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.

 

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! 

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.

Despite the BBC forecast, regional news is not dead

Future of News

The BBC has been making headlines this week after publishing a report into The Future of News, in which it analyses the possibilities of news-making, opportunity and the direction that news provision and consumption might take over the next decade.  It’s interesting  and insightful but not altogether original and, dare I say it, shockingly smug.

In fact, the self-satisfied tone of what’s been produced almost makes me want to stop paying my licence fee altogether. Within the document, which sets out the importance of mobile devices, data journalism and quality community reporting, the BBC sticks a great big knife into the back of regional newspapers… and then stands back to watch with glee while its suffering rival splutters for life on the floor. Take this patronising paragraph for instance;

“Devolution and the decline of the regional press are creating a real need for local news coverage: the BBC is going to have to do more to provide local news that properly serves all parts of the UK. And the BBC has always been an innovator in news. The opportunities of the New Journalism are plain to see – in data journalism, personalised news services and engaging our viewers, listeners and users so we have genuinely activated audiences – and it’s time to do so again. In the internet age, the BBC’s job is to be the place people come to for the real story.”

Gone is the charade of a potential partnership with regional newspapers it seems – after all, why would the Beeb want to bother with that when it could simply step into the still slightly warm shoes of all the dying newspapers it is now trampling across?

I don’t disagree when the report states that: “The economic issues facing the newspaper  business are not of the BBC’s making, nor will they be alleviated by the BBC standing aside.” The problems being faced by regional newspapers have little to do with Auntie; instead it’s a complex mix of digital technology, changing audience, lack of investment from publishing companies and devastating cuts – much of the decline of newspapers  is down to the management at the very top.

However, the BBC has too quickly written off regional newspapers, they are not quite dead yet. What the report has failed to address is the online work being done by the depleted regional newspaper teams; while many papers have gone weekly they are producing good quality, up-to-the-minute news on their websites. When the report says:

“In 2012 Johnston Press announced it was stopping daily publication of the Halifax Courier, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Peterborough Evening Telegraph, Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph and Scarborough Evening News, a newspaper which started its daily reporting in 1882.
Today in Scarborough there is a small commercial radio station, no daily newspaper and perhaps surprisingly, very little local or community blogging about the news. Considering the town
hit the national headlines earlier this month as its hospital declared a major incident, there were very few news boots on the ground to hold those responsible to account. Where did local people go to find out what was happening at their hospital?” 

Erm, the Scarborough News website? Let’s have a look shall we…

Now I can’t go back in time, but a quick Google shows me the news surrounding the Scarborough Hospital major incident. Unsurprisingly the story was covered by several news outlets; the BBC and the Scarborough News being two of those.

Scarborough News major incident latest BBC major incident latest

While most of the nationals made it a major story once, both the BBC and the Scarborough News broke the story on the same day, returned to it the following day and then continued to revisit the story. While the BBC has since done an online feature about the situation at the hospital, the Scarborough News gave the most recent ‘news’ update; that an investigation was being held into what had happened. This demonstrates that the local ‘weekly’ paper did just as well as the BBC in covering the news as it happened, but also that it stayed with the story after the others had gone – continuing to inform the Scarborough readers of what was happening to their hospital. Just as you would expect a regional news provider to do.

So, thank goodness for the BBC, without it we would be living completely in the dark about what’s happening on our own doorsteps. Or perhaps not.

To explore the point further I went onto the BBC”s home page for Leeds  and West Yorkshire just after 10am today and then went to have a look at a couple of daily newspaper sites so see what comparisons could be made.

This was the BBC’s home page:

BBC home page Leeds West Yorks January 30

Of the three top stories on the page, none had been published or updated today. In fact, the most recent thing on there, ironically, was the twitter feed which displayed a story from weekly Johnston Press title the Pontefract and Castleford Express which had been tweeted at 10.13am.

Let’s look at two daily regional titles for West Yorkshire, what was on their home page at this point in time?

YEP home page January 30 Telegraph and Argus home page January 30

The Telegraph & Argus, covering Bradford, was packed with stories from the day – including which schools were closed due to snow and a story and video of a runaway van which had caused chaos  in part of the  city that morning.

