FOI Friday: Why the silence on Brexit?

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It’s probably no surprise to learn that the Government is hiding behind the public interest exemption when it comes to people asking FOI questions relating to Brexit issues.

Take Kent Online, the website of the Kent Messenger group which, as its name suggests, covers the county most likely to be impacted if border issues aren’t resolved by 2019.

Political editor Paul Francis reported this week:

The government is facing criticism after it refused to release details of any contingency plans it had drawn up to cope with possible disruption to Kent’s road network after Brexit.

The Department for Transport ruled it would not be in the public interest for details of any of its plans to be put into the public domain.

It has rejected a Freedom of Information request by Kent Business for details of any proposals to mitigate the impact of Brexit in 2019 should the UK leave without a deal.

Brexit by its very nature involves the whole of the UK – but in different ways in different places. It has the potential to be an FOI goldmine, not just at a national government level, but at a local level too with many local institutions also presumably making plans.

Will local bodies be more prepared to share? It seems remarkable that details relating to the biggest change to UK’s status in a generation are deemed not to be in the public interest for release…

Old favourites and all that

The Daily Post in North Wales published a list of parking ticket hot spots based on the last three months’ activity. It’s an old favourite of an FOI but also a great example of a useful one which updates regularly.

The parking ticket hotspots of North Wales have been revealed.

Figures released by five of the region’s six local authorities under Freedom of Information laws has revealed the spots where motorists are most likely to be slapped with parking tickets.

They have also shown that at least £300,000 has been raked in by councils for parking fines over just a three month period, between July and September this year.

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FOI Friday: The power of FOI, pesky press officers, school place race and mouse droppings

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The power of FOI confirmed in Essex

You don’t have to look far to find critics of the Freedom of Information Act within journalistic circles. It’s not a replacement for investigative journalism, it’s too easy to ignore, it’s never going to uncover Watergate and so on.

And, of course, if the point of FOI was to replace investigative journalism, then it would of course not be a good thing. It should be seen as another tool to help us do the job. And rather than bemoaning the tool isn’t as good as it could be, lets make the most of what we’ve got while always asking for more.

It can make a difference, as the Yellow Advertiser series in Essex showed this week, when it emerged an inquiry into historic child sex abuse had been re-opened for a second time thanks to the paper’s investigation.

Holdthefrontpage reports:

Last year Essex Police announced it would probe allegations of offences committed in the 1980s and 1990s against children, particularly boys in local authority or foster care, following a Yellow Advertiser investigation into claims of an establishment cover-up.

Detectives had summoned the Basildon-based Advertiser to force headquarters in Chelmsford last week to announce the end of the investigation, codenamed Operation SANDS.

However, at the briefing, the paper handed over a document containing detailed allegations about more than 10 men and women based in and around Southend in the 1980s.

Editor Mick Ferris said: “We are pleased Essex Police has reopened the case for a second time, once again due to information brought forth by the Yellow Advertiser.

“Our historic abuse investigation began three years ago when we discovered, through Freedom of Information, a series of compensation payments authorised by Essex Council. The council refused to answer even basic questions about those payments.”

FOI was never meant to replace anything – journalism which makes a difference still requires determination and many other skills. But as a tool to help get to the truth, we’re far better off with it than without it.

How FOI can beat ‘open data’ time and again

Digital newsrooms know few stories engage local readers more effectively than zero-star hygiene lists of restaurants. The data is freely available, and regularly updated – but only tells half of the story.

Behind the zero star rating lives a layer of detail and information which can often only be extracted thanks to the Freedom of Information Act.

The Derby Telegraph used FOI this week to look at why a pizza takeaway was given zero stars:

The report has only just been released to the Derby Telegraph following a Freedom of Information request:

When they visited the site on Abbey Street in July, food hygiene inspectors found mouse droppings on food preparation surfaces that were used that day to prepare raw meats and ready-to-eat salads.

They also found the droppings on shelves where food packaging was stored and behind a microwave.

Much better than just saying zero stars surely!

The problem with FOI and press officers

Problems with press officers getting too close to the FOI process persist at councils across the country. This example from the Hackney Citizen, via its ‘Titbits’ column this week, was a new one one on me though:

Hackney Council has reaffirmed its commitment to transparency by rejecting a Freedom of Information request over a minor error in the question. The Citizen had asked for the Red-Amber-Green fire safety ratings for Hackney schools the council gave to the Department for Education (DfE). But the council turned this down, noting that the ratings were not in fact given to the DfE. Where could the Citizen have got the idea they were? Why, the council’s press office!

