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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FOI Friday: Alcoholics refused transplants, council staff chasing lonely hearts, neglected pets and patients in the wrong hospital beds

FOIFRIDAYLOGOAlcoholics refused liver transplants < Birmingham Mail

Eight Birmingham patients denied liver transplants because they could not convince doctors they would stop boozing after the life-saving surgery later died, shock figures have revealed.

In the last five years, 12 patients with alcohol-induced liver disease at University Hospitals Birmingham NHS Foundation Trust were turned down for a new organ as they could not show that they would abstain from alcohol once they left hospital.

Now eight of those patients – two of which were in their 30s – have since died, according to the figures obtained under a Freedom of Information Act request.

Council officers seeking out lonely hearts websites < Chroniclelive

Lonely hearts working on computers at a North council have racked up more than 14,000 hits on dating websites in six months.

Staff at Sunderland City Council made the hits on Match.com, Plenty of Fish and OKCupid from staff computers between January and July this year.

According to the data, obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, there were 14,635 hits to the three sites.

The Council said personal use of the internet was permitted providing it took place in an employee’s own time.

Pet neglect in Scotland revealed < Evening Times, Glasgow

Figures released from Police Scotland showed officers investigated 55 cases during 2013 and more than 300 in six years.

The figures, covering the Glasgow area from 2008 to 2013, showed an average of 55 cases each year, and exactly 55 in 2013.

Of the 2013 cases, 36 resulted in court cases and 19 were unresolved. No details of the cases have been revealed but a Scottish SPCA spokeswoman confirmed that one of the most recent to reach court involved a bearded dragon with its tail hacked off by a knife.

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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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FOI Friday: Unidentified bodies, chugging, bedroom tax costs and ambulance delays

How many unidentified bodies have been discovered by police? < Liverpool Echo

THE ECHO today explores the riddle of 11 mystery bodies that lay open on Merseyside Police’s files.

The unidentified bodies and body parts – dating back to 1972 – include a decomposed foot found in a trainer which washed up on Hightown beach ten years ago.

Despite DNA tests and public appeals, investigations to trace the families of those who died have proven fruitless.

Their details lie on Merseyside Police’s records with little realistic chance of ever being solved.

Four front pages generated by one FOI request from Trinity Mirror’s data unit

Which streets are most active for chugging? < Cambridge News

A bid to curtail swarms of persistent ‘chuggers’ who stop people in the street for charities is being upped out by Cambridge authorities.

Calls have been made to crackdown on the ‘swarming’ charity collectors who target shoppers in the city centre.

Currently the council only permits direct debit collections on Tuesdays and Thursdays in specific areas of the city.

A spokeswoman said the council was in the process of finalising an agreement with the PFRA on further measures.

The street most used by ‘chuggers’ are Sidney Street and Petty Cury in the city centre as well as Fitzroy Street and Burleigh Street near the Grafton shopping centre, according to data released using freedom of information laws.

When are fire brigades charging for call outs? < BBC West Midlands

West Midlands Fire Service charged for just 106 out of 3,656 non-emergency callouts since charges were introduced, a BBC Freedom of Information request has revealed.

In May 2012, the service began asking homeowners to cover the callout and attendance costs for problems like animal rescues and lock-outs.

The 106 charges totalled £57,355.24.

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How FOI revealed a council’s duck slaughter

I’ve heard councillors accuse each other of developing God complexes before now, but never before seen a council decide to act like God.

And we only know Sandwell Council does thanks to Freedom of Information.

When Ian Carroll, a member of a group called Swan Watch, spotted a pest control company in the West Midlands borough rounding up dozens of geese in a council-run park, he decided to catch it on camera:

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Still debating the merits of taking Facebook seriously as a journalist? Facebook might just be about to change your mind…

Facebook’s success depends entirely on the relevance of the feed which appears when people first log in, so it’s no surprise that the secret formula which lies behind that service is constantly under review.

Trying to work out how to make the most of that feed has much in common with some of the more darkish arts which surround making the most of search engine optimisation … with similar repercussions dished out by both Google and Facebook if it thinks people are gaming their systems to get a better show. 

Facebook today announced a couple of new changes to Facebook feeds which should be of particular interest to journalists seeking to ensure the content they produce reaches the widest possible audience.

