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FOI: How local journalists make a difference by sticking with a story

barb-flood-rescue-2

At certain times in the last 12 months, it will have been quite hard to avoid journalists in the West Country as news outlets from across the country followed wave after wave of floods hitting the region.

The 24-hour news cycle, the instant update world of social media and the ease of publishing online have all combined to ensure big events become ones of national focus very quickly. As a result, the thirst to lay blame can emerge more quickly, which in turn can result in big promises and pledges from those in power.

The widespread flooding in the South West resulted in big promises from the Government to get flood defences fixed, and rivers dredged to reduce the risk of a repeat this year.

Almost a year on, and it’s pretty much only the local media who are still covering a story which, for a while, led national news bulletins and dominated websites everywhere .. and as a result are the only ones left to ensure the promises made when the national media heat was at its highest are being delivered.

All of which brings me to the Western Morning News’ Freedom of Information-based story this week which revealed that, with winter approaching, almost of half of the flood defences damaged last winter have yet to be restored:

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Is a newspaper’s print front page actually one of its most powerful tools for online too?

Strange as it may sound, I’m increasingly thinking that perhaps the most powerful tool in a newspaper’s push into digital is actually the printed front page.

A number of things have led me to this conclusion, but I really got thinking about this while listening to Five Live on Tuesday morning. There was a debate involving  David Clegg, political editor of the Daily Record, over whether Westminster’s leaders were going to keep to ‘the vow’ over more devolved powers to Scotland.

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Why journalism needs to get over its fear of Facebook

At the Online News Association conference in Chicago, Facebook went under the microscope, challenged almost to prove it was a force for good in journalism, rather than something to be feared.

Two main themes emerged. The first was that it is clear that Facebook probably drives far more traffic to news websites than previously thought. The Atlantic, for example, discovered that half of its unique users – coming up on in analytics as from a ‘no referral source’ – were actually coming in from the mobile app on Facebook.

Is that a bad thing? I’ll come to that.

The second concerned Facebook’s algorithm. Facebook’s Liz Heron was asked to give details about what will make sure a story works well on Facebook. Her response that journalists should just focus on good content didn’t seem to appease everyone, while there was concern about the impact of Facebook’s algorithm.

It, said some, meant many regular folk were more likely to see content related to the Ice Bucket Challenge than they were about the Ferguson shootings. In other words, does the mass audience on Facebook being presented individualised content based on what they’ve clicked on before or what their friends are clicking on, mean bad news for journalists?

My answer to that question, and the previous question is: Forget these questions and lets just deal with reality.

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When a sentiment works better than a headline on social media

Getting the tone right on social media, especially when dealing with a sensitive story can be tricky – and one of the most obvious examples of digital journalism not just being what we’ve always done, but on a different platform. 

I could write hundreds of words trying to articulate the dangers trying to deal with a vocal audience while sharing a sensitive story, especially one which involves a lot of background work which readers wouldn’t normally see. I could, but I won’t – because this Facebook post this afternoon from the Lancashire Evening Post shows how to get perhaps the most sensitive of stories just right – the funeral of someone who has been killed:

 

getting it right on social

This post was fraught with risks – people accusing the LEP of being callous for filming a funeral (because they wouldn’t have known they had permission) or complaints that the LEP was intruding into family grief if they’d tried to use a standard news line in the Facebook post.

Instead, the LEP got the message across that they’d been invited, and showed respect to the family by saying thanks to them for it as well – thus displaying the sort of engagement which helps make news brands more than just bystanders in their community.

 

Nine challenges for the local media as a new era of possible devolution dawns

parliament

As responses to a no vote for independence go, David Cameron’s response to not only promise more devolved powers to Scotland, but the UK as a whole was an interesting one.

As the show of force amongst a group of Northern newspapers yesterday showed, there is a significant body of support behind the idea of devolved powers – after all, there are plenty of examples of how a London-based political system has failed many regions.

If the last 24 hours are anything to go by, the next few months will involve a significant amount of bun-fighting based on self-interest between the Westminster parties, with all inside the Houses of Parliament having one eye on how this could play out in the eyes of the public at the general election next May.

I already have a nagging feeling that an issue which has exploded as a result of the Westminster bubble being caught off guard 300 miles or so from its comfort zone is already being dragged back onto the regular political playing field – one which struggles to attract the attention of even the most geeky of political watchers.

Coupled with the high state of excitement among local government leaders at the prospect of more power, there’s no doubt the next few months have the scope to be fascinating for local journalism, and also potentially life-changing.

Here are some of the key themes as I see them.

