All entries for September 2010

September 25, 2010

Keep writing

This is the last blog I am writing in this series, Communication Matters.

Next week, on Thursday, October 7, I will be holding a text chat session for the Knowledge Centre. The time will be announced on the Knowledge Centre website. During that session you will be able to ask questions which might have occurred to you when reading these blogs.

Today I want to finish this series of blogs by assuring you that if you are passionate about writing, it will happen. Believe in yourself, keep at it, even when you feel down after every suggestion you have put to a commissioning editor has been rejected.

Don't lose faith in your writing or yourself.

You might not start by writing for national papers or a top-selling glossy magazine - but if you start small you have the chance to grow. And anyway, who is saying that writing for a small circulation, but niche publication which has a passionate readership, is not as good as writing for a well-known title?

The world of journalism - especially online news - is now open to everyone. It has come of age. If you are a good writer, maintain high ethical standards, are passionate about what you write, interested in who you interview, determined to leave no stone unturned in your search for the truth, fascinated by learning new facts and think the world ought to know, then you will make a great journalist.

You can start by writing your own blog.

However, you may also want to contribute to your local newspaper or county magazine with a submission for print or online. Local newspapers are grateful for well-written stories about the area, its business and people.

Though media watchers talk about the end of print - in truth, no one knows what the future holds. In fact, last week Tindle Newspapers launched three more new weekly print titles in London - all focussing tightly on specific communities.

The three new papers - the Barnet & Potters Bar Press, the Hendon & Finchley Press and the Edgware and Mill Hill Press - will be distributed free door-to-door to nearly 90,000 homes.

The move follows the launch by Tindle Newspapers of four other ultra local titles in March as part of Sir Ray Tindle's efforts to create local community newspapers across the country.

Tindle Newspapers publishes more than 200 newspapers in England & Wales, many of them more than 100 years old.

Apart from print publications, there are a number of online news sites which welcome submissions and they are great places for building a journalism portfolio. Most of these sites offer guidelines to writers.

Many newspaper groups have launched hyperlocal sites.
Hyperlocal websites are sites that focus on the community in a small part of the paper's circulation area. These sites welcome contributions. Take a look at one of the hyperlocal maps

In August 2010, Trinity Mirrorlaunched 34 hyperlocal sites linked to its newspaper title the Birmingham Mail.

Last year, The Daily Mail & General Trust launched 50 hyperlocal sites
as a trial in the south west of England. The sites, which include, cover areas with between 10,000 and 50,000 inhabitants. All these hyperlocal sites aim to encourage interaction with the public by allowing users to create profiles, write and publish stories, upload images, form
groups and rate and review other content and message each other.

Newsquest launched a raft of hyperlocal websites for its Midlands
titles. The Kidderminster Shuttlehas 30 sites (examples Bewdleyand Stourport.
All of them rely on community correspondents, people who are not trained journalists but are actively involved in the community, to give them news.

William Perrin is the champion of hyperlocal sites. He says on his Kings Cross site: 'I am a community activist in Kings Cross, London, and in my spare time work with residents to clean up our neighbourhood. This site is about the challenges we face locally and how we tackle them.
I have lived in London's Kings Cross on and off since 1995 ...... I got heavily involved in improving the local environment when a car stuffed full of fireworks exploded outside my flat in Autumn 2002.
At that time the area around Rufford Street was in chaos - littered with burned-out cars, the streets piled high with rubbish, endemic anti-social behaviour, drug-addicted sex workers everywhere.
The community has pulled together since then and turned the area around working with the council, the police and the voluntary sector. I am also a non-executive board member of CYP the excellent local youth charity.
I recently took a sabbatical from my civil service job to set up TalkAboutLocal to inform people about the benefits of grassroots community websites more widely.
I moved about a mile from Kings Cross recently but still keep up the website with the team and local activism.”

That's what hyperlocal sites are about. Grassroots journalism, community interaction and support.  They do all the things that local newspapers used to do, but many can no longer achieve because of the public’s change in reading and buying habits and the drastic cuts in journalist staff numbers on local papers.

In this new breed of online papers are particular niche sites such as Women's Views on News, an online daily news and current affairs service launched by writer Alison Clarke and put together by a volunteer collective of women journalists from around the world.  The stories featured are always about women.  This site welcomes ideas and stories. Most sites, just like Women's Views on News, have guidelines for contributors such as who to send material to, what the site is looking for, how long the piece is etc etc.

Citizen media start-up AllVoicesis a global 'community' which encourages users to contribute news and commentary by mobile phone or online. AllVoices ranks news events based on the activity they are generating on the Web at large.

