Video packages for FeedUK.org

I recently donated my time to edit social media campaign videos for FeedUK.org – an organisation which supports families with infant feeding via breast, bottle or tube.

Feed was working to help a baby foodbank in Glasgow have NHS referrals reinstated after health visitors were banned from referring families in need because the foodbank provided formula milk to families who needed it to feed their babies.

This resulted in some families resorting to desperate and dangerous measures to feed their hungry babies.

The debate around infant feeding is a hot and emotive topic. However, for these families in crisis the most crucial priority is making sure their babies do not go hungry.

Please watch the videos and sign the open letterSpringburn tracy for the NHS to reinstate referral to Springburn Baby Foodbank.

You can watch the videos here:

Tracy’s story: “My older ones [children], I went without food to make sure they got, but my baby girl needed formula.”

Gemma’s story: “In an ideal world this baby foodbank would be gone, in an ideal world it wouldn’t be here.”

 

 

A capital training experience

When it comes to journalism, nobody in the industry likes to be on the wrong side of a story. And yet, perhaps there is no better training for novice journalists than experiencing what happens when someone picks up a sniff of a story and runs with it – all the way down the garden path.

Yesterday was one such day.

I am a lecturer in the journalism department at Leeds Trinity University. Yes, that’s right, that’s the university that has a brilliant record in employability. The university that’s proud to hold a fantastic Journalism and Media Week every year. The university that has a strong relationship with alumni who value the training which got them brilliant jobs behind and in front of the camera, travelling the world and following their dreams. Oh, and it is, apparently, the university that’s banned us from using capital letters (let me set the record straight now… it hasn’t).

So yesterday, while first year undergraduates were out testing their mettle by filming packages about the possibility of a second referendum, Black Friday and the expensive housing market in Leeds, while final year undergraduates were running back-to-back live radio broadcasts, while students from year one to post-graduate were appearing on a BBC broadcast about the future of local news, some of our esteemed national media were more interested in bandying about a misconception.

  

Experience: Broadcast journalism student Kudzai talking journalism futures with the BBC

And while the ‘story’, has been recognised as a non-story by other members of the industry (because they have seen the original memo which simply advises lecturers to explain assessments in a clear way which every student will benefit from) some kind of Brexit-fatigue perhaps appears to be fanning the flames of a tale, which if interrogated would fall flat on its backside.

Our students are not ‘snowflakes’ – that’s a derogatory term which shuts conversation down and fails to give credit or respect to the voices of young people. It’s a bullish label which belongs in the playground and minimises reasoned debate.

Our students are bright, intelligent, interesting people who know a hack from a handsaw. While flimsy journalism might manage to get some sparks out of these already dying embers, they crack on with the real job at hand; getting a degree and making the most of every exciting opportunity given to them.

And now they have had one of the best training experiences yet; knowing  when a story is a non-story and knowing it will be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers – if  you can still make such a thing from clickbait tabloids and their ilk.

Staff at Johnston Press face an uncertain future, following an uncertain past. It certainly is ‘business as usual’.

Johnston Press told staff at its 200 or so newspapers that it was ‘business as usual’ this week, when it announced the company was being put up for sale.

The announcement was the latest twist in a dramatic and unstable year for the company, which has so far seen shareholder pressures and in-fighting, followed by the departure of its CEO of seven years.

But it’s not just 2018 to blame for the troubles faced by the publishing company; instead, a legacy of mismanagement and poor decision-making laid the foundations for a fragile future. 

As I come to the final year of my PhD project, which is analysing the impact of digital tools on production, identity and jurisdiction of regional newspaper newsrooms in the UK, I look back on the uncertain past and uncertain future of  Johnston Press.

Two of Johnston Press’ top titles are the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post.

 

When Ashley Highfield was appointed CEO of Johnston Press in 2011, he made it his mission to move the local newspaper company firmly into a digital format, while still making print a top priority.

At the time of his appointment, a move he made from Microsoft, Highfield told The Herald newspaper that ‘print was not dead’ and that his vision was to move JP into an all-singing-all-dancing print and digital dream.

