Tuesday, July 09, 2019

Getting into bed with Auntie

SO FAR this year we’ve had Facebook trumpeting their £4.5 million Community News Project and Google handing out £13 million for the Digital News Initiative. Now, step forward the latest organisation to champion their role as the saviour of the UK regional Press…the BBC.
It’s now two years since the Local Democracy Reporting Service (LDRS) was started, with the BBC (ie you and me, licence payers) contributing £8 million a year to pay for 150 reporters employed by local publishers to cover the work of local councils and other public bodies under the BBC’s latest ‘Charter commitment’.
Now, 90,000 or stories later, those reporters held their first conference and awards ceremony. We are gathered together in the altogether fitting surroundings of the BBC’s cathedral at MediaCityUK in Salford, just a £2.40 tram ride from Manchester city centre. There are smiling, helpful people from the BBC, a smattering of G&G (great and good) from the UK’s main newspaper groups and about 100 local democracy reporters from around the country.
Unlike a lot of these industry dos it was not a talking shop for assorted M&S (movers and shakers) to tell the congregation how important they are and what an impact they are having. This was a practical conference with delegates learning how to do stuff and even lining up to take pot shots at the opening speaker, a surprisingly cheerful spectre at the feast in the shape of David Holdstock, director of communications at the Local Government Association.
There were sessions on getting the best out of Freedom of Information requests, making better videos and using social media to greater effect, all lapped up by the eager crowd. Some reporters were cajoled onto the stage to talk about their exploits, most notably Julia Gregory, Local Democracy Reporter for Kensington and Chelsea, who has been at the forefront of news about the ongoing Grenfell fire disaster.
MEN OF THE MOMENT: Jeremy Clifford (left) from
JPIMedia and Matthew Barraclough from the BBC
A total of 144 Local Democracy Reporters have been allocated to news organisations in England, Scotland and Wales. The other six are planned for Northern Ireland later this year. These organisations range from a radio station to online media companies and the established regional newspaper groups well represented at the conference. The reporters cover top-tier local authorities and other public service organisations, filing around 6,000 stories every month in total.
Events in the prosaically named but dramatic space of Q5 were chaperoned by Matthew Barraclough, head of Local News Partnerships at the BBC, and JPIMedia editorial director Jeremy Clifford wearing another hat of chairman of the NMA/BBC advisory panel for the partnership
“It was impressive to see so many LDRs in one place – it brought home to me yet again what a significant force they have become,” reflected Barraclough, a former BBC regional journalist, after the event.
“I was able to meet some who I haven’t seen since their initial training more than a year ago, and others for the first time. I was struck time and again by their dedication and good humour. I believe that the consistent, detailed reporting the LDRs generate day after day is a force for good both in local politics and society at large.”

Close eye

Clifford thought the conference demonstrated the success of the Local Partnership in bringing together the BBC and the publishers in a “new spirit of collaboration to tackle a really important issue - how we cover local council institutions within the context of the challenges of the industry and staffing levels”.
He continued: “The awards were a celebration of the scheme – showcasing the fantastic work that has been taking place since the scheme launched, with nearly 90,000 stories being produced by this team of journalists – celebrating and keeping a close eye on the work of our councils."
In March Tony Hall, director general of the BBC, formally announced plans for a ‘Local Democracy Foundation’, saying: “My goal is to mobilise a powerful coalition behind the creation of a Local Democracy Foundation.
“And, together, to do all we can reverse the damage that has been done to local democracy in recent years and bring about a sea change in local public interest journalism.”
Watch this space…
Your correspondent (centre) gets a grilling from reporters
at the Local Democracy conference


It was difficult not to get caught up in the love in the room. Even hard-bitten old hacks (aka your correspondent) have to agree that putting 150 reporters into the newsroom, who might not otherwise be there, has got to be a ‘good thing’.
It was also interesting to note that there were plenty of wiser, older heads in the cohort, evidence that the service is a back-door way of retaining some of the experienced (ie more expensive) people who might not otherwise have survived the inevitable rounds of redundancies.
Everyone involved in the project, not least the LDRs themselves, is upbeat and positive about the benefits of the service and while there may be reservations about the price to be paid for taking the big-tech money, getting into bed with Auntie doesn’t seem quite such a problem.