One of the most successful sites built from reader contributions is US website, The Huffington Post. It was launched in May 2005 as a commentary outlet.

Now it offers coverage of politics, media, business, entertainment, living, style, the green movement, world news, and comedy as well as news. It has a core group of contributors and some 3,000 bloggers and specialists who deliver copy in real-time on a wide range of subjects.

People want to know what's going on in their city, town, neighbourhood and street. Someone has to provide that information.

That someone could easily be you.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see study/cll/open_courses/certs/ writing_features/

September 20, 2010


A personal blog is as valuable to you, the writer, as it is to the reader.
It is a great way to practice your writing. And the more you write,
the better writer you'll become.

But don't see a blog as just a platform for personal posturing. It is
a great vehicle for sharing and gaining information and knowledge.

So what is a blog?
The name emerged from the term web-log and was abbreviated to blog – a
different way or writing and communicating on the web.
Some call it a modern-day diary on the web. If Pepys were alive today, he'd blog.
(In fact, Londoner Phil Gyford is working on a ten-year project to put Pepys's work into a blog format).
But in essence a blog is an online journal where you, the author, can
post and publish entries about personal experiences or hobbies,
political opinion or alternative news coverage. A blog is a method of
sending out personal or company news on the web.
It is an opportunity to champion a cause. And the benefit of a blog
over a print article is that readers can add comments on your entries
(blog posts) which transforms your writing into a two-way dialogue - a

Who blogs?
These days it is easier to say - who doesn't blog?

One of the most evocative blogs I have come across is a semi - anonymous
food blog La Tartine Gourmande. But it's more than that. It's a
relationship illustrated in words and photographs between a mother and
daughter and their simple pleasures of outdoor living...and in
between,  there is some (a lot of) cooking.

There's Clotidle Dusoulier, in her 30s, who blogs from Paris where, six years ago she started blogging
about restaurants, markets, cafes, and recipes. She got noticed by a
publishing house and the rest her books.
Mums and dads sharing parenting problems and advice on the internet
have made Mumsnet one of the most popular parenting sites in the UK -
newspapers and the Government take notice of what is being discussed
there and prime ministers have ensured they are seen with mumsnet

Other bloggers are enthusiats keen to unearth hidden news and scandal
- such as Guido Fawkes, aka Paul Staines who
blogs on Parliamentary
plots, rumours and conspiracy in the UK. Staines' is a political Tory
blog. He keeps his ear to the ground and breaks news before the
mainstream media.

Look up gardener, passionate allotment keeper (and editor of the
Observer magazine), Alan Jenkins.

The Danish photographer Jacob Holdt blogged his journey through the
American underclass.

And so it goes on: there are fiction writers' blogs, showbusiness gossip
blogs, MPs’ blogs, Green campaingners' blogs, blogs by scientists,
medics, followers of fashion, blogs alerting the world to terrible
attrocities, blogs by those in disaster areas, military blogs, peace
activitist blogs and poets' blogs

But why blog?
Once news was produced by journalists and published in newspapers and on
TV and radio. Now anyone can write and be published. For free.
But be warned - there is no right to anonymity in blogging. Only say
in your blog what you'd be happy to say in public.

Blog tips:
Keep sentences to 15 - 20 words

Paragraphs of just two or three sentences

Good blogs are updated a couple of times a week

They should take no more than 45 seconds to read

Write well and enthusiastically and you will get feedback.
Your readers will stay with you if you:

Write tight

Write with clarity

Keep it brief

Are accurate

Make your blog conversational

Remember your audience:
They read the web 25 per cent slower than print

They are picky and selective

They need facts quickly

They don’t read – they scan

Add value to your blog with links to more facts, graphics, videos,
pictures and links to other sites.

Comment on other blogs using the comment box at the end of the blog
post. Give your real name and your own blog's url - then, if someone
agrees with your comment or thinks you have some sound views, they'll
click your name and visit your blog, bringing more readers to you.

How to start
The two main free-to-use blogging platforms are Google's blogger and
WordPress.  WordPress has a number of rescources to help the new
blogger such as blog and the official support
with clear instructions how to sign up and how to start blogging.

Read other people's blogs.
Not only can you see how other people use their blogs, how they
present them and what their content is, but their blogsite will
indicate other good blogs to read. Just look at the blogroll, the list
of blogs the author has put in the sidebar. If you like this author,
then you are likely to be interested in the blogs he rates.
Go to Best of Journalism Blogs to start looking.