By anyone’s standards, this was going to be a tough job to pull off. Digital was still treated with mistrust by those in the industry and it was clear fewer people were buying newspapers – how could the future be rosy?

And he had a mountain to climb. As one rather restrained voice wryly commented on Hold the Front Page: ‘The first step towards the digital age for JP papers is admitting the current websites are not doing the job from any point of view.’

And they weren’t wrong. Up until that point, the vision and focus of the company in terms of digital had been confusing at best and cak-handed at worst. In the run-up to Highfield’s appointment there had been a rapid succession of top bosses trying desperately to navigate the challenges posed by the internet. This included a series of flash-in-the-pan attempts to make the company succeed in a quickly evolving online environment.

There was heavy investment in exceptionally expensive camera and editing equipment for most newspapers, including Sony video cameras, mics, tripods and Avid editing software – and yet no proper training or support was provided to help journalists with the skills they needed to shoot and edit videos.

And the infrastructure of newsrooms, the continual loss of staff who weren’t replaced and the hand-to-mouth production of news for a regularly printed product meant there was very little time for individual editors to mobilise staff who had the skills into producing video content.

And where was the money in video?

The question remained unanswered – because the answer was unknown.

In many newsrooms the heavy camera bags gathered dust, the editing equipment went  untouched.

Twitter started making headlines, but staff were told not to give news away for free on social media. Then, in the space of about a year, newsrooms were told they had to become multimedia and put everything on the website and to promote it all on Facebook. There was very little guidance, policy or training. Journalists felt their way, making mistakes, getting to know the online audience, falling foul of trolls, fake news (usually rumour spread by the online audience), making mistakes and learning from them and stretching resources to the limit in order to run a daily news production unit with the same number of staff who had previously been working on a once-a-week printed title.

But where was the money online?

How could free online content make money? Especially when it was the same content as included in the printed, paid-for product. In newsrooms, the question went unanswered and the mistrust of digital methods deepened.

In the meantime, JP was letting staff go at an alarming rate – not just because of the rise in digital, but because of a debt the company had accrued in 2005 when it purchased a series of titles in Ireland for £96m.

The crippling debt was a struggle to pay back and the interest racked up. In JP’s 2011 financial report, produced shortly after Highfield became CEO, it was reported the company had generated an annual revenue of £373.8m – not bad, until the company debt of £351.7m was taken into account.

And, of course, there was additional burden due to the ongoing challenge posed by free or cheaper space online and the resulting decline in print advertising.

Titles merged or closed, print runs dropped, staffing continued to decline and newspapers became thinner. Circulations melted away.

Centralisation of journalists and sub-editors meant staff working on a weekly news title might be producing it from a number of locations, and often without setting foot in the locality being served by the title.

Content was shared and local columnists and reports were replaced by more generic features and news, often provided by PA or syndicated news agencies.

There was a significant step back from the front line of the communities being served, with offices closed and the buildings sold off or tenancies terminated.

Reporters had less time to leave the newsroom and titles turned to more contributed content, including press releases and photographs (many newsrooms had lost their photographic staff and had to rely on reader pictures, freelancers and the occasional staff photographer loaned from a larger sister title in the area).

To manage its resources JP trialled its Newsroom of the Future project in 2014. The project, which was rolled out company-wide the following year, saw formal centralisation of news teams and the division of ‘news’ and ‘community content’. Community content was produced by desk or home-based journalists who would work with contributed content like press releases and letters.

‘News’ was produced by another bank of journalists. The project later evolved to mean the jack-of-all trades expectation originally placed upon staff was reduced, with individual journalists taking responsibility again for specific tasks such as social media management, digital and website management and print.

During this time, newspaper websites significantly improved, especially for those titles which were still considered to be the best of JP. The daily and larger weekly titles which drew an audience saw heavy investment with their online offering – including a bank of digital staff, social media editors and investment into social media platforms like Facebook in order to offer the audience a better online viewing experience.

Online content became king. It drove news agendas, with viewing targets and audience figures becoming as important as print ABCs. Journalists were expected to use algorithms to determine their news agendas and to respond to popular online stories by producing more of the same.