  • This story is part of the coverage of the LDRS conference which appears in the July issue of PJNews

Wednesday, March 06, 2019

From Cinderford to Davos (via Alnwick and Devizes): Decoding the latest output about the 'Future of Journalism'

PORING over the finely-crafted pages of The Forester – “At the heart if the Forest since 1874” – it might seem a stretch to take in the ‘Future of Journalism’ bon mots delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos of all places.
The cut and thrust of life in Cinderford – “By-pass plans take step forward” – is indeed a world away from the Swiss alpine town where 3,000 of the world’s great and good gathered to wheel and deal and listen to where we’re headed on a wide range of social and economic issues.
Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen delivering
the report (below) at the World Economic Forum in Davos
So, let’s be grateful that journalism got an airing, courtesy of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford who delivered their new report: More Important, But Less Robust? Five Things Everybody Needs to Know about the Future of Journalism.
The report’s authors claim the five trends will impact the work of professional reporters as well as everybody who works with them and relies on them, from the general public to politicians, NGOs, and private enterprise.
Those clever people from Oxford University seem to have got to the bottom of many of the issues that publishers, editors and front-line journalists are facing on a day-to-day basis. But the language is a bit academic so we are pleased to include an exclusive PJ News interpretation of their findings, plus real-world examples from a random selection of newspapers.

1 We have moved from a world where media organisations were gatekeepers to a world where media still create the news agenda, but platform companies control access to audiences.

PJ News interpretation: Most of the news still comes from newspaper businesses but Google and Facebook control how it’s read.
In this ever-more competitive battle for attention, speaking is not the same as being heard, says the report. “Far from the death of gatekeepers, we have seen the move to two sets of gatekeepers, where news media organisations still create the news agenda, but platform companies increasingly control access to audiences.”
The Forester, a Tindle-owned title serving the Forest of Dean on the England/Wales border, has a well-serviced website that provides regular community updates. Yes, some of that information is also available elsewhere but as the ‘gatekeeper’ of news from that particular corner of the UK it is difficult to see how that position may be usurped.

2 The move to digital media generally does not generate filter bubbles. Instead, automated serendipity and incidental exposure drive people to more and more diverse sources of information.

PJ News interpretation: While the targeted, contained world of the newspaper is constrained by its shape and size as well as the area it serves, digital media can take the reader off into hitherto unimagined areas.
In practice, most people only go directly to a few news sources on a routine basis, rarely more than three or four, says the report. “For most people, digital media use is associated with more diverse news use, but information inequality is a real risk, as is political polarisation – risks that are fundamentally rooted in political and social factors but can be amplified by technology.”

3 Journalism is often losing the battle for people’s attention and, in some countries, for the public’s trust.

PJ News interpretation: The Brexit news overload and President Trump’s bleatings about ‘fake news’ seep into public consciousness and they eventually start to give up on news.
In a revealing study from the United States data from comScore suggests only about three percent of the time spent online is devoted to news, and just half a percent with local news. Put another way out of an hour online less than two minutes is spent looking at news and only about 20 seconds on local news
Equally strikingly, in an era of unprecedented abundance and ease of access, journalism is facing widespread problems of ‘news avoidance’, says the report. “People turn off the news because it feels irrelevant and depressing and does not help them live their lives; they often turn to entertainment or social media instead.
“These differences are not only a function of competition for attention. They also reflect that much of the public is questioning whether journalism is in fact helping them in their lives, and that people in many countries doubt whether they can trust the news.”
Attacks on journalism and news media can in turn further undermine trust demonstrating how trust in journalism is dependent both on trustworthy reporting and on a political context where public officials respect independent news media.
The Devizes edition of the Gazette and Herald in Wiltshire runs to 108 pages, plus a 12-page property pull-out. There’s no lack of “trustworthy reporting” here or the commercial partners to support such a vibrant product. There’s the traditional diet of police reports: ‘Cat had its legs tied together’ and council news: ‘Parking spaces plan supported’, plus schools, charities and community news. There is also a letters spread bristling with local people eager to join the debate. No evidence of any attention being lost here.


4 The business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures.

PJ News interpretation: If the traditional news media can’t make it pay they may be tempted to go easy on businesses and politicians.
The good news is that the majority of professional journalism is still funded by newspapers. An estimated 90 per cent of publishers’ revenues worldwide still come from print and digital revenues are in many cases growing only slowly. “Most of the existing forms of funding for professional journalism will decline as we continue to move to a more digital media environment, leading to further job cuts in newsrooms,” warns the report.
“The sustainable business models for digital news developed so far are diverse and promising - including a mix of advertising, reader revenues, and non-profit approaches - but they also generally support far leaner newsrooms than those historically found in legacy media.”
City A.M. – the “Business with personality” daily distributed free in London – records the activities of hundreds of companies in each issue, and there’s no evidence of anything but robust reporting. If news media are to become “more vulnerable to commercial pressures” it’s more likely to be in traditional go-to areas like travel, property and motors where tie-ups make sense for all parties without compromising any editorial integrity.

5 News is more diverse than ever, and the best journalism better than ever, taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest private companies.

