What’s special about today? It’s like ‘last post before Christmas’ … but for FOI

Counting the days down to Christmas in November always seems a bit premature – but when you have to factor in 20 days for something, then it starts to mark sense.

Which makes today one of the last days to get Freedom of Information requests in if you want them to aid your supply of ‘Christmas specials’ (the stories which see newsrooms through Christmas).

FOI requests have to be processed and replied to within 20 days – although there are many cases where this simply doesn’t happen.

But assuming organisations remain within the spirit of the law, 20 days from today is December 15 (or December 16, if you choose not to include today).

That leaves just about a week to get the requests, assuming they deliver useful responses, into stories which can help drive page views and fill pages throughout the Christmas period.

All of which is a very long winded way of saying: Here’s a link to the FOI Friday archive which, by my reckoning, has upwards of 800 FOI suggestions which could work for regional newsrooms.

Merry Christmas!

Two apologies to make you stop and go … err

Tufty. Certainly a red squirrel

Those who like to bash the Press tend to save particular ire for the Daily Mail and Mail On Sunday, for reasons best known to themselves.

But nobody can accuse the Mail on Sunday of not being dedicated to correcting even the smallest error:


The question at the heart of the devolution debate is still being ignored by politicians at all levels


Devolution, the running political wisdom of the day, is a good thing. And it many ways, it could be. After decades where regions – particularly those in the North – have felt short-changed by decisions taken in Westminster, it’s easy to understand why the political chattering classes believe it’s time for decisions to be made closer to the people impacted by them.

And so Greater Manchester is set to be first off the blocks with a style of devolution – a directly-elected mayor in addition to retaining 10 existing councils. He or she will, according to the Government, have significant clout over big issues such as housing strategy and transport.

Other regions are set to follow. The deal from the coalition appears to be this: Have an elected mayor across your ‘city region’ (a geographic region almost as nonsensical to many living within it as the ITV regions dictated by where TV masts are) and you can have a lot more power locally.


FOI Friday: School places, child exploitation, serial criminals and council home waits


How likely are you to get your child into a school? < Teesside Gazette

Hundreds of schoolchildren in Middlesbrough are missing out on a place at their school of preference.

Figures from a Freedom of Information request show that while places are in high demand, non of the town’s secondary schools were able to cater to every single applicant who requested a place at their school of choice.

Macmillan Academy, on Stockton Road, was by far the most popular school of choice, with 1030 applications for 220 places.

But, less than half the number of children, 44.4%, who put it down as their first choice, got to go to the academy.

Children at risk of sexual exploitation < Slough Observer

AT LEAST 28 children as young as 13 have been deemed at risk of sexual exploitation this year, The Observer can reveal.

The Observer submitted a freedom of information request asking Slough Borough Council how many children this year had been referred, or became known, to the council amid concerns that they are, or at some stage have been, at risk of sexual exploitation.

The youngest child referred was 13 years and nine months old. The figures also showed at least 23 children have been identified in previous years.

More details of the suspected exploitation could not be provided because it would have taken too long to search through records, the council said.

The 1,000 crimes committed by 50 criminals < Rossendale Free Press

Nearly 1,000 crimes have been committed by the top 50 worst in Rossendale, the Free Press can reveal.

The most habitual yob is a 37-year-old man from Bacup who has committed 87 offences – including 74 thefts from vehicles – and has been charged 20 times.

Also making the top 10 list of shame is a 19-year-old man from Rossendale who has already committed 40 offences including 18 thefts from vehicles and has been charged by police 13 times.

Campaigners and MPs have branded the figures ‘appalling’ and said the system of justice is ‘not working’, calling on the courts to impose harsher sentences for repeat offenders.

Figures released by Lancashire Police under a Freedom of Information request show that 972 offences have been committed in the Valley by the top 50 offenders.


FOI: How expensive can it be to deal with clearly absurd FOI requests?

“I dunno what happened, the council just didn’t like my FOI request”

Another week, another grumble about the Freedom of Information Act from a council. In fairness to St Helens Council, they aren’t in the same league as FOI-haters such as Nottingham City Council, this councillor from Kirklees Council, and Hampshire, Pendle and Cheshire West and Chester Councils.

Their complaint about the public’s right to know, as reported in the St Helens Reporter this week, is that too often people are asking frankly ridiculous questions based on rumours they have heard.


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


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:


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.


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.


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


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.