And the investment was working; while print sales figures for JP continued to dramatically plummet, the online audience figures continued to rise healthily and steadily.

But, still, where was the money?

The eternal question of how to make money out of online was one of the key panic points prior to Highfield’s appointment. Was it through video? If so, how? How could online advertising generate the same cash as print? (it can’t). Could content be charged for?

In 2010 JP had tried introducing a paywall on the websites of some of its smaller titles. The pilot was a disaster. The sites chosen for the experiment were rarely updated prior to the paywall introduction and their audience figures were low. The paywalls failed and the experiment scrapped.

Advertising on stories and video was making some money for the company, particularly as online viewing figures increased. And when the audience was of an enviable standard in terms of size, the company launched a project to sell space on its social media platforms and websites to customers via the JP Local Business Plan.  Essentially the project monetised content which would have previously have been used in a news capacity. Press releases were no longer used if they were seen as potential money-makers for the company (the Facebook story below is an example of this in action).

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The company also rolled out other marketing and business solutions at different sites owned by the company. 

By the time Ashley Highfield waved goodbye to JP in August 2018, the company was increasing its revenue and profit online via advertising and paid-for content.

But it still was not enough.

The story of the demise of Johnston Press is a sad one. It seems a bad decision was made at a spectacularly bad time and the company and its staff and customers have been paying for it ever since.

When JP announced it was putting itself up for sale yesterday the loan debt was standing at £220m.

JP has some wonderful titles. Titles which campaign, hold power to account, shout out for the underdog, connect audiences and people and which make a difference to local democracy. It has also lost some wonderful titles. And driven others into the ground by removing investment, staff and relevant content. Unsurprisingly those titles have lost their print sales hand over fist. And their online offering is a randomly updated mixed bag of content from larger sister titles, with the occasional locally relevant news story. It is not the fault of the journalists, editors or production staff, who work horribly hard with little reward.

Those lesser titles, the smaller ones, the uninvested in, are those at most risk from the JP sale. Who will want to buy a newspaper which is almost at the point of losing money?

And that’s where the problem lies.

The established flagship titles, which have enjoyed investment and are heralded as the jewels in the JP crown – the Scotsman, the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post, the Sheffield Star and the i – will be snapped up.

It’s the Pontefract and Castleford Express-type newspapers – which are already suffering due to a lack of dedicated staff, no presence in their towns, no investment and shared content – which will be left on the scrapheap.

It is sad and worrysome.

My prediction, for what’s it’s worth, is that the larger JP titles which have seen investment and done well in steering the tanker round to meet the company’s digital plan, will be sold off. The smaller ones will not. The company will be broken up and significant parts of rural England and Scotland may well find themselves without a local newspaper.

The buyer is unlikely to be Reach Plc (formerly Trinity Mirror), which has set up its own digital-only news platforms in some of the cities which already play host to legacy JP print titles (Edinburgh and Leeds). Reach continues to invest heavily in digital, whilst simultaneously pulling back from print publishing and investment – it is unlikley to want a series of print titles. However, Reach may offer to buy the digital-only part of the company in order to continue its roll out of ‘Live’ products, using the already established JP audience.

If this happend, it would be interesting to see what the Competition and Markets Authority made of the bid – after all, if Rupert Murdoch is not allowed to monopolise UK national news, should a publishing company be allowed to do the same in regional news?

The buyer is unlikely to be Newsquest, the smallest of the ‘big three’ regional publishing companies in the UK. Newsquest still seems to be struggling with its digital master-plan and its titles continue to close.

It is an uncertain past, followed by an uncertain future at Johnston Press. When the announcement of the sale was made this week staff were told to carry on and that it was ‘business as usual’. Sadly, following a decade of change and difficulty, this statement isn’t far from the truth.

 

Regional newspaper or local online journalist? Then have your say on what skills and tools are being used in the newsroom today.

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In November the final part of my PhD research began in earnest with the first round of distribution of a survey investigating what skills and tools are being used in regional newspaper newsrooms in the UK today.

The survey – which takes no more than 20 minutes to complete – will provide a picture of how regional newspaper journalists are working in print and online. All responses are confidential and responses are anonymised prior to analysis.