Other FOI stories I’ve seen this week:

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FOI Friday: Affordable housing, music festivals, busy civil servants and more

Making hopefully not another false dawn return, here’s a round-up of stories from the local media in the UK which have been made possible thanks to the Freedom of Information Act

Lack of affordable housing < Brixton Buzz

If you read just one story this week from this list, make it this one. It’s a great example of local knowledge being used to mine the responses to an FOI request posted on Whatdotheyknow.

The number of new ‘affordable’ homes that Lambeth Council plans to build at Cressingham Gardens has dropped to 16. A Freedom of Information request has shown that this is the figure that the Labour Group is now aspiring towards.

We reported on Brixton Buzz yesterday how an FoI was able to flush out the land details of where Lambeth wants to build new homes. This is part of a £55m grant from the Greater London Authority.

We have now scrutinised this document a little deeper. Buried away in the data is the exact number of affordable homes for each site.

It was with some surprise that we found that an entire estate looks like it will be bulldozed so that only an extra 16 affordable homes can be built.

Crimes committed at a music festival < Liverpool Echo

Summer music festivals are big business, but the crimes committed at them can be hard to get access to other than perhaps the headline stats.

The Liverpool Echo was able to report what went on at dance festival Creamfields thanks to an FOI request:

Two allegations of rape were reported to police at this year’s Creamfields festival .

Data released under the Freedom Of Information Act (FOI) showed the incidents were said to have taken place on Saturday, September 26.

The crime reports were revealed as Cheshire police published data relating to a request for details of violent and sexual offences alleged to have taken place at the four-day dance music festival.

There were 12 offences of violence, two of which were assaults without injury on police constables – in both cases involving revellers spitting at the officer.

What are those civil servants up to? < WalesOnline

A tidal lagoon off the cost of South Wales is obviously big news. A review into whether to have a tidal lagoon was also big news. But the silence has been deafening since the review happened. So WalesOnline asked what had been happening.

Lots of reports have been written, apparently:

Around 50 officials in the UK Government have produced “a very significant” number of reports about the Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon, which remains in limbo.

The case of the £1.3 billion energy project is being handled by the UK’s Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), which has remained tight-lipped since an independent review into tidal lagoon energy was published in January.

In a response to a Freedom of Information request by WalesOnline about what has been going on behind the scenes since the review and, prior to that, the granting of planning permission for the lagoon in 2015, a BEIS statement said: “We estimate that a minimum of 50 staff have worked on the assessment of the proposed Swansea Bay Tidal Lagoon to date.”

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Local journalism’s mission: Becoming obviously relevant again

If you read just one piece of journalism-related stuff this weekend, make sure it’s Mary Hamilton’s 13 learnings from working at the Guardian.

One of the most successful digital journalists to have begun their career in the regional press, Mary’s article on Medium is rightly winning plaudits, and deserves the widest possible audience.

For me, it’s point 7 which is the one our industry still has the furthest to go to crack:

7. Platforms are not strategies, and they won’t save news.

Seriously. If someone else’s algorithm change could kill your traffic and/or your business model, then you’re already dead. Google and Facebook are never going to subsidise news providers directly, and nor should they. Stop waiting for someone to make it go back to the way it was before. If what you do is essential to your audience, so essential that their lives wouldn’t be the same without it, then you should be able to monetise that. If it’s not, your first priority should be to admit that and then get on with changing it.

Facebook and Google are as successful as they are because they’ve found a thing that people want every day, and use it. And audience research I’m currently looking at suggests many local media readers visit the same sites every day via these platforms. But when did we stop being essential to readers?

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Tips for charities looking to build relationships with regional media

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A few weeks ago, I was part of a panel discussion at an event held by the Media Trust, an organisation which helps charities and community groups develop relationships with media organisations so their work can be discovered by those who could benefit from it.

The theme of the session I was involved with was called ‘engaging the media’ and for an hour or so, led by Jon Snow of Channel 4, a group of us discussed how charities could improve their chances of coverage in the modern media world.

There was tough and thought-provoking questions from the ‘floor’ too, an audience made up (as far as I could tell) mainly of relatively small organisations which don’t have the sizeable marketing and media teams some of the household name charities can rely on.

The session gave me a lot to think about – not least around how charities can form meaningful relationships with local media. Here are some thoughts (with apologies in advance to anyone who reads them and thinks I’m stating the obvious!):

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Journalism doesn’t need a subsidy from Google – it just needs a fairer deal

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In his latest blog post on Holdthefrontpage this week, former Birmingham Mail editor Steve Dyson argued that the last thing Google and Facebook should do is give in to demands from the News Media Association to subsidise the regional press.