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Digital journalism is devastatingly simple – but still a huge leap to be celebrated when we get it right, Mr Greenslade

The fire at Manchester Dogs Home

On Friday, I blogged about the remarkable success the Manchester Evening News was having in raising money for the Manchester Dogs Home, part of which had been torched in what is apparently an arson attempt. In 24 hours, the MEN raised over £1million for the Home. It was, I said on Friday, a stroke of digital journalism genius to spot the mood and respond to it instantly.

It was a blog post which struck a chord. It’s been widely shared on social media networks, primarily Twitter, and yesterday, Gigaom gave the post fresh life with a take on what it means on the other side of the Atlantic.

Then came an alternative view from Roy Greenslade, the journalist academic and journalism blogger at the Guardian. Sure, he argued, it was a great achievement, but what on earth was the ‘usually sensible’ David Higgerson doing describing it as digital journalism genius?  

It wasn’t, claimed Greenslade, anything new. Newspapers have always helped their local communities. In saying that deciding to raise money on the spot, I was over-egging the achievement:

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£1million in 24 hours: Lessons from the ultimate digital news success story

A survivor of the Manchester Dogs Home fire

It’s 9pm on a Friday. Around 24 hours ago, a fire started in Manchester Dogs Home, a century-old institution in the city. No surprises, then, that it drew a lot of attention, very quickly.

The Manchester Evening News, as is normal for any newsroom worth its digital salt, launched a live blog to keep people up to date with what was going on. It soon became clear this was not just any old story. For over three hours, the MEN’s live user count was above 20,000 readers every minute.

Then came a moment of digital journalism genius. Prompted by lots of people responding to the MEN’s coverage of the fire on social media by asking what they could do, the MEN launched a Just Giving page and pointed people following their coverage there to donate.

At around 7.30pm today – 24 hours after the fire was first reported, this happened:

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How long does it take new public servants to get bored with FOI?

When the government decided the country’s police forces needed elected police and crime commissioners, the argument centred on the importance of accountability – we, the public, needed to know we could vote on how well the police were run.

Two years on, and with many crime commissioners now in place after winning elections which attracted turnouts as low as 15%, it would appear the idea of accountability is starting to slip – at least when it comes to Freedom of Information.

Whereas the democratic process allows you to hold someone to account just once in a period of time, FOI enables you to hold a public authority to account at a time of your choosing, on a specific subject of your choosing – something the office of the Hertfordshire police and crime commissioner clearly finds irritating.

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Why the only future for football reporting is a ‘fan first’ future

On the day after Sir Tom Finney, the Preston North End legend and a player widely regarded as one of the gentlemen of the game, died BBC Radio Five Live broadcast its Saturday sports coverage from Deepdale, the home of North End.

It was a touching tribute to one of the greats of the game who earned his reputation in a different era of football. That point was summed up when the story about a transfer which never happened was discussed on air.

Sir Tom was wanted by Palermo, the Sicilian side, in 1952 and reports suggested they were prepared to offer Preston £30,000 for his signature, pay Sir Tom much more than he was earning in Preston, throw in a villa and pay for travel between Italy and Preston for his family.

The story goes that then-chairman Nat Buck quashed the deal, saying: “If tha’ doesn’t play for us, tha’ doesn’t play for anybody.” On hearing the story, Five Live presenter Mark Pougatch made the point: “So different from today, it was a time when the administrators ran football.”

Yet in an era when player power clearly does have the upper hand in football, certainly in the top two leagues, journalists and local media can often find themselves at the mercy of excessive demands and expectations of football club administrators in guise of media management. That, in turn, runs the risk of damaging the most important relationship of all: Our relationship with fans.

From insisting all player interview requests go through the club or only making the manager available for one interview a week, to insisting that all news is broken on the club site first and or placing digital embargoes on content which don’t apply to print to ensure the clubs have online exclusives, the demands from many football clubs are little short of draconian.

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Why Government needs to look at itself before accusing councils of lacking transparency

Westminster – stuck in time?

Eric Pickles, the communities secretary, has a similar relationship with councils to the one former education secretary Michael Gove had with teachers.

For some reason, that keep-on-kicking approach Gove adopted with the teaching profession appears to have cost him his ministerial brief in the recent reshuffle, while Mr Pickles gets to, well, keep on kicking.

Many of the things Mr Pickles has pushed on have been welcome: The crackdown on local government propaganda newspapers, insisting councils must allow filming of meetings, and the publication of data on spending over £500. But the devil has often been in the detail of Mr Pickles’ headline-grabbing initiatives.

Several renegade councils continue to publish newspapers in spite of much hyperbole, the ability to film democracy in action is far from guaranteed and spending data is produced in many differing fashions and tells you little about what a council is actually buying. (more…)