probably hide themselves successfully behind a telephone for a while, and even better behind email).

Thankfully for us Brits, this doesn’t mean you need to be the life and soul of the party – far from it. It can actually hurt your prospects to be seen as a motormouth or gossip, partly because it makes it seem like you don’t get on with your work, and partly because you prevent others from getting on with theirs. But being cheerful, upbeat and interested in those around you is a top skill for freelancing.

Is this more important than competence? Not if you’re absolutely hopeless, no. But if you can do your job and keep chipper about it, you’ll win time and again over the world’s best sub if they tend to get on people’s nerves. And your attitude to things like reworking copy will be a big clue about whether you get more writing commissions.

If you’re asked to change something in a feature, or follow up a piece of research, do it with a smile. Yes, sometimes it’ll be the fault of the editor’s brief. If that’s the case, make the changes and then point out the discrepancy in the brief in a spirit of helpful suggestion, rather than stroppiness. This is called diplomacy and you really need to develop it as a freelance.

Crucially, try not to slip into the British working disease of grumbling. Even if all the staffers around you moan about their job, the company and the newspaper, magazine or website all the time, try not to do it yourself. Sometimes it goes against the grain, but try to cultivate a can-do attitude. Don’t become an American though. That would be silly.

2) Be useful

Don’t confuse being good with being useful. You may be a razor sharp and pedantic sub-editor, or a writer with red-hot style, but if you aren’t obviously useful to your client as well you won’t score those extra freelance brownie points.

How can you be useful? At its simplest, find things that need doing, then suggest doing them. In my time I’ve sorted out picture filing systems, archived proofs and generally helped organise the editorial office. If it looks like it would be helpful, but no-one seems to have got around to doing it, it may well be worth volunteering for. Be sensible – you don’t want to look like a crazed boy scout on bob-a-job week. But a bit of putting yourself forward doesn’t hurt.

On a more strictly professional level, look out for opportunities to add something to the editorial content you’re working on. And, given that staff and resources are being squeezed all over, there are more and more areas that are being neglected.

One thing a lot of freelance journalists hate is being asked to do the picture research for features they write. But having good ideas for illustration for features – and the research ability to dig out useful images – can help you stand out. This works for subs too. I’ve worked on many small-scale business mags that often settle for fairly dull feature illustration – so being able to track down good free images is a big bonus.

If you’re writing a feature and the brief has some obvious gaps or is a bit dull (and God knows that can happen in the trade press), think about ways it could be livened up, or made more relevant or topical. Obviously CHECK with whoever briefed you that it’s OK to add material or change direction. But a freelancer who pays careful and critical attention to their brief is more valuable than one who just churns out material unquestioningly.

If you have a good case study but one isn’t asked for, suggest a boxout. Know of a useful survey or some statistics that the editor isn’t aware of? Suggest a chart to liven up the page. And if they say no? That’s never a problem.

3) Be versatile

This is kind of a skills thing, but is also to do with attitude and approach. Some subs never touch writing or serious rewriting, or aren’t comfortable creating Illustrator charts, or whatever.

Many years ago, before I started freelance writing, I was subbing a feature layout that was missing a case study box. The editor had to go out of the office and I was left to take the call from the company involved and then write up the 200 words or so. It was a simple enough job, but that versatility was unusual enough for the editor to comment on it.

Writers benefit from being able to design and lay out pages in InDesign or Quark. If a business client needs an awards book write-up, or a sponsored supplement, being able to slap together painstakingly craft the page layouts as well as the copy can be a useful selling point.

It can sometimes help to take a picture too. If you’re doing a day shift and you can take a shot of something simple like a shop front, or a pile of promotional leaflets, then take the picture and don’t quibble about demarcation or fees.

Yes, it’s tough for freelance photographers, but they’re getting hammered by iStock already. And, crucially, it’s unlikely that many publications would actually pay a photographer’s fee for a basic image like that nowadays anyway. (Advice for freelance photographers? Diversify.)

4) Be flexible

Versatility implies a flexible approach to your work – and I’d suggest that this is the fourth pillar of freelance success.

Yes, flexibility includes the willingness and ability to take on a wider range of editorial roles. But it also can mean rolling with the punches when dealing with clients.

There are things I get stroppy about in this freelance life. Being paid late or erratically, especially with no reason or apology, is a guarantee I’ll put a client on a blacklist. But I’m happy to be more accommodating about a range of other client failings. And for good reason.

Publishing is, by its nature, erratic. We live by deadlines, but those deadlines often change. At the last minute.

Now, some freelancers I know get very upset at this. And that’s understandable – they often tend to be sub-editors, and losing out on a shift at short notice can throw your finances right out.

But think about it pragmatically – does a last-minute day-shift cancellation give you the chance to work on a feature you’ve been commissioned to write? Can you easily reshuffle other work to cover the loss?