The data from this research will inform a much wider study conducted over the past three years.

During that time I have collected job advertisements for regional newspaper and online equivalent positions posted on http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk and also by the three major newspaper publishers in the UK (Newsquest, Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press) between November and January each year.

The job advertisements are being analysed for keywords indicating the importance and prevalence of both digital and print skills and tools. The advertisements will also be analysed for other information – including the types of positions being advertised and the number of jobs being posted each year.

All of this will be considered when analysing the third element to the research project – that being observations and interviews conducted in two daily newspaper newsrooms owned by two of the three major UK regional newspaper publishers.

This fieldwork research took place last year, with three consecutive weeks spent at each of the newspaper titles.

If you are a journalist working at any level currently employed by a regional newspaper or its online equivalent and you would be willing to take part in my survey please send me a message via Twitter @RebeccaWMedia or email me on r.whittington@leedstrinity.ac.uk and I will send you the link.

Your one response could make a huge difference to the viability of my research project.  All of this analysis and data will also help inform journalism training for undergraduate and post-graduate students.

Thanks in advance and please share this link with colleagues working for regional newspapers and their online platforms!

Rebecca

 

 

The time for lip service is over; Radical change is needed to re-establish the scrutiny once provided by regional news.

Picture this: it’s early evening on one of the warmest days of the year so far and I’m sitting at the side of a large room in a community building in the middle of a housing estate. I have my pen and notebook at the ready and I have been asked several times by eager strangers if I would like a cup of tea. The room is populated by several rows of rickety plastic chairs, many of which are occupied by residents of the estate. A table at the front hosts a local authority man in a suit, his trusty sidekick and a couple of representatives of the Tenants and Residents’ Association – the reason for the meeting tonight.

No, it’s not a flashback to my patch reporting days when these kind of meetings were my bread and butter. This is the here and now and is part of the research I’m doing into regional newspapers. I’m not here to take notes on the meeting, I’m here to see what the late reporter for the paper does during his shift. He came to the meeting and, as a result, I followed.

But while the setting of such an event certainly seems to have changed very little in the 13 years since I started out as a rookie reporter, the scene back in the newsroom is vastly different. It’ll come as no surprise for many to read that the daily title and its sister weeklies are staffed by a handful of multimedia reporters, a digital team and a number of journalists who focus on contributed copy like press releases. Digital figures are a key focus and Facebook Live is the tool of the moment.

But, before the doom-mongers and nay-sayers get all excited and start writing ‘I told you so’, there are a couple of unexpecteds in store; specialisms that were once scrapped in favour of piling on the extra digital tasks have been reinstated and reporters are handing over some of their previous digital responsibilities to a dedicated team in order to free up their time and do something unheard of in recent years … they are leaving the office to cover stories on the ground.

As a result, meetings like the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association AGM are actually being attended and efforts are actually being made to build contacts in person, not just online.

But before the rosy glow of nostalgia takes over, here’s the problem: the meeting we attend is not extraordinary. It becomes clear the chairman of the association has been voted in for another year. It is ten years since he started. This, unfortunately, is the top story of the night. While the meeting does get a bit shouty and I take reams of shorthand notes (I couldn’t help myself) there is little else to report. There are a couple of potential follow-ups, nothing groundbreaking, and new contacts have been made. Bog-standard job done.

This humdrum event is the typical life of a patch reporter. Or rather, this was the typical life of a patch reporter. A time when resources were rich enough in the newsroom to mean that hours could be spent building contacts, scouring minutes and covering fairly dull meetings safe in the knowledge that for every nine reasonably uneventful jobs there would be one that would touch the tip of a corker of a story just waiting to be unpicked.

Not so any more. What’s changed is there are no longer actual patch reporters keeping a keen eye on meetings and events within specific areas. The job detailed above was flagged up by the association and it was luck that the night reporter had the time to attend. Had a big event been scheduled on the same night, it’s unlikely he would have been asked to go to the meeting. Regional newspapers simply do not have the resources to cover circulation areas in the same detail as they did ten years ago and more.

As a result, across the UK there will be hundreds of such meetings, many of which will be happening without a thought from a news journalist and one in ten of which may demonstrate a major social injustice.