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FOI Friday: Shoplifted goods, secret council reports, GP police call outs and NHS money in private hospitals

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What gets stolen by shoplifters? < Sheffield Star

Shoplifting is having a ‘devastating impact’ on Sheffield businesses – with daily thefts ranging in value from just 10p to £15,000.

As police today released a rogues gallery of 16 wanted shoplifters, The Star can reveal 11 thefts a day are reported from city shops.

The toll represents an increase of 18 per cent in five years, to 4,211 between April 2013 and this March.

A total of 19,642 thefts from shops was reported to South Yorkshire Police in the five years since April 2009.

Victims of ‘sextortion’ < Sunday Sun

Teens are being lured into online sex chats by blackmailers who threaten to post their naked images on the internet.

Officers have received reports that youngsters in the North are being caught up in the frightening scam, labelled “sextortion”.

Across the country hundreds of victims are targeted by fraudsters who flirt with them to get them to perform sex acts and then threaten to release the images if they don’t receive money from the victim.

What do councils commission internal reports about? < York Press

SECRET reports released this week have revealed concerns about social care, information security, health and safety and budget savings at City of York Council.

The Press has obtained 26 internal reports previously not made public, and council bosses have pledged to end similar secrecy in the future.

The papers, obtained through Freedom of Information (FOI) laws, cover topics from routine school audits to reviews of services for vulnerable older people, health and safety, and information security, and even the sale of scrap metal from Hazel Court recycling centre.

Now council officials have confirmed that in future, reports like this will be published, with redactions, when they are presented to a council committee.

 

Which schools get the most money spent on them? < Surrey Comet

SURREY County Council has spent almost £30 million in two years maintaining school buildings in the county – and a trio of East Surrey schools were atop last year’s bill.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act revealed the five most expensive schools for the council to maintain in each of the last two financial years.

In the year 2013/14, the council spent £11,276,200 on building-related maintenance for all schools and de Stafford School in Caterham, Reigate Priory School and Merstham Primary School were among the five most expensive.

The most expensive school was King’s College, in Guildford, which cost the council £667,220 in the last financial year.

Why police get called to GP surgeries < Warrington Guardian

VIOLENCE, harassment and adults fighting are just some of the incidents police were called to at the town’s surgeries and Warrington Hospital in the past 12 months.

A Warrington Guardian Freedom of Information request found officers had been called 72 times to GP practices across the town in the last three years.

During the same period, Cheshire Police were called to Warrington Hospital on Lovely Lane more than 1,600 times however a large proportion of those calls were due to sudden deaths where the police are alerted to ensure there are no suspicious circumstances.

How close to flood defences come to being breeched? < Eastern Daily Press

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What motive lies behind the ‘top 10 wacky FOI requests’ press release?

Newsrooms like nothing more than quirky lists during the long, often slow news, month of August, so a well-time press release from the Local Government Association revealing a ‘top 10′ of ‘wacky’ FOI requests got considerable space last week.

A PR success for the LGA then, but what will have prompted their press release? The Local Government Association is effectively a trade body for local government, and sets its self up to offer advice and support to councils and provide a voice for those authorities to Government.

Back in May, the Campaign for Freedom of Information revealed that local government FOI officers had been asked to supply example of FOI requests which took up too much time, and for data splitting up requesters into different categories – media, campaign groups and so on (so much for applicant blind, eh?)

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FOI FRIDAY: Changing high streets, FGM, hospital crimes and council staff attacks

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How is your high street changing? – East Grinstead Courier

instead is filling up with coffee shops and financial service providers such as banks and estate agents – and residents are not happy about it.

According to a Freedom of Information Act request put in by the Courier, nearly half the change-of-use applications submitted by East Grinstead businesses have seen permission granted to change them into one of these two categories.

And the response from Mid Sussex District Council also reveals that every application – all 17 – made since 2009 to change an East Grinstead shop from one type of business to another submitted to the council has been approved (one on resubmission after an initial rejection).

What crimes are committed in hospital? < Dundee Evening Telegraph

Drug-dealing, shoplifting, sexual assault, vandalism and assaults on police officers — all activities you might associate with a rough housing estate.

However, these are actually just a few of the crimes which have been reported at Dundee’s biggest hospital in recent years.

Figures released under the Freedom of Information Act show nearly 200 crimes have been reported at Ninewells Hospital since 2011, including 62 last year.

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