If so, just do it. Your flexibility and lack of chippiness can be an asset when it comes to the client rebooking you. In essence, you can play on their guilt, if they have any. And if you’re easy to deal with when there are problems, you’ll be someone they may well come back to in preference to a moaner.

It doesn’t mean you should be a doormat. But know your real sticking points and draw the line there. Don’t give attitude for the sake of it.

In the end, a lot of this boils down to common sense and keeping your cool. Remember – understand your goals and make sure whatever you do helps you achieve them.

Mostly, those goals will be to get paid. Sometimes they will include developing your skills. Generally they won’t include posturing for the sake of it.

Any other top tips for freelancing, do please feel free to share in the comments…

June 22, 2012

Friday infographic: Inside the mind of a freelancer

Most “infographics” I see are barely worth the name – pointless drivel dressed up with irrelevant visuals. But this is better, and also achingly relevant to this blog. Via the ever lovely Mashable comes “Inside the mind of a freelancer” – a graphic tart-up of some 2012 salary survey results.

Of note: freelancers are happier than wage slaves (not that we aren’t slaves too, you understand), and the longer you freelance, the less you want a full-time job. Mind you, the longer you work in a full-time job the less you want a full-time job. Whatever.

Interestingly, the survey respondents are mostly Gen X women – so I suspect that their freelance gig maybe started to fit in with childcare and then carried on. Based on no evidence at all, of course.

Also, the survey makes no mention of the real difference between freelancers and salarymen – employment benefits such as sick pay, pension contributions and paid holiday. Which is what really keeps me up at night…

June 20, 2012

Hyperlocal case study: @WeLoveBath

Bath is a thriving multi-meejah city, full of festivals like Bath Digital Festival and events like the recent D:Bate on the future of print vs. digital media. It’s also got lots of interesting hyperlocal (or hyperlocal-ish) stuff happening.

One is Twitter-based WeLoveBath. Launched a couple of years ago, it’s won its creator, web designer Felix Renicks, a couple of runner-up placings in last year’s Bath Chronicle People of the Year Awards.

Arguably, a service that covers a whole city – though a small one – isn’t exactly hyperlocal. But the feed has very focused content, down to neighbourhood or street level. And the interests it reflects are not typical news agenda issues. This week I interview Felix to see how the service was set up and what he’s learned from the project.

Service: WeLoveBath
Location: Bath
Platform: Twitter
Founder: Felix Renicks
Established: 2 years
Followers: 9,500
Following: 4,600
Tweets: 24,000

How it works
@WeLoveBath is a curated Twitter feed. Content is based on retweets – Felix creates no original content himself. Retweets come from a range of sources, including retweets from Twitter based on relevant keyword searches and from the accounts that @WeLoveBath follows. Then there are submissions from Twitter users who use the @WeLoveBath reply. Finally, there is a small amount of automated content, such as traffic and weather, fed in via RSS. WeLoveBath has also trialled an email subscription offering a “best of the feed” round-up, running weekly for a while.

Why did you set it up?
“I set up WeLoveBath because I wanted to follow it – I was looking for it and it didn’t exist. I never thought it would be a hugely popular service. I just thought it would be useful. The Bath Chronicle was tweeting a bit, and all sorts of people were talking about Bath, but it was difficult to find – you had to hunt it out.”

Why Twitter?
“It was either going to be Twitter or Facebook, realistically, to generate enough content to work. Twitter is much more public than Facebook. I’ve found Facebook really difficult. I’ve since set up a Facebook page and got about 1,000 fans, which is fine. But Facebook is all about photos and everything’s private. It’s essentially the world’s biggest photo site, with a social network on top. It’s completely different from Twitter. The conversation was already there on Twitter. I just needed to tap into it.”

What’s your marketing strategy?
“I started off with my friends around Bath following me – I had about 100 followers at first. It was very small for a long time. For the first year it was only a couple of tweets a day. But Twitter gets faster and faster – it snowballs. It’s now gaining about 100 followers a week. The feed isn’t marketed, it’s just word of mouth. It’s been in the Bath Chronicle a number of times, but I don’t think that really has any effect. It’s much easier to click if you’re already on Twitter than to go from the newspaper to the computer.

“Many people, including a lot of traditional marketers, don’t understand that Twitter is a two-way thing. You can’t get followers from just broadcasting. You have to follow and reply to people. By default you get an email when someone follows you. I follow about 4,500 people, so when I follow them they hear about WeLoveBath. There’s no real strategy about following people. It doesn’t cost anything and there’s no reason not to follow people. I use the search bar to find people who are talking about Bath: they’re probably going to be interested in the feed.

“Brands should be doing that anyway. Topshop should be following people who are talking about them.”

What’s your editorial strategy?
“Basically my role is editor – I don’t create any content. Mostly the content is retweets, but a small proportion of the content is automated. The weather, travel and local news is automated from RSS feeds. It’s a custom code job – using a PHP script to work with the Twitter API.