And the inevitable happens; getting reporters out to such meetings regularly is a mountain that’s too hard to climb for most news providers, as a result the local newspaper is not forefront in the mind for many people who are fighting a good fight. Instead Facebook, blogs and other social media provide a space for many campaigners to air their battles. And many communities neglected by regional news, including those not using the internet, soon forget that the local paper could possibly be called for help.

This patchy effort at patch reporting nationwide has been put stunningly into focus by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The critics shining a light onto a lack of regional press presence are right; if local reporters had been actively covering the area it’s likely that residents’ concerns about safety would have been given a public voice before the disaster happened. The public service role once taken by regional journalists failed and the horror of what happened shamed not only the local authority and government, but the regional press as well.

We all know the why. But what about the how? It’s not like those invested in regional journalism haven’t been scratching their heads about how to return to the key role in democracy and accountability that local newspapers once played. But what with revenue losses, resource losses, digital uprisings and the tightening of communications with public services like the police and local authority, the challenges have just been too great.

Regional publishers may now have more of an idea about where the ship is going than they did five years ago, but this doesn’t change the fact that more than half the crew has walked the plank and will not be replaced.

And while journalists and industry onlookers are keenly aware of how the land lies, the general public is not as invested or particularly interested in the lack of regional journalistic presence until something like Grenfell happens. Politicians may have made vague pleas to government in the past and actions like the BBC’s project to provide 150 community reporters to local news organisations, including hyper-locals, have come about from pressure and campaigning. But really this is a dip in the ocean and much more is needed to make a real change.

How about publishing companies take inspiration from the recent collaboration between ITV’s Calendar and the BBC’s Look North? By putting aside competition and unifying to run a cross-publisher campaign both in print, online, in the street and behind the scenes, perhaps change could start to happen.

Many of the issues faced by regional news, or the lack of it, is down to revenue, or the lack of it. If publishers joined up with politicians, academics, regulators, campaigners and unions to create a committee of people focused on looking at ways of plugging these gaps, they could potentially examine new and dynamic funding models and look at why and how regional news thrives in other countries like Norway and the Netherlands. To do this, the government and other powers need to recognise the important role played by regional news and they need to be outraged about the reality of life without this vital function. Grenfell shows the time for lip service is over, radical change is needed.
These ideas may seem naïve; but in the shadow of this tragedy surely now is the right time to pull these kinds of ambitions together if any kind of change can be made to the regional news landscape.

 

 

 

 

Going hyper-local in West Leeds

So on Monday I was involved in the foundation of the board of a social enterprise soon-to-be company called West Leeds Community Media. The company board, made up of eight West Leeds lifers, will oversee the development and growth of West Leeds Dispatch, a hyper-local site covering Armley, Bramley, Kirkstall, Pudsey, Farsley, Farnley, Rodley, Wortley, Stanningley and Calverley and other areas in-between. 

The Dispatch was founded almost two years ago by my former Wakefield Express colleague John Baron, who is the editor of the site, and Emma Bearman, a social-enterprise expert in West Leeds. 

The site has already made its mark both digitally and, as a one-off, in print since its launch, with a healthy contributor base and a growing number of online users, so it’s really exciting to be involved in the future development and growth of the Dispatch.

I have a strong belief that the appetite for local news has not diminished in recent years, but the methods of accessing and the definition of news itself have changed dramatically. While titles like my former haunt the Yorkshire Evening Post continue to provide a vital service in the city, there simply isn’t capacity for them alone to cover the grassroots, hyper-local issues and interests of everyone in Leeds. Holding to account, sharing information, giving a voice to disparate groups and celebrating successes is still important and hyper-local sites fill the gap that traditional news providers are struggling to meet. 

So rather than taking away, in my mind hyper-local news compliments and adds to the options available to people looking for information at a grassroots level. 

And the opportunities are so exciting! In the coming months the board will be exploring the aims and intentions of the Dispatch, forming a constitution, examining methods of information sharing and working with residents in West Leeds to help them take an active role in the site.

There’s lots more information about the project here – so please do shout up if you’d like to be involved, we’d love to hear from you! 