Follow Mashable and ReadWriteWeb to keep you in the loop regarding Web 2.0 and
social networking trends, tools and sites. These blogs will help you
understand how and why the media world is changing. Likewise, 10,000
is worth logging on to. It describes
itself as a resource for journalists and web and technology
enthusiasts to learn the tools that are shaping digital journalism.

And a note to would-be journalists and journalism students - writing a
blog will make you better a better writer, researcher, communicator —
and editor.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online
certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick
University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010.
For details see

September 13, 2010

People are the story

Nine years ago last Saturday, The Twin Towers of the World Trade Centre in New York collapsed after two hijacked airliners crashed into the buildings.

Much was, and is, written about that morning of September 11, 2001, when Al-Qaeda- affiliated hijackers flew two 767 jets into the Towers in a co-ordinated suicide attack that killed 2,752.

But the stories that are remembered are the stories that tell us about individuals - about the people who survived the horror, and stories about those who died.

Pulitzer prize winner Jim Dwyer together with four other writers and editors from the New York Times put together a lengthy but immensely moving article describing the two Towers' final 102 minutes: Fighting to Live as the Towers Died.

It is a powerful piece of reporting and writing. It was pieced together after eight months of detailed interviews with relatives of the deceased, survivors, police and fire brigade and transcriptions of emergency services’ recordings. The article's strength comes in the way the narrative is put together using the voices of those trapped in upper floors of the Towers to relive those final terrifying moments. 

Immediately after the first plane struck, every television and radio station, every magazine and newspaper worldwide was reporting on the unbelievable sight.

Though 9/11 is an extreme event, it does highlight the dilemma of the journalist.

How does he or she find the angle, the different take on the same event that will stand out over the hundreds of other articles covering the same event?

Jim Dwyer found a way. His journalistic lesson was: The bigger, the smaller. Dwyer based a series of articles he wrote immediately after  9/11 on specific objects with the story woven around them.

For example: A family photograph found in the rubble;  the tale of six men, one a window cleaner, who escaped from a lift trapped between floors in the north tower by cutting through three layers of plasterboard with the metal edge of two squeegees. In Fighting for Life 50 Floors Up, With One Tool and Ingenuity the article tells how the men ran out of the building five minutes before it collapsed. In fewer than 1,000 words, Dwyer captured the drama, the horror, the heroics, and the survival of average New Yorkers acting in extraordinary ways. 

Other articles in his 'Objects' series featured handcuffs used to dig people out, daffodils to be planted in a city park by a father who lost a son, and a yellow baby buggy in The Kindness of Strangers

Dwyer's was great reporting and evocative writing.  He found a 'human' way to reflect the extent and extreme emotions of the inhuman tragedy.

And that's what reporting and writing is about. Humanising events so people can identify with them. 

When you are looking for a story, try to get to the people who are closest to the action. Talk to those who are involved rather than just figures of authority.

As a writer, faced with reporting an incident, you will look about you, you will talk to....friends, taxi drivers, shopkeepers, the old lady in the bus queue. People are the story - what they do, what they see, what they feel.

Another major retrospective this week was the marking of 70 years since the start of the Blitz which saw Britain sustain prolonged periods of heavy bombing by the Nazi Germany air forces from Sept 1940 to May 1941.

A Britain at War article in the Daily Telegraph online makes a Blitz feature relevant to today's readers by using a gallery of pictures which fuse the images of streets as they are in 2010 with images of the same street as it was in the Blitz.

Take a moment to listen to Bandits of the Blitz an audio feature by Duncan Campbell on BBC Radio 4. The BBC has run a series of programmes to mark the start of the bombing campaign.

This particular audio feature is (like Dwyers' Twin Towers feature) a sideways look at a subject. In Campbell's feature, we are told about those who took advantage of the sick and the dying, who looted and stole (even from bodies as they were carried from the rubble or lying in a town hall waiting for relatives to identify them) and made it rich on the back of others' misery during those months of chaos.

It is a fascinating feature - not least because it takes an off-beat look at a segment of history which is often portrayed as the time communities and individuals pulled together, and good will and honesty all round. And again, it wins hands down because it is a feature about people, it carries interviews with those who were there - and it grabs the reader's interest because its subject matter stands out from the many thousands of words written last week about the Blitz.

And that is what feature writers have to do. Find that angle, that particular look at a subject which will stop readers and listeners in their tracks.

And today's journalist has an arsenal of weapons to help tell that story.  He can (and is expected to) choose and use video, audio, photography, graphics and the written word to communicate an event, big or small, to readers.

But whatever medium or selection of media is used - the story is always about people.