“The weather feed took a long time to create because it has to get the weather from Yahoo’s API and send it to Twitter, but people love it. In the early days the weather was one of the most popular things – people liked to get the weather sent to them at 8am. It was definitely worth the effort. It’s probably not the most efficient code, but it works.

“It’s certainly an advantage to know how to code – or just to understand how it works so you know what to ask for from tech people.

“At first I was just looking at what people were saying and retweeting it, but the more popular it became the more people submitted stuff using the @WeLoveBath signature. People come and go, but there are people who tweet a couple of times a week, as opposed to people who just use the feed when they need to ask for things like a local electrician. There are people who actively enjoy the citizen journalism side of it.

“There are maybe 20-30 core contributors, but they don’t make up more than half of the feed; it’s not overwhelming. I tried to create a leaderboard of who contributed most during the week, but the data is too flat – the most frequent was three tweets.”

How do you handle quality control?
“People who submit content tweet using @welovebath; I retweet what I think is relevant and interesting to the WeLoveBath feed. I have to filter the submissions – there’s a garden centre that tweets me about water butts every day and I know people don’t want to see that.

“I have to do it manually. It helps that I work on a computer all day so I can keep an eye on the feed using the Twitter for Mac app. It becomes sort-of semi-automatic. When things get quieter and I get time I’ll run some saved searches such as “in bath” minus a lot of keywords to filter it down. Anything that’s interesting in those search results I’ll also retweet. I’ve tried other search strings such as “of Bath”, but I’ve found “in Bath” is the best search.

“I add to the saved searches over time when I come across useful keywords – people talking about specific things like “BathSpa” university, or “Oldfield Park” (a local area). You can’t just search for “Bath” on its own. People are talking about having baths, and there’s a Bath in the US. That’s why it has to be curated.”

“It’s very easy to set up, but needs a bit of attention to keep going. When you first set it up you have to go without anyone listening for a while to make it worth it. A lot of people start copycat things, especially for Bath, but they don’t last. You have to continue with five followers and it feels like a waste of time. But why would you follow when there’s nothing there? You have to build it up from nothing. Until it actually is something, there’s no point.”

What role does the email newsletter play?
For a while, Felix sent out a more-or-less weekly email newsletter featuring selected excerpts from the feed. The service ran through Campaign Monitor for around £20 an month, which handled the subscription list and sending the email.

“It was really popular and helped to reach a new audience. Not everyone is on Twitter, but everyone’s got an email address, so it really helped spread the word. It’s a static thing – a tweet can go past, but the newsletter will stay in your inbox until you’ve read it or deleted it. It offers a bit more editorial control in terms of sections and features. I also tried to tell a story through tweets, each part of a sentence would be sourced to a tweet.

“I did one to see if it would be popular, and it was. But the first one was a test, and it ran as a test for 20 issues. The format wasn’t very streamlined and it took about 6 hours to create. It will be back, but it will take a lot of attention to redo.”

Plans for monetisation
“The email newsletter could make money in time. I don’t ever want to put ads or sponsorship on the Twitter profile as it’s not really my site. If I put them in the feed, I don’t want to feel that I can’t retweet someone being critical of a business. I’ve no idea what return I could get from it. I’m not desperate to monetise it. But if I did I would be keen to do it in a way that would add value, like a classified service or a jobs board.”

Lessons learned

Don’t try to manufacture community
WeLoveBath offers something to an existing community that it may find interesting.

It’s risky
Felix doesn’t really own anything. “The Twitter account isn’t really mine – it’s Twitter’s and it could change its product at any time.”

People can misunderstand it
They think it’s part of the Bath Chronicle or the local council. Also it does not endorse the views (negative or positive) that it streams, which can confuse readers.

It’s outgrowing itself 
“I often don’t publish stuff because it’s too much and I don’t want to overwhelm people. Or there’s too much repetition. Basically you can have too much material for a feed. The problem comes when the stream becomes a flood.”

June 16, 2012

Weird site of the day #2:

Second in a series too sporadic to merit the title: via @newkingarts comes this fascinating technological breakthrough – the anti-alien abduction helmet.

“Used successfully by former abductees for thirteen years,” the helmet is simple to make and takes just four hours to create.

You will need: a hat or helmet made from leather, vinyl, rubber or similar, plus 2 square yards of 3M Velostat (an opaque, volume-conductive, carbon-impregnated polyolefin, FYI).

The endorsements are persuasive, to say the least: “Since trying Michael Menkin’s Helmet, I have not been bothered by alien mind control. Now my thoughts are my own,” says an alien abductee from Kentucky.

How can this work? I’m glad you asked. It scrambles telepathic communication between aliens and humans, obviously. “Aliens cannot immobilise people wearing thought screens nor can they control their minds.” No thought control, no abduction.

Remember: “If you are abducted by aliens the helmet will work for you.” It’s a promise.

I see another weekend tech project looming. I reckon this one will be more successful than my last