Haven’t you got anything else to wear, Paul? Daily Mail editor dons same black suit more than once and nobody gives a toss.

 It was the question not on everybody’s lips when the Daily Mail editor stepped out looking solemn in a familiar and yet completely standard black two-piece. Same suit again, Paul?

The Fleet Street emperor of absolute bollocks stepped out wearing the trusty jacket and trousers, which were tailored by Burtons in the finest man-made nylon, after a business lunch at which the only women in attendance were the waiting staff.

It was at least the fifth time he’d been seen in the suit, which he also wore last week for work and the week before that too.

He looked weary, possibly due to the toll of being a dad to two high-flying Eton educated sons, or possibly because he was sad to be wearing the same crappy suit again.

But it’s true to say that despite the clear desperation at having his wardrobe scrutinised in this way when people should surely be focusing on his misogynistic monopoly of internet news, he looked stunning, with his admirable post-Brexit vote body filling the suit in a way that suggests it was the right size.

Pictured: Paul smoulders in his trusty suit. Photographs by Getty Images.

  • NEXT: find out what the First Minister of Scotland has said about a second Scottish devolution referendum, somewhere in a story about what clothes she is wearing (again).

  

Data day – the PhD push for information

It’s all become a little academic round here recently. I’ve just completed my third round of data collection looking at journalism job adverts on http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk (see here for more details on the study). The first two years of that data collection formed the basis for my brief involvement with a book which was published last month. Entrepreneurial Journalism by my colleague Paul Marsden is the first book I have contributed to – it was very exciting to see the final product when it arrived in the post today!

Since the start of the year I’ve also been testing a survey which will be sent out to regional newspaper journalists in the UK later this year and I have been arranging placements for observational fieldwork research – all of which will feed back into my PhD project.

So, to be honest, I feel a bit like I’ve been juggling cats while riding a rollercoaster, but on Monday, hopefully, the hard work will start to pay off as I set out on my first fieldwork placement.

The aim of the overall research project is to identify skills and tools used in regional newsrooms and to analyse news production processes with the intention of having a positive impact on journalism training within higher education and industry. Also, I would like to get my PhD. 

If you are a journalist working in regional newspapers and or on an affiliated digital product and you would like to know more or get involved please drop me a line. Enquiries from other sources are also most welcome! You can email me at r.whittington@leedstrinity.ac.uk

Fake news just exposes the truth about us all

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” – attributed to People magazine 1998.

True? No.

This meme – attributing a rather disparaging quote by Donald Trump to an interview he supposedly conducted with People magazine in 1998 – is an example of the fake news that filled Facebook feeds internationally in the run-up to the US presidential election. Donald Trump may have said something like this at some point; but he never said it to People and there’s no evidence of him having said it anywhere else either. But despite the fact that the meme was entirely fabricated, it was shared across the globe.

Democrat campaigners and politicians have accused the spread of fake news on social media sites such as Facebook to be partially responsible for the loss of the election. Buzzfeed found viral fake election news significantly outperformed genuine news sources about the same subject in the run-up to the opening of the polls. And Mark Zukerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, has pledged to address the issue of fake news on the site, after initially dismissing claims that fake news swayed the election as ‘crazy’. Today President Obama said in regards to fake news: “We have a problem.”

But is he correct? Is fake news a powerful enough tool for campaigners to swing election votes their way? Perhaps. But I would argue not. Why? Well, because of what is known in academic circles as ‘The Daily Me.’

Essentially, The Daily Me is a term referencing how we, as digital users, access news within our daily lives. In a world where time is scarce and information sources are many and varied, most of us social media and smartphone users choose to focus on what interests us and what reinforces our own beliefs. We tailor our news choices by clicking on the links that correlate with our leanings and interests. We do not click on links that we believe not to be valid or true. Facebook and Apple are just two of numerous technology companies that have exploited this by designing algorithms to learn and replicate user choices – pushing similar content out to the individual user based on stories they have clicked on in the past.

