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.

 

 

Journalism skills – has the digital tipping point been reached?

TradVsDigi

For the past two decades the local newspaper industry has been wracked by change due to the rise of the internet and digital tools.

This impact of digital change on local newspapers has been long documented by commentators, practitioners and academics, with methods of producing and accessing news demonstrating how digital tools have revolutionised the industry.

But while hacks of old might not recognise the landscape of modern news, up until recently they might not have had much trouble getting an interview or job on a newspaper, despite little or no knowledge of using digital technology.

In fact, research shows the skills required for news staff working on newspapers has changed very little over the past two decades – meaning traditional skills have remained more highly prized by employing editors than digital capabilities.

This was proved in 2011, when the NCTJ decided not to change its curriculum following a study which showed editors’ continuing preference for traditional skills.

Only recently have studies started to show gaining value of digital skills, with recent research by Dr Lily Canter demonstrating that employing editors across the news industry were starting to acknowledge digital skills as being as equally important as traditional ones.

However, research has not indicated that digital skills have started to outweigh traditional ones in terms of desirability, until now.

Collection of recruitment advertisements from www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk – the main news and jobs site for local newspapers within the UK – over a three month period from November 1, 2014 to January 31, 2015 has shown a definite tip towards digital skills preference.

Collection included all job advertisements for news positions on local and regional newspapers in the UK, including editors, newsdesk roles, specialist, senior and trainee reporters, online journalists and roles which fell into an ‘other’ category.

Collection did not include feature writers, sports journalists or jobs advertised for anywhere other than local newspapers in the UK.

To analyse the adverts two keyword sets were identified – a digital set and a traditional set.

The traditional words identified skills and qualities associated with news journalism prior to the introduction of digital technology.

Traditional keywords

The digital words identified skills and qualities directly associated with digital tools in the newsroom.

Digital keywords

In total 102 adverts were collected, four of which were later dismissed as ineligible. The remaining adverts were assessed for inclusion of the keywords, including how many times keywords appeared and where in the text they first appeared. The employing company and job category was also noted.

Any words which appeared but were not relevant in the context intended by the study were dismissed.

The results

Of the adverts assessed there was a significantly higher number of digital keywords over traditional – with 56 per cent (496) of keywords used coming from the digital set and 44 per cent (395) coming from the traditional set. This was despite only 16 of the 19 digital keywords actually being used in the job descriptions, with ‘likes’, ‘podcast’ and ‘code’ all not being used at any point.

Overall keyword use

Of the digital keywords used, ‘online’ was the most common, followed by ‘digital’ and ‘social media’. Of the traditional keywords used, ‘print’ was the most common, followed by ‘NCTJ’ and ‘ideas’.

Digital keywords overall

Of the employing news groups, Local World placed the highest number of adverts with 33, followed by Newsquest with 22 and Trinity Mirror with 16. Johnston Press, the fourth of the large newsgroups within the UK placed no adverts during this time, perhaps due to recently announced redundancy plans across the company.

Trinity Mirror placed the highest emphasis on digital language, with 73 per cent of the keywords it used coming from the digital set. Newsquest had 54 per cent from digital and Local World had 52 per cent from digital.

Archant, which placed eight adverts, gave higher emphasis to traditional language, with 59 per cent of its keyword use coming from the traditional set. The remaining smaller newsgroups and independents were grouped together – with 70 per cent of their keywords overall coming from the traditional set.

Recruitment for reporters was highest with 35 positions, closely followed by trainee reporters at 34. The remainder of the positions were all under ten advertisements each, with no deputy editor positions advertised.

The difficulty presented by this study of course is the fact that it projects results from a limited time frame – therefore giving a snapshot rather than the big picture. This collection is the first part of an annual three-month collection taking place over four years in order to track any changes and trends. It will also be complimented by additional surveys, observations and interviews to establish skills priorities within newsroom practice.

Overall, these results show a clear preference for digital skills in terms of both keyword use and order of placement within the advertisements. But before it is assumed that this situation follows suit in the newsroom, caution must be voiced. The preference for digital over traditional could merely be indicating a desired state of a newsroom or company, rather than reality. It could also indicate an urge to demonstrate the importance of newer digital skills in contrast to taken-for-granted traditional ones. The research falls in line with the findings of Dr Lily Canter in terms of digital skills being at least as equally important as traditional. However, it contrasts her study which suggested qualifications like the NCTJ were no longer of great importance to employing editors.

There is still work to be done to establish these findings as set in stone. However, as a snapshot, these results strongly suggest the digital tipping point at local newspapers within the UK has been reached.

Conference news from south Wales!

 

The Civic Hall in Cardiff where the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference took place

The Civic Hall in Cardiff where the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference took place

Ok, it’s been a while since I’ve written a hefty blog post – mainly because I’ve had a busy summer passing my PhD transfer upgrade (meaning I qualify for my second and further years of study) and preparing for the 2015 Future of Journalism Conference in Cardiff.

The conference happened on September 10 and 11. It was my first foray into academic rather than practice-based conferences and so I was nervous to be presenting my own research as I was quite concerned I would be caught out as a ‘pretend academic’.

However, I need not have worried as I was surrounded by other hackademics (journos-turned-scholars) and people with similar interests and fields of research. I met some fascinating people and some people who I suspect may turn out to be friends or regular acquaintances over time.

It was a real honour to be able to present at the conference – only one third of applicants were invited to attend and present, so I feel privileged to have been among them.

My presentation was on the first piece of research I have conducted for my PhD study, concerning skills requirements for news journalists working at local newspapers within the UK. I’ll be putting more detail on this blog page in just a couple of days, so watch this space.