PJ News interpretation: There is lots of good journalism out there still
Journalism is facing stiff competition for attention and its connection with the public is threatened by news avoidance, low trust, and the perception that news does not help people live the lives they want to live, says the report. “But in many ways, the best journalism today is better than ever – more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience.”
Up at the Northumberland Gazette, one of England’s most northerly weeklies, not only is there a spread on drone “near-misses in our skies” but also a page given over to the county council budget plans, put together by the ‘Local Democracy Reporting Service’ that has given a new lease of life to rummaging around at the local council.


In conclusion, the movers and shakers at Davos heard that strong journalism is essential for both the public good, politics, and private enterprise. “It can help ensure that the rise of digital media and our current turbulence results not in chaos, but in change for the better,” Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen told the forum.
He said that everybody should be concerned by the risks posed by a combination of shifts in how people get their news and what media they use, transformations in professional journalism and the business of news, and change in the political environment that independent news media operate in.
“In the absence of independent professional reporting providing accurate information, analysis, and interpretation, the public will increasingly rely on self-interested sources and rumours circulating online and offline, a shift that will hurt both the political process, civil society, and private enterprise,” he said.
He concluded with a rallying call to journalists and news media: “Continue to adapt to the digital media that people all around the world are eagerly embracing at the expense of print and broadcast, and build a profession and a business fit for the future.”
Wise words, no doubt, but a virtual trip down the streets of Cinderford, Devizes or Alnwick via the pages of the legacy media weeklies that are still recording the community’s comings and goings with enthusiasm, professionalism and not a little wit and wisdom may point to a different present, if not the future.

Alan Geere has never been to Davos in his 40-year newspaper career, but has succumbed to the charms of Cinderford, Devizes and Alnwick. E: alan@alan-geere.com T: @alangeere

  • This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of PJ News

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

'Don’t let the technology dictate the story' – data journalism: the view from the newsroom

How The Guardian portrayed their story, with stock picture
An interesting contribution from The Guardian to the ongoing debate about where journalism education could or should be heading argued that ‘video and data skills have changed the face of journalism’ and universities must keep pace.
In a piece headlined ‘Media reboot: the real story is the rise of data’, Paul Bradshaw, who heads up the postgrad courses in data journalism and multiplatform and mobile journalism at Birmingham City University was quoted: “We struggle to meet demand from employers wanting students who can analyse data. All news organisations are expanding in this area.”
Paul, a long-time standard bearer for teaching the latest technological innovations, cites a Birmingham story about a planned rise in police patrols and stop and search after a spate of knife crime incidents. Journalists used data to determine which areas of the city were most subjected to stop and search. They then supplemented this with traditional reporting, by speaking to the communities affected, to give context, the Guardian reported.
Hurrah for Paul and especially his last observation - speaking to the communities affected – which should also capture the attention of both academics and industry.
My doctoral research into the changing nature of editorial leadership tells a different story about the impact of data journalism in UK regional and weekly paper newsrooms.

Conscientious yet uncontentious

In my 25 years teaching journalism I’ve found students to be a conscientious yet uncontentious bunch, happiest copying a quote from an online handout rather that actually having to speak to someone, either on the phone or, God forbid, in person. Hacking around on a computer for stories is just up their street.
New recruits are technically fantastic, one editorial director told me for my PhD research. “But I’m often disappointed they don’t have that innate love of breaking a news story; they don’t get that excitement from something breaking. They can craft it for you, they can give you a lovely edited video package, but do they have the love?” 
Another reflected: “I see sometimes where people are jumping up and down because they’ve done a bit of 360-degree video and it’s like yeah okay but…you’ve spelled somebody’s name wrong in the intro. Don’t lose sight of the basics and don’t let the technology dictate the story, let the story dictate how you use technology.”
Perhaps the universities are trying a bit too hard. “One of the things you get at university is usually state of the art equipment. Sometimes people come to us and they finish up working in an office which has still got an outside toilet and old equipment, and you can see the shock in their faces,” said another editor.
“Sometimes they are not fully prepared for the commercial realities and I don’t think they are necessarily prepared for the workload either because we do demand a lot from people these days.”

Passion and hunger

And key skills when recruiting? “We’ve met people who are really good at social media but are terrified to pick up the phone," said another editorial director who has responsibility for hundreds of journalists. "Verbal communication is a core skill as well so as being able to use all these digital skills, so I look for passion and a hunger and then excitement about why they want to come in the job.  I think the rest we can just about teach.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love it that uni course directors are continually updating their offer. And I know that a job in the regional press is not what everyone is aiming for. But I desperately hope we do not lose sight of those traditional skills of finding people who have something worthwhile to say and getting them to talk about it.
Perhaps last word should go to Simon Hinde, programme director of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication, who is also quoted in The Guardian, saying: “The key thing is to allow students to develop their own authentic voice. Nobody knows what jobs today’s postgraduates will be doing in 10 years’ time.”
2029? Bring it on…