Steve’s argument is that the NMA represents big companies like Trinity Mirror (my employer), Johnston Press and Newsquest, each of which makes lots of money, so they shouldn’t get subsidies.

For once, I agree with Steve. Facebook and Google have no place subsidising the Press in the UK.

They do, however, need to do more to ensure that those paying for the creation of the content which helps power their digital services are rewarded fairly for it.

Which is exactly what the NMA – which incidentally represents an awful lot of small publishers, including some of the ones Steve argues should be subsidised by the internet giants – is seeking.

Not a handout, but fair compensation. The NMA argues for the latter, not as Steve suggests, for the former.

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What local journalism needs to do next

ChronicleThe Oldham Evening Chronicle, published daily for over 160 years, ceased publication at the end of August after administrators were called in. If ever a press release had the ability to stop every journalist who read it in their tracks, it was the one making this announcement from KPMG which circulated that Thursday afternoon. A watershed moment.

What made this announcement stand out was that it was first time a daily newspaper publisher had reached the point where it was no longer able to manage its own decline.

Local newspaper closures aren’t new. They happen with regularity, as do redundancy announcements. They are never done through preference, only ever by necessity. Common journalistic wisdom is that newspapers close when ‘greedy owners’ can’t make enough money from them. They close when they are losing money – a moment which has usually been delayed significantly through cost management, more commonly known as cost-cutting.

To those within in the industry and tasked with delivering a future, it’s becoming increasingly clear that regardless of ownership structure, every publisher is facing the same challenge: To make enough money to remain in business.

A bolt from the blue?

The NUJ described the Chronicle’s announcement as a ‘bolt from the blue.’ It had, however, been somewhat predicted by editor David Whaley’s at last year’s Society of Editor’s conference.

It had a searing honesty I left feeling those in the room needed to hear:

“In Oldham we’ve had an evening newspaper for 157 years. I’d like to think we play a big part in democracy.

“With the pressures on the pension fund deficit and other things one day we could walk in and the door won’t open, that’s the reality.”

Indeed, as far back as 2008, the Oldham Chronicle had reported losses. The collapse of the company which owned the Chronicle, a small independent publisher, is a massive loss to Oldham. It also should serve as a moment for the industry to assess what comes next – and which discussions we focus on.

All in it together

As events in Oldham have shown, regardless of ownership structure or profit requirement, if a publication isn’t making money, it can’t survive.

Journalists love a David v Goliath battle. Steve Dyson picked up that theme in his recent column on Holdthefrontpage entitled: “The future is beautifully small and beautifully local.” He celebrates a series of publishers entering the market – but is it that simple?

Look at the South London Press going into administration after being sold on to its managers by Tindle (before being bought), or the temporary shutdown of the Sunday Independent earlier this year. 

Both have benefitted from new owners coming in – but if small were beautiful, then surely that wouldn’t have been required. As Dave Whaley made so clear at the Society of Editors conference, working for a small publisher just brings different challenges.

The Cleethorpes Chronicle opened in the late 2000s, and claimed to be bringing a dedicated newspaper back to Cleethorpes for the first time in decades. By some commentators, it was heralded as what publishers should be doing: Keeping it local, being skeptical about digital and having faith in print.

It closed during the summer. I always thought it was a particularly innovative newspaper – simple things like publishing two weeks of what’s on every week because readers like to plan ahead impressed me – but when it closed its owners explained that the challenge to gain enough revenue was just too great.

Journalism’s challenge goes beyond ownership structure – it’s about revenue.

Ultimately every news brand is owned by someone. Very few of those someones are happy for their titles to run at a loss. They may only want a nominal return, such as some of the community-owned operations, or a finer margin than PLC shareholders demand, but a profit is still required. And in the global, tech-led world our readers have migrated to, scale is a huge asset for publishers.

One common battle

People I talk to in the independent sector say life is every bit as tough for them as it is for the bigger publishers.

Indeed, in some ways it can be tougher. At least larger publishers have the chance to chase down the benefits which come from scale as they seek to wrestle with the challenge which unites the industry: The migration of revenue from the gated, controlled garden of local print to the crowded local space that is digital. 

Years ago, being super local and seen as such was an insurmountable strength commercially. Two words changed that: Facebook and Google. They aren’t local, but they devote millions to make themselves first choice in the local market for digital advertising spend. They don’t spend a penny on creating content – and only recently have they actively sought to help publishers financially.  Should they do more? You bet.

That’s why I am circumspect about the long-term viability of the new generation of hyperlocal news publications in print. Are they providing something different to Facebook or Google, or have their clients not yet discovered what they can achieve locally through both?