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

September 05, 2010

Reasons for keeping notes and notebooks

Last week, record-breaking UK yachtswoman Ellen MacArthur gave a round of interviews to radio, TV and print journalists to launch her new book Full Circle.

The interviews were based on MacArthur's revelation she was giving up the sea to focus on environmental issues.

But The Daily Telegraph's feature writer Elizabeth Grice brought another dimension to her article about the 34-year-old; it was a personal touch referring in her story to previous one-to-one meetings Grice had had with the solo yachtswoman.

Grice recalled in her profile on MacArthur last week week, 'At the end of her Vendee Globe triumph in 2001, she took me down into the tiny, unventilated cabin of Kingfisher on a “tour” of the quarters which had been her cell, home, work station and survival-capsule for 94 days. She talked about the meticulous planning that had gone into provisioning her nutshell of a boat...'

The opportunity to recall earlier conversations, pull quotes from a stored-away notebook, gives the journalist's work an added dimension, a certain credibility, and it tells the reader that the journalist is not only familiar with the person they are interviewing but have been trusted to return for another interview.

Last November, (2009) the body of Staff Sgt Olaf Schmid was brought home to the UK from Afghanistan. The bomb disposal expert died defusing an IED (improvised explosive device) which had trapped his squad in an alley the day before he was due to return to his wife and stepson on leave.

That week, The Sunday Times carried a feature His Last Lonely Walk written by journalist Miles Amoore on the front page of its News Review section. 

It was a moving article, particularly because much of the content came from conversations six months before between the charismatic ‘Oz’ Schmid, who had disposed of more than 65 Taliban IEDs,  and the freelance journalist.

S/Sgt Schmid's words had been kept, unused, within the pages of Amoore’s notebook. Those words became hugely relevant after 30-year-old Oz Schmid’s death.

S/Sgt Schmid had struck up a friendship with the journalist Amoore and freelance photographer David Gill when the three met in the British Army’s forward operating base Jackson in Sangin in Helmand Province last summer. They talked about their respective jobs during down time during the Taliban’s brutal bombing campaign Panther’s Claw. The three kept bumping into each other – always lapsing into conversation, many of which ended up in Amoore's notebook. 

That summer, Oz emailed his wife Christina Schmid telling her that he had been photographed by a freelance photographer. She emailed the freelancers asking for copies. Amoore and the photographer Gill were happy to oblige. When S/Sgt Schmid was killed, Christina emailed the freelance pair saying, ‘He died yesterday.’

Amoore talked to Christina about her feelings and the last times she had spoken with her husband. Then he and Gill put together the article about S/Sgt Schmid – a sad but powerful tale of great bravery.

S/Sgt Schmid, of the Royal Logistics Corps, was posthumously awarded the George Cross for bravery in March 2010. He was described as 'the bravest of the brave' by Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, the Chief of the Defence Staff.

At the time of his death S/Sgt Schmid became the face of heroism in Afghanistan. His bravery represented that of all other soldiers there.

But why S/Sgt Schmid? One could argue, it was as much because Amoore had his notebook of conversations which 'humanised' Oz and his fellow soldiers as it was S/Sgt Schmid's unquestionable courage. Had Amoore not had those notes to draw on, his article would not have been so deeply personal or moving.

I am writing this not in praise of Amoore and the quotes of a dead man he was able to put into his article at a time of someone else’s tragedy – though I think that having read the article S/Sgt Schmid's wife could not help but be even more proud of her husband. But I am writing this to show that by writing down those quotes and extra first-hand details of people you meet and interview (even though they may lay dormant for weeks, months or years in your notebook) they may, one day, add so much more to an article.

Amoore's meeting with S/Sgt Schmid is obviously an extreme case.  But because Amoore kept his notes and because he and photographer Gill were supportive to their contact – they were able to produce a powerful and very human article full of quotes and personal details which told of one man’s quiet heroism – a shining light in a terribly black place.

Elizabeth Grice refers to her earlier meeting with Ellen MacArthur to highlight the then and now of the world record holder's life. This added dimension sets Grice's feature apart from the many other articles written about MacArthur's decision to quit the sea. Grice was able to do this because she had kept her notes and her quotes from nine years ago. 

Notes are invaluable for all the reasons above. But they are also invaluable should an interviewee turn to you in the future and question what you have said in your article. On a legal point, all notes, recordings and photographs should be dated and kept in good order for at least one year. They may save you should someone challenge your writing in court. 

Sally Ballard is the tutor for the accredited 25-week online certificate course, Writing for Publication, run by Warwick University’s Centre for Lifelong Learning  starting in October 2010. For details see

September 2010

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