OF ALL the skills that every journalist needs, the one I think is most important is something that you’ve probably never heard of. It’s called ‘news sense’.
Every journalist at The Sentinel will have spent a number of years learning the basic skills needed to gather and report news.
This includes learning how to interview a person, how to use shorthand for accurate note-taking and then how to write down those facts in a coherent manner. We also have to learn the laws of libel and copyright, as well as learn the basics of government, both at local and Parliamentary level.
But that counts for nothing without news sense, that skill of being able to identify what a good story is, knowing what is important, interesting, what has colour and life for our readers.
I mention this because at a time when people can use the internet to read every council report or neighbourhood police newsletter, it’s often the journalists at The Sentinel that remain among the first to pick up a throwaway line in a report which becomes a major news story, and becomes the trigger for a protest or petition.
More importantly, for me at least, there’s Twitter and the other social media for breaking news.
As I’ve said before, I sent out a reporter to investigate two updates on Twitter from a chap who posted about a fire and a gas leak on Regent Road in Hanley. It turned out to be the first reports of the attempted mosque bombing.
But as more people locally join Twitter, it can be increasingly difficult to keep a track on what’s happening. Finding a decent story tip from Twitter can be like trying to catch a single droplet of water in a firehose.
Given we now track 1,900 people and organisations across North Staffordshire, how do we, and indeed anyone, find a news story in the mass of updates?
How to tackle the issue of information and update overload is a hot topic for many industries, and web developers are working to create tools to sift out the gold nuggets.
One of the easiest is to use Twitter itself. It provides the ability to assign the people and organisations you follow into lists, so they can be categorised easily.
I have lists for emergency services, politicians, cultural groups, simply so I can keep abreast of what’s important to each group.
That’s great, up to a point. But even so, it can be easy to miss updates.
That’s why developers are creating products such as Bottlenose and Banjo to help fill in the gaps.
Banjo is one of a whole so-called ‘social discovery’ apps being created that allow people to find out about other people close to where they are, right now.
I went to Cheadle on a Saturday a couple of weeks ago to get my hair cut. While I’m waiting in the queue, I’m looking at Banjo and find out that town and district councillor Stephen Ellis had just bought some oatcakes.
A trivial example? Perhaps, but it could also provide great dividends for journalists covering an event or incident to seek out contacts.
Of course, the application sifts out information based on people you know. What about identifying trends worth following up for stories?
Last week, train services between Stoke-on-Trent and Birmingham were disrupted for several hours after a man was found injured at Penkridge.
I would have missed the update using my current systems, simply because there were too few updates for me to pick up on the news within a firehose of the accounts I follow.
But Bottlenose is just the latest – and certainly most sophisticated – application that tries to make sense of that firehose of updates and turn it into something useful, and more importantly from a business point of view, actionable.
It allows registered users to import their Facebook and Twitter profiles and display them graphically, instead of a list.
Crucially, the developers have created a sophisticated algorithm which presents the most interesting information in a web of links based on your followers, interests and preferred topics.
Within 15 minutes of setting up, Bottlenose’s filtered web view provided an overview of the most popular topics, which can then be tweaked by the user.
The highlighted link to ‘Penkridge’ allowed me to find out enough to post a brief update about the problems, as well as updates for alternative routes and other information.
Ultimately, all the tools in the world won’t make a story happen. It takes the news sense of the journalists to take a simple tip-off and turn it into front page news.