Monthly Archives: February 2011

Vaughan Smith on life and death on the frontline in Afghanistan

As much as I enjoy the media jungle and talking about digital media for a living, there are times when it’s worth watching the work of journalists who work in genuine life and death situations.

One such is Vaughan Smith, founder of the Frontline Club (where I worked very happily during 2010). Vaughan has been mentioned quite a lot recently for supporting Wikileaks’ Julian Assange, but some people may not know that his day job, (apart from running a club, restaurant and organic farm) is being a freelance video journalist who makes remarkable films from war zones.

His latest is from Afghanistan, where he spent two weeks with the US Army’s 214th Aviation Regiment, for al Jazeera.

What I enjoy about Vaughan’s work is its absence of politics. A BBC, Sky or CNN journalist may frame a report around whether the troops should be at war or not. This is just a document of professionals at work, doing their job, stitching people up in the most unimaginable heat and horror.

In person Vaughan talks about the “cliches” of war reporting and how some TV reports fall into a pattern; his reporting from Helmand Province last year showed that soldiers actually enjoy warfare – they’re aware of the danger, but these are young men visibly revelling in being on the frontline in daring missions.

And if one man and one camera can do this, that says something quite exciting about what else is possible in video journalism doesn’t it?

The importance of journalism and building communities

What is an online community, how do you build a site or service to cater for one and how do journalists work to become relevant in one?

These are the questions students on the MA journalism programme at City University in London are considering (I teach magazine journalism students there).

The students have to identify a distinct, cohesive group, research into how that group communicates and build a website* and use it to build contacts and relevance.

It’s a fascinating and very worthwhile exercise because it gets the students to think: “How useful and interesting is my journalism? Who am I writing for?”

In B2B or trade media, which I specialise in, there has been a very clear shift towards launching niche products within big parent brands: most leading B2B magazine brands now have several blogs, premium subscription products just catering for specific sectors of audience. The multinational publishing and events group Informa, which makes a tidy profit, has individual paid-for digital news and data products that cater for maybe 50 companies worldwide – and because it’s so specialised and valuable they are not cheap.

A B2B marketing exec recently put it to me, in a Thatcheresque turn of phrase, that “there’s no such thing as community really – it’s a very over-used term”. So maybe the terminology is wrong here, but the principles are sound. It boils down to: who do you publish for?

The same thing is happening in consumer media, where an understanding of audience is so crucial.

Get by with a little help from your friends

What I try to get across to the trainees is that this is exactly the kind of thing an editor may ask you to do in future: help launch a new site or product that appeals to a section of our community. Not only that, becoming well known and respected is good in a personal and professional sense – as Josh Halliday will tell you.

But the real point of the task is to use the wider knowledge of a community to improve the quality of journalism the trainees are producing. So by listening and connecting with a community you can create stories, analysis and coverage that is more useful, relevant and in every way successful.

As with so much of “online journalism”, I don’t really know why we have to give it the prefix online, it’s just “journalism” to me. None of this is different to the traditional way of doing things. You build credibility and relevance, then people trust you enough to tell you things, work with you and help you do your job.

This digital business isn’t a broadcast – it’s a conversation. And on that theme: if anyone established in the industry has any has any tips for the students for this task, please do leave a comment below, or perhaps consider writing a blog post on it yourself…

*I don’t like the term “blog” for various reasons, not least its bogus cultural connotations and misleading stereotypes. See more of my ramblings on this theme here.

Picture by Niall Kennedy on Flickr, via a Creative Commons licence.