Critical Reflection – Semester 3

Critical Reflection
WINOL
Year 3 – Semester 1

Winchester News Online (WINOL) is an independent, student media outlet, running across multiple platforms; a news website, a weekly news bulletin, a weekly sports bulletin, and a new, dedicated features website (W2) which launched this semester.

WINOL continues to deliver outstanding content across all platforms, and crucially, does this weekly or even daily: an unprecedented achievement for a student production, reflected by the multiple awards WINOL has won, including the BJTC News Day of the Year award this year. Despite not having the same resources, WINOL aims to match the same standard of professional outputs, which for the most part I believe we do; certainly in terms of content.

This semester WINOL reached a peak Alexa global traffic ranking of under four million, with our audience at times surpassing local news outlets such as the Hampshire Chronicle and Daily Echo. Our record page-views for a single day this semester was in excess of 6,000 views (19/11/14), almost 4,000 more than the record set last year, with an average of 2,746 daily views. We also received over 10,000 unique IPs over the semester.

This huge increase in traffic has to be in some part due to the extra emphasis placed on social media. This semester WINOL had, for the first time, a dedicated social media team; tweeting about stories and features constantly, sharing posts on Facebook and photos on Instagram etc. Since the beginning of the semester WINOL has passed 2,000 followers on Twitter.

Despite vast improvements in this area, there is still room to do better. One factor that is repeatedly brought up by guest editors is that WINOL lacks a specific target audience. It’s impossible to tailor content and SEO to appeal to an audience when you don’t know who they are. There is a constant debate about whether we appeal to a student/campus audience, or to Hampshire generally.

The solution to this, in my view, would be for reporters to better utilise their beat. Working on one beat for an entire semester, gives reporters an advantage in that they can build up contacts in their area and gain a better understanding of their audience. Using contacts to expand our audience is something I don’t think we do enough of on WINOL. In my role as Politics Correspondent this semester I have gained great contacts who I make sure I keep in regular contact with. As a result, they will often watch and share the bulletins on Twitter, meaning our audience extends to their followers as well (several of whom now also follow and retweet me). We need to make sure people appear on WINOL not as a favour to a student but because they see it as a legitimate broadcaster.

The importance of having good contacts really cannot be understated, for the most part it makes a reporter’s life a great deal easier having people in their phonebook they know they can rely on to do an interview, or give a statement, or even supply a story. Two of my packages this semester came as a direct result of good contacts.

Firstly I was invited to meet and interview the Cabinet Minister for Culture, Sajid Javid, by Mims Davis, the Conservative Party’s PPC for Eastleigh. I formed a good relationship with Mims, after meeting her at the Conservative Party Conference in Birmingham, which I covered for WINOL. Mims is one of several local PPCs I keep regular contact with via Twitter/Email/text, which will give me a huge advantage in covering the General Election.

Secondly, I was given the opportunity to interview Nick Clegg after a fellow student was tipped off by a contact of his that the Deputy PM would be visiting Eastleigh the next morning. This is not a story we wouldn’t have even known about until afterwards without this contact.

With the launch of W2, WINOL now has a separate site, which looks stunning, to showcase the fantastic features we are producing. The standard of these features, both in terms of content and production quality, is outstanding. Having two separate sites for news and features seems an obvious way to refine our audiences: WINOL can focus on covering serious news that reaches a Hampshire audience, while W2 can produce lighter, fun, features which will appeal to our student audience.

The two hour features special at the end of the year was proof, if it was needed, of the huge improvement to features this semester. This was not something we could have even thought about doing previously, simply because there was not enough content.

WINOL has struggled with production problems this semester, owing to the new studio in which we film. Not only is the studio completely new to the production team, who had no prior experience, but to the director. Considering this the team has done remarkably well getting out a bulletin every week despite the challenges they faced; however several of the bulletins have had lighting and green screen issues.

The key example would be the bulletin on 12/11/14: for the majority of the programme the presenter was translucent. The bulletin was uploaded in this condition, which I deemed to be an unacceptable standard, particularly as it was a very strong bulletin, featuring my interviews with Nick Clegg and Sajid Javid. I took it upon myself to tell the production team and the presenter that we had to re-record the links, and organised it to be done the next morning.