And the Yorkshire Evening Post – covering Leeds and West Yorkshire – had three top stories, all of which had been broken or updated that morning, two of which had video accompanying the words. Laughably, the video on one of the stories was preceded by a paid-for video advert for the BBC’s iPlayer (see below).

YEP third story January 30

Now, coming from a weekly and daily newspaper background I know I could be a little over-sensitive to its content, but I also can’t help feel like the BBC is not only smug in its assessment, but also just downright wrong. Rather than kicking regional newspapers when they are down, perhaps more acknowledgement and credit should have been given to the good work that is being done and that could be complimented by better provision from the BBC in the future. Competition is healthy and good. Monopoly – even if it is dressed up as ‘saving the  day’ – is not.

This report was about the future of news – and with the licence-fee not going away anytime soon, despite people using their televisions, laptops, smartphones and more to access news from myriad places – often NOT the BBC –  and many paying subscriptions to other content providers as well,  the corporation is perhaps being a little complacent in its ‘vision’.

We are paying for the BBC’s future whether we like it or not. But the future of newspapers is not as cut and dry; the revenue stream is still not nailed on, print circulations are declining and it’s likely many more will close in coming years. But some of the regional newspapers that exist today will continue to provide local content in new ways, reaching a growing audience through various platforms and continuing to try, despite the difficulties, to provide the best service possible. And I for one know they will continue to give the BBC the run for its money that it deserves.

Takeover of the trolls: how newspapers can shake off the haters

Troll

Trolls:  The bane of many a news site

As a former editor I know that one of the biggest daily headaches in the newsroom is reader comments on website stories and social media.

Got a controversial issue?  If so, you can guarantee it’ll be made ten times more controversial by the people behind the curtain of the web who have their say without saying who they are.

So with all the ‘trolling’, ‘hating’ and inane backbiting that can go on at the end of news reports, why allow comments at all?

Well, despite the problems they can cause, reader comments add value in a variety of ways:

– Allowing readers to comment on stories gives them ownership of an issue and therefore ownership of the newspaper title providing the stage for debate – in a sense it makes the news site more important to the readers – making them more likely to return.
– Reader comments sometimes give a human voice which couldn’t be shown in a story for whatever reason. Not all comments lack value, instead some can really shed light on how a story or issue has affected a real person. And sometimes this can allow for follow-up stories with that user too.
– Stories with comments, controversial or not, get more clicks and  hits than stories without. They generate discussion, debate and downright outrage, and all of that gets  other people clicking to read the unfolding drama. The most unlikely stories can find themselves at the top of the web hits list just because of the comments left by website users. Popular stories mean popular sites and more advertising revenue as a result.

Of  course, this all happens on news providers’ social media sites as well – but the beauty of website comments is  that they ‘belong’ to that newspaper. Those readers have made the effort to create an account and log in to that website in order to have their say – that effort is invaluable not only in terms of advertising revenue, but also in terms of loyalty; getting people to sign in almost allows a newspaper to claim that person as their own and, more than ever before, having loyal online readers is important.

So how can newspapers make the most of online comments and balance the headache of irrelevant or legally dodgy comments with the rewards of allowing readers a space to have their say?

One of the biggest factors causing problems for websites is the cloak of anonymity the internet provides. Allowing people to choose usernames which don’t reveal who they are means users feel they can be totally honest, therefore prompting more people to join the conversation. Unfortunately it also means many of those comments stray from the realms of honesty to something much more extreme – confrontational, angry, insulting and so OTT that their authors couldn’t possibly believe what they are writing…could they??

For this reason, according to a podcast featured on www.journalism.co.uk , the Chicago Sun Times and Reuters have both banned commenting from their websites and The Huffington Post now only allows people to sign in via social media – meaning their identity is more transparent. The latter solution sounds a great way around the issue – but social media does not necessarily garner comments of a higher quality. Currently links to stories on regional papers’ Facebook pages tend to generate more comments than stories on the news sites themselves due to the ease of interaction (users are usually logged into the social network already, removing the  obstacle to commenting). But even with user identities revealed, a lot of comments on newspaper social media sites are abusive or irrelevant and many also seem to be  uninformed – with people forming opinion without clicking through to see the full story on the website. While the latter would not be an issue if social media was the way into commenting on a news site, it is hard to see how the former issues would be different. And then of course there is the problem of ownership again – social media log ins, even onto a newspaper site, take the hits and loyalty value of that log in away from the news provider and back to the social media provider.

