In my opinion: Nick Eardley: Old hacks, new tricks

THE internet, most journalists would freely admit, has changed the profession, and, last month, BBC Radio Scotland conducted an exercise to test how the internet has changed newsgathering.

Old Hacks, New Tricks was about internet-based journalism versus ‘old school’. I was the internet-based journalist, pitted against experienced print journalist, Jim Rougvie, formerly of The Scotsman.

We were both given the challenge of finding the best story from a given town on a given day. Jim wasn’t allowed a mobile telephone or access to the internet and was to find his story through the hard graft of knocking on doors and speaking to locals. I was confined to the office with a telephone and a desktop as my resources.

The setting was Anstruther, in Fife. The print journalist won.

Jim had the benefit of introducing himself to people and speaking to those who know the names of others involved in local issues. In such a small town, the ability to walk the high street, see the sights and speak to the community was ideal. The head of the community council was a fantastic source – one found by dint of exploring the town.

The lack of information about Anstruther online made the task of finding a newsworthy story from the town very diffifcult indeed.

However, would this have been the case had we both been let loose in a city? Had we both been asked to find the biggest story in Edinburgh that day, working in an office would have been a lot simpler. In the capital, as is the case in most cities and a number of bigger towns, news sources online are plentiful.

There are those organisations providing press releases, snippets in social media which often lead to some of the biggest scoops, and disgruntled individuals who want to make their voices heard online. You can communicate with people through social media searches in a way that would require much more work by foot. In the past year, I have met people through Facebook who have proved invaluable sources in covering important city issues. I would have struggled to meet them without such a resource.

In the context of hyper-local journalism, how different would this have been had I, or anybody in a similar challenge, had previous experience covering such an area? Those of us who use the internet as a source in our work have learnt the best ways to maximise its potential – who to follow on Twitter, be friends with on Facebook and where to look for stories. Most contacts that journalists develop are happy to talk over the phone – something that most of us do on a regular basis and are happy with.

The show made some pertinent points about the potential shortcomings of office-dominated journalism. It can be harder to win the trust of a source you have never met and it can be difficult to understand a community that you have never been part of.

But that does not mean that the internet is not an valuable tool and journalists based in an office cannot produce the same, or indeed better, quality content. The right mix of the two provides us with the chance to cover more and engage with a greater number of people than ever before.

News, as was pointed out to me by STV’s Matt Roper (with whom I have only ever spoken on Twitter), is everywhere.

Journalists can find ground-breaking stories through gossip in their local shop, leads through Facebook or exciting new angles by looking deeper into a press release than their colleagues.

For me, coming into the profession in the age of the internet, the key is balance. There needs to be the opportunity to engage with communities and understand issues, to meet with people and gain their trust.

But the new world of technology which has emerged over the last decade offers a new medium through which news can be generated and with which we can gauge the concerns people have and the issues they face.

As journalism continues to adjust with the challenges of funding and staffing, the office cannot become the only sphere through which we work, but the internet and telephone cannot be disregarded as invaluable resources.

Nick Eardley is aged 22 and studying for a masters in Journalism at Edinburgh Napier University. He was recently deputy editor of Edinburgh-wide student newspaper, The Journal, and was shortlisted for News Writer of the Year at this year’s Herald Student Press Awards. He is currently working for guardianedinburgh on a freelance basis.