A big improvement in production on WINOL this semester has been the increased use of DSLR cameras. Most reporters and features team members now film using the DSLRs, meaning shots are of a far higher quality than those recorded using a JVC; which were the standard previously. According to Ian Sherwood, the DSLRs are also the same cameras that are now used in the field by Sky News.

However despite the increased quality of shots, the quantity is still lacking. Most reporters are still not getting enough footage to put together cut-aways, or filming sequences.

Another huge boost was the addition of the Graphics Editor role. For the first time WINOL had one person responsible for the graphics in packages, rather than reporters doing graphics themselves. This not only freed reporters to focus on their packages, it also gave the graphics a set style, making the bulletin look more professional.

In my role this year my packages were almost entirely focussed towards the upcoming General Election in 2015. Another first for WINOL this semester was having a politics team: instead of having just one or two political reporters there were reporters based in four local constituencies. This meant there was at least one local politics story every week, and it allowed me to focus on national stories.

In this role I have produced my best work to date, and significantly improved in many areas, most noticeably, for me, in my ability to confidently conduct interviews. This was commented on by BBC South’s Laura Trant, who said anyone who wanted to know how to conduct the ‘perfect interview’ should look no further than my interview with Nick Clegg.

Another vast improvement in my work has been my speed and efficiency in editing together a package. Where before it may have taken me hours to watch through my footage and edit together a package, I now know before I open Final Cut exactly what shots will be in this package, what interview quotes I plan to use, and what my voiceover is going to say. This has drastically reduced the time I take to edit a package: my Nick Clegg package was cut within 2 hours of me returning to the newsroom, and my Conservative Conference package in less than half an hour; though due to problems attempting to use a public internet connection to upload it, the package failed to make it into the bulletin. A revised cut of this package did however go on the website and into the following week’s bulletin.

Working with questionable public internet connections is a problem that has always plagued WINOL, and something we will have to find ways to overcome when we want to do OBs in our General Election coverage. A possible solution would be for reporters to assess the location beforehand and find a reliable internet connection.

Outside of my role I have been the News Editor twice, which I found to be an enjoyable and challenging experience, but not something I consider to really be part of my contribution this semester.

My proudest achievement was the successful launch of a new political satire show, Politics and Power, which was set-up entirely by myself and a fellow student (Calum Warren-Piper). Our aim was to to establish a show with serious political content, but that would appeal to a student audience. Achieving a balance between humour (without being libellous) and legitimacy was crucial, and I think we succeeded in this.

I was responsible for the majority of the scripting, directing, and editing, as well as making the green screens; while Calum designed the credits and graphics for the show, and produced a data-based package as well. For the most part we face no great difficulties with the above, aside from it largely being new to both of us.

The keystone of the show was a debate between four local politicians representing the Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats and UKIP. Without this the show would likely have collapsed. The debate did almost fall through on the day after the Conservative representative had to cancel, but I was able to get a replacement at the last minute. This again emphasises the importance of contacts as the councillor who stood in is someone I have maintained a relationship with since first year.

One of the major flaws of the show was the same problem with production that I mentioned with regards to WINOL previously. The picture quality of the debate is poor due to this problem, but unfortunately it was not possible to re-record the debate. We did however ensure that the rest of the show was filmed on DSLRs rather than with the cameras in the studio, and I added the green screen in post-production. Not only is the picture quality better this way, but it removes any lighting or green screen issues; as such I would highly recommend that we film the WINOL bulletin in this way as well, at least until the production problems have been resolved.

Another problem we encountered was that when the show went live, the website crashed due to the volume of traffic on the site. This was fairly dichotomous as on the one hand, it was the most traffic the site had received at any one time, showing interest for the show; but on the other it meant we had to reset the website and lost viewers.

The show has already received two complaints, a sign that people are actually taking it seriously. One complaint was that we featured UKIP but not the Green Party; the reasoning behind this was that we could not include more than four parties, and while the Greens are doing well nationally, locally they do not have anywhere near the same presence as the included parties. The other complaint was that the show was anti-Lib Dem; however the Lib Dem candidate herself disregarded this, and also at one point in the debate I made a point to the other candidates to lay-off the party and switched the topic.

Overall I firmly believe that everything I have contributed this semester has been extremely strong, and I now feel I have reached a level where I am prepared to work in a professional news outlet. Further, Politics and Power is something I really believe can be something exceptional, and can continue to run after I have graduated; provided it is left in the hands of the right people, and I would be delighted to see this happen.

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