The criticism of individually tailored news feeds is it narrows user margins. By streamlining content to only include items the algorithm considers of interest to the individual, broader perspectives and differing opinions are not included, meaning the ‘news’ that person is fed constantly reinforces the notion that their values, interests and opinions are the most widely-held within their society, the most important and the most valid.

This kind of positive reinforcement also occurs within social groups in online spaces. Mostly your friends in social networks like Facebook will be friends who hold similar values and have similar interests to your own. So, while a few of my friends on Facebook shared the unflattering Trump meme, there was no sign on my feed of any negative Clinton news – real or fake. That’s because most of my friends, like me, were rooting for a Democratic win.

And this is already old news. Those who did not want Britain to leave the EU were secure in the notion we would stay. That’s partly down to the silent element who did not tell anyone which way they would vote. But it’s also partly down to the positive reinforcement of our peers – when we look around and talk about politics online, our opinions are, in the main, reflected by our peer group. But if Stay campaigners had stepped out of their peer group to analyse how Brexit was being discussed online by those who were backing the Leave campaign, they would have seen similar passion, positive reinforcement and news sharing in favour of leaving the EU. We are becoming much less tolerant of differing opinions and dissenting voices are much easier to dismiss online than they are in real life. As a result, not only are our viewpoints narrowed, but our beliefs and expectations are also streamlined.

So those who shared the fake news were not deliberately duping their friends – instead they were positively reinforcing the messages that they believed to be true. Facebook and other social media platforms have replaced official news sites in many people’s lives. They amalgamate news and stories in one place, making it easier for a user to get the information they are interested in without having to go to several official sources. That’s how fake news has become a problem – social media may be the viewing platform, but it is not officially the publisher and as a result it has not got the responsibilities of verification and fact-checking carried by an official media outlet. But users have not taken on the role of fact-checking either. And thanks to the Daily Me, verification or scrutiny over the reliability of a source is often overlooked due to the dodgy item reinforcing a held opinion or belief.  As a result, a ton of fake news and inaccurate propaganda can flood social media and be widely shared without being checked or removed.

There is also the element of drama which helps fake news do the rounds. Buzzfeed’s research showed that real news was overlooked in favour of fake. Why? Most likely because the fake news was far more interesting and exciting. Who wants to hear about tax incentives, foreign policy and education reform when you could be reading about double-dealing, sex scandals and murder? We have an insatiable appetite for the unseemly – good news is nice, bad news sells.

When I was editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express a reader posted on our Facebook page asking about a police presence at a house in the patch. Before we even got the calls into the police press office there were people responding to the query making claims about child sex abuse, murder of a four-year-old and more. It was shocking how Facebook users made claims as though they were fact. We quickly got a statement from police – there was no child death, no sex allegation, it was a domestic incident and a man had been arrested for common assault. But still the rumours continued. People simply ignored the truth of the matter and continued to speculate and repeat wild untruths as though they were fact. It struck me that they simply didn’t want to know the truth. The truth was dull. It did not give them someone thing to talk and gossip about, it did not give them reason to draw their attention away from a dull afternoon at work, what they wanted was scandal and drama – so when we didn’t provide it, they made it up themselves.

And that’s the scary thing about the Daily Me. And that’s where Obama is correct in saying ‘we have a problem’. We are living in a world where a reality TV star is about to move into the White House. People don’t want truth and they don’t want the daily grind. We want to be shocked and we want to be excited. Online we create a virtual reality of the world around us and that reality reinforces our beliefs and justifies our behaviours. And that’s where the problem lies. Fake news didn’t win the election, it just exposed the way we are.

Ok, it’s been more than a while – it’s been a year.

In that time I’ve been occupying my brain with such things as babies and have had little time to focus on my academic work – although I have managed to do a second lot of data collection from Hold the Front Page jobs (I’m now into my third data collection period), publish a paper based on the work I presented at the 2015 Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff and contribute work to a book – Entrepreneurial Journalism by my colleague Paul Marsden – which is due to be published early 2017.

But I’m now back in the game – so keep your eye out for new posts and updates on research and news linked to regional news and newspapers.

And to all those who say newspapers have no impact any more – here’s a good example from the Guardian of how newspapers across the world can powerfully convey the most shocking news stories using still images and words.

 

 

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