I was asked by Laura Oliver to do a Q&A for journalism.co.uk as part of their "Meet the media trainers" series. However, as I recently moved to Kigali, and I can't realistically train for them from here, the Q&A got shelved. Alors, here is the Q&A, but I am still available for training worldwide – will be in the UK and Austria in November, possibly Nigeria, Liberia, Vietnam and Jordan soon after,
How has online changed the nature of 'breaking news' in your opinion?
Increasingly, news breaks online before it arrives on TV, in a newspaper or on the radio. Facts, rumour and gossip spread rapidly across hundreds of different sites mostly through social networks like Twitter and Facebook.
The problem at the moment is these sites are quite daunting for both journalists and news junkies to navigate. For the most part, these networks tend to self correct rumour quite quickly, but for anyone new to the space something like Twitter must just look like a maelstrom of tittle-tattle that's nigh on impossible to make sense of, let alone verify. However tools like Twitter, or what comes after them, are here to stay and journalists need to learn how these places work and how to utilize their journalistic skills in the online environment.
You can almost guarantee the first question I am asked whenever I discuss Twitter in training is, "But, how do you know it's a real person? How do you it's true?" It's bizarre, so many journalists seem to leave their brains behind as soon as they look at a website. Very few see this as a challenge to find out how you might start the process of verifying information online.
Are their simple changes a journalist can make to their work to better equip themselves for tracking breaking news online?
The first task for any journalist new to sourcing information online is to get involved in the culture of online networks. It's an unavoidable first step as there's really no other way to understand social media tools unless you have used a few of them and understand how they work.
The other key task is to learn how to use an RSS newsreader and subscribe to the RSS feeds of keywords and key phrases across a wide range of sites as soon as a story breaks or even before it breaks.
I remember while I was delivering a Track breaking news online course last year a bomb went off in Bangalore. Using the skills the trainees learned during the day, they were able to find pictures, video, tweets and the email addresses and mobile phone numbers of potential sources on the ground within 20 minutes.
Twitter is the hip kid on the block, but that shouldn't detract from it's usefulness. To paraphrase Alan Rusbridger, if you find the right people to follow it's like a personalized newswire. Although it helps if you learn how to filter it, search it and share information effectively on it.
How do you personally keep up-to-date with the latest tools for tracking breaking news online?
I don't actively go out of my way to find stuff a lot of the time. I tend to pick things up on Twitter. I don't follow a lot of people on my personal account, but most of them are pretty clued in to journalism and new tools and are generous when it comes to sharing links and retweeting interesting tidbits they find.
I use the social bookmarking tool del.icio.us a lot. I subscribe to the RSS feeds of a few good bookmarkers and sometimes their networks and I occasionally subscribe to highly targetted tag feeds in del.icio.us which can be an incredible resource if you learn how to filter it effectively.
Lastly, I use Yahoo Pipes a great deal especially when I need to follow a very specific, often under reported, story. Pipes takes the donkey work out of grouping, filtering and sorting huge amounts of information. The only downside, as far as breaking news is concerned, is that Pipes delivers information quite a bit slower than a straight RSS feed.
I tell all my trainees the key tools they have to really get their heads around are RSS, del.icio.us and Twitter. I also tell them that the course I teach them this month will not be the same course I teach next month. New, useful tools appear all the time and I adapt the course every month.
A key part of an online journalist's job is to know what's new, to try things out and to assess the usefulness. It's also useful to experiment with ways in which you can bundle up a bunch of tools to get a job done for you, like publishing a newswire across more than one site – update: something I'm playing with doing at kigaliwire.com (not quite live yet). More on all of that thinking in here.
Lastly, you have to go where the conversation is. The "conversation" is happening on Twitter at the moment, but that might not be the case in 6 months time. Keeping it with new tools for online communication is a very important aspect on doing online journalism, IMO. The people who make all this stuff work well were all on Twitter 3 years ago or more and not just after Stephen Fry mentioned it on TV.