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.

 

 

 

 

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.

No ifs, no butts, Kim Kardashian is never going to break the internet – she IS the internet

Kim Kardashian 'Break the Internet' meme

Above: A meme parodying the Break the Internet Kim Kardashian Paper magazine cover

Anyone who has been online, or who, let’s face it, has stepped out of the house in the past couple of days, will have seen THAT picture of Kim Kardashian and her gigantic, shiny bottom (except my office room mate it  turns  out – but let’s  gloss over that).

Just  in case you have been elsewhere over the past  couple of days though, the image I’m referring to is  on the front of Paper magazine. It’s a cheeky picture (so to speak) of Kim Kardashian looking knowingly over her shoulder at the camera, wearing nothing but a pearl choker, long  black gloves and a bottle and a half of Johnson’s Baby Lotion.  Her famous derriere is on full display and seems more enormous than can be humanly possible on a woman whose waist is probably only the circumference of my head.

Beneath the image are the  words: Break the Internet Kim Kardashian

It reads like a command. And we know it’s never going to happen as Kim is the internet. While some live or die by the sword, Kim lives or dies by the world wide web. And at the moment it is holding strong under the millions and millions of tweets, retweets and shares of this image and the thousands of memes which have been inspired by it.

If it wasn’t for Twitter, or the Daily Mail website, most of us wouldn’t have seen or heard of this image. Much less be talking about it. Most of us wouldn’t even know  who Kim Kardashian is. Or care. The only reason we are talking about it (including me) is because everybody else is. It’s a self perpetuating cycle and an excellent illustration of the power of the internet and digital technology and the way that it has changed the way news is delivered – with readers and their appetites driving the news, rather than the news being prescribed to its audience by journalists. The one-way channel of news delivery is no more. And if you don’t believe me, check out these reports on the Kardashian bottom by respected industry titles including the Telegraph, the Independent and the Guardian. I don’t think any of these titles would have covered Buttgate if it wasn’t for the audience appetite for the story.

In a world where news and information fights to be seen alongside other news and information – important things; news of conflict, hope, death, human crisis, frailty, happiness and love –  there is Kim Kardashian’s bottom and all that it stands for.

 

UPDATE: As an experiment to demonstrate the power of  the subject, I measured the number of views I got on this page over the 24 hours from publication, with the prediction that it would be my most viewed post to date. Here are the results:

On publishing this post I promoted it  in the way I have promoted all of my other blog posts – by uploading the link and a picture to my Rebecca Whittington Media Facebook page which I then shared on my personal Facebook account as well, tweeting about it twice on Twitter at the  time of publication using appropriate hashtags and sharing the blog link on Linkedin the following morning. I deliberately didn’t  promote more on social media than I have with any other posts so I could measure the impact of the story and keywords.

On Twitter the tweet reading ‘#KimKardashian #breaktheinternet a prime example of how digital has turned the tables on traditional news sourcing rebeccawhittingtonmedia.com/2014/11/13/no-…‘ was favourited, retweeted and replied to by one follower who himself had 1,810 followers. It was also retweeted only by another follower who had 587 followers. I have not looked to see if it was retweeted from either acccount – but if I  do later I will update here.

On Facebook the post on my Rebecca Whittington Media page reached 201 people and the post link had 36 clicks on it. Two Facebook users (one being me) shared the post from the page. There were two likes on the post link from the page and two likes on the shared posts.

I can’t see the stats for my Linkedin profile as I’m too tight to pay for premium, so I will have to factor that non-result into the mix.

On returning to the blog today just before 4pm I found ‘No ifs, no butts’ – my sixth blog post to date – had enjoyed a total of 141 views. Previously my most popular post was You know it’s significant when you change your Twitter handle which had 57 views in total, followed by Board will strengthen the voice of newspapers – now time to start work on diversity with just 16 views. These are views of the individual posts alone – my blog page as a whole has had 45 views – suggesting the majority of views on the Kardashian post and some views of the Twitter handle post had come from either direct links from Twitter, Facebook or Linkedin or specific search terms which in turn had seen the post listed in the search results.

On the day of publication there were 129 views on the blog alone and 152 on my website as a whole. The views on my site were from the following countries:

Country Views
United Kingdom FlagUnited Kingdom 131
United States FlagUnited States 12
Germany FlagGermany 3
Australia FlagAustralia 3
Canada FlagCanada 1
South Africa FlagSouth Africa 1
France FlagFrance 1

Out of those views 53 came from Facebook and 15 from Twitter with a further 10 coming from a Facebook source. Only one view came from a search engine term (term could not be identified).

Today there were 12 views on the post and 17 views on the website overall. The views on my site were from the following countries:

United Kingdom 13
Netherlands FlagNetherlands 1
Korea, Republic of FlagRepublic of Korea 1
United States FlagUnited States 1
Singapore FlagSingapore 1

Out of those views 3 came from Facebook and 1 from Twitter. Only one view came from a search engine term (term could not be identified).

CONCLUSION

Overall it’s definitely fair to say this experiment lived up to the prediction that this would be my most popular blog post by a country mile. As predicted, the inclusion of hot search terminology and popular subject (Kim Kardashian, butt/bottom) meant strangers from far and wide were flocking to see what the links had to offer. What did baffle me was how few people seemed to arrive through search terms. In fact, it was not fully clear from the data offered by  Wordpress what the method was for 50 of  the visitors to the page on the first day – only 79 were  accounted  for.  This  is something I would possibly be able to find out if I paid a subscription to WordPress, but, as I don’t, unfortunately it  remains a mystery.

I was also quite surprised by how many of those visitors were from countries other than the UK. It’s obvious Kim Kardashian’s bottom knows no international boundaries.

Since the experiment I have enjoyed a raise in the number  of daily visitors to my site, particularly from the US. However, what is interesting is that it’s not this post catching people’s attention, but instead is The Will Cornick dilemma which seems to be gaining  the most individual visitors.

This has been an interesting experiment which has inspired a study I am now working on as part of my research project – I’ll update on this blog when I can reveal more.

 

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