How do you compete with that? Well, by being local, being trusted, and big enough to deliver what advertisers want: Big local audiences, with advertising placed in a brand-safe environment. Only publishers can offer that online, not platforms.

Digital is the only long-term future for local journalism

Digital is not replacing all of the money being lost in print. But it does contribute many many millions, and publishers which focus on driving audiences, and understanding those audiences, will be the ones who secure more revenue now and in the future.

The ones with the ability to invest in that future will also be the ones which prosper, finding new commercial solutions, new platforms for engagement, new training for journalists to focus as much on building community and writing copy, and new services which appeal to readers who, by extension, are consumers too.

Regularly, the strong online audience performances regional publishers report are mocked by commenters on sites such as Holdthefrontpage and Press Gazette. But those publishers are in a far better place in terms of revenue – and therefore cash to support journalism – than if they persisted with early 2000s strategies of trying to strangle digital presence to force readers into print.

 

For all we want to believe it, there is no evidence anywhere that investment in newspapers, or holding back digital, drives up revenue or newspaper sales. It’s been tried again and again. Indeed, it was widely predicted when the project I helped lead to turn Trinity Mirror’s regional newsrooms into digital-first operations that newspaper sales would decline sharply. They continued to move in line with the industry – only Trinity’s newsrooms saw huge growth in digital audiences, and revenue does follow that.

Understandably the National Union of Journalists always raises this point when newsroom reorganisations result in redundancies being announced: “If all this audience is doing so well, where’s the money?” Again, it comes back to where the revenue goes digitally. We need more of it, and have to work to get it. Ruling out digital as a viable future isn’t going to end well, and it’s sad that in 2017 that is even seen as an option for debate.

Our challenge is to make sure there is a future for local journalism in the digital world – because it’s where our readers are. We’d be in a much better place if we’d recognised that sooner – and also recognised that we needed to be listening to those readers.

What if there were no shareholders?

The NUJ, and others, like to plant all the problems with our industry at the doorstep of PLCs with shareholders and imply that removing those PLCs would solve the problems. Like many headline-grabbing arguments it works when shouted through a megaphone or dictated into a press release, but on closer inspection it falls down.

First off, it’s worth remembering that many shareholding institutions are also pension funds – ie the things most of us, including many journalists, are relying on for when we retire.

But what if PLCs suddenly didn’t offer attractive profit margins, and the shareholders upped sticks? It’s a question few people ask – but one which deserved thought. If those companies no longer existed, what would happen?

Maybe some towns and cities would get replacement publications. But based on history it’s safe to suggest many wouldn’t, and certainly not to the same scale of what is there presently.

And would these businesses be in a stronger position to safeguard the future of journalism? The evidence around us – in Cleethorpes, what happened to the SLP, to the Sunday Independent – doesn’t suggest so. There are success stories, of course, but enough evidence to back up the ‘future is small and beautiful argument?’ I don’t think so.

Protecting journalism through listening

What are the alternatives? A government subsidy for local news? It’s advocated by some but there are two reasons why I dislike this. The first is that it runs the risk of putting local journalism in hoc to those we seek to hold to account. Large organisations are better placed to weather such attempted influence, but it would be much harder for smaller organisations maybe employing just one or two journalists who also run the business.

The second reason is that public subsidy admits defeat on our ability as journalists to not just report on the important, but also to explain and engage with readers on why something we’re writing about is important. That part of the job is often overlooked.

Subsidy from Google and Facebook? Would that ever happen? They need to do more for sure, but whatever it is needs to be based on our ability to attract audiences to content.

Might we see wealthy business people investing in news because they think it’s important to do so? Perhaps – but as models go, it’s a shaky one. What happens when the wealth business person becomes less wealthy, or loses interest?

Often, people point to the hyperlocal space as a glimpse of the future. Maybe. The Drum’s write up on the digital only news outlet The Lincolnite’s approach to moving towards profitability by working on relationships with the next generation of ad spend controllers is fascinating. 

It’s not particularly popular to offer a counter view to the ‘big bad corporate’ one, and even harder when you work for one, not least because it’s quite likely you’ll be dismissed as a company man. It’s happened to me on more than one occasion.

It’s also often said that senior journalists working in large companies are keeping their heads down to keep bringing home a salary. That’s not my experience. They believe in the importance of finding a sustainable future for local journalism.

Such narratives deflect from the real issue in hand.

Sensible discussion surely concludes that the future of local journalism is most secure when it is tied to the sustainable success of businesses people want to invest in – be that a big PLC, a small independent or something inbetween. Pitching one against another achieves nothing.