Most newspapers publish stories to allow ‘post moderated’ comments on their sites – meaning comments do not have to be checked by a moderator before they appear. Much of the time it seems comments left by the public are rarely looked at by journalists following publication and legally it’s only comments which are seen to be defamatory or legally unsound that need to be taken down. Dodgy comments are usually flagged up by website users rather than newspaper staff – and this again raises the issue of whose role it is to ‘police’ comments.  With the huge amount of work already resting at the feet of reporters in modern newsrooms the extra job of moderating online comments would be virtually impossible to manage.

In fact, it could be a full-time job checking and responding to online comments – but unfortunately this is a  position which most editors don’t have the budget to fill. Those who do have web editors usually have them tied up with troubleshooting, publishing and promotion – again time and money does not allow for a full-time web discussion moderator.

But, with more and more newspapers building their communities online rather than in print, perhaps this is a role that needs to be considered for the future. Turning the comments  from a one-way response into a conversation with the news provider can surely only strengthen that bond with readers – as already done by national titles like the Guardian. Taking a firm stance on policing the quality of comments would also show people what was expected and hopefully, in turn, generate comments with a greater value. There is opportunity, if managed correctly, for regional papers to become the social voice of the community they serve – providing discussion points and chairing the ensuing debate both on websites and social media. But this can only be done if managers recognise the value this could add to their product and invest in the staff to make the model work effectively.

How fast is valued over foundation in the world of social media news

This tweet made me laugh, and then it made me stop and think about how social media has changed the way news outlets respond to breaking news.

TwitterReports

In the olden days (just a year  or two ago) news organisations would get reports of an explosion from people on the phone, on email and perhaps on Twitter and Facebook too. The old mantra was to get as much information as possible, then phone the police and find out if the reports could be confirmed. As  soon as that information was granted we would write a report for the internet which we would then share on social media. We would then update that report as the news changed. In an ideal world, the publication of this first report would take no  more than ten minutes. But, in reality, it could take much longer, depending on the response from the authorities and how lively our website was feeling that day.

The old mantra also used to be ‘no point in publishing if you haven’t got anything to say…’ with the idea that established news organisations were better be late and informed, than rushed and flimsy.

Oh, how times have changed.

Now, the people using Twitter are the eyes of the world. As proved by this tweet, people on social media report a noise like an explosion in Manchester. Give the BBC ten minutes to get the story online and that’s ten minutes where people interested in finding out more have been searching, retweeting and clicking on any accounts of said loud noise. It doesn’t matter if those tweets being retweeted are from people who have sought to establish if the explosion has happened or not. Twitter doesn’t care if information is correct as much as it cares about information first.  By the time the BBC tweets out its factually accurate news report, it has missed out on hundreds of hits, clicks and retweets and already it looks ‘out of date’.

So, what to do instead? If every cough, sneeze and loud bang that was tweeted was then picked up and reported on by traditional news sources then people would soon tire of the  scores of mistaken explosions being reported inaccurately and would rightly accuse the BBC, or whoever, of trashy journalism based on flimsy sources. From experience, I would say this is a deciding line based on individual circumstances. The newsdesk has to make a snap decision about the ‘quality’ of the original report source before deciding if it’s worth pursuing. Usually there will have been at least three tweets from different people before calls are put in to the authorities and, depending on the potential severity of the situation, that’s when a decision will be made to put a ‘we are aware of a breaking news event, check here for more updates’ tweet and story online.

Where that story then goes is up to Twitter and the people using it (including other news providers, as proved by this tweet) – but the point is, if it’s a big tale, you were the first to break the story (even if it was a non-story at the time) and your tweet and tale will have people following you for the story rather than a rival.

Journalists are being forced to learn and adapt with the changes that social media throws at them and mistakes will sometimes be made along the way. It could have turned out these explosions were the start of something life changing. It in fact developed no further than a storm in a Twitter-tea cup – a prime example of how In the melee that is social media, traditional news sources are fighting to keep their place as the ‘go-to’ providers of information and more and more emphasis is being placed on speed over substance.

BBCTwitterReports

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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