The chilling impact the Government’s FOI Commission looks set to have on our right to know

If a picture tells a thousand words, then a screen grab of an article on the Guardian’s website is perhaps a bit of a con, but it sums up neatly the grave threat currently facing the Freedom of Information Act:

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The post-election review set up to look into the working of the Freedom Of Information Act has felt like a foregone conclusion. Its terms of reference were originally as follows:


Why reader comments matter if local journalism is to thrive online

Reader comments have been getting a bad press of late. As Roy Greenslade noted last week, a number of publishers have decided to dispense with them altogether.

PostMedia in Canada has put a pause on comments due to the vitriolic nature of many of the comments. I can understand that reaction – we’ve all seen stories which have involved many hours of hard work, only for the first two or three comments to set off a stream of racist bile which has little to do with the subject matter.

Other websites, reports the MediaBriefing, are ditching comments for other reasons, including to allow journalists to spend time on social media where, it is argued, readers would rather be sharing and discussing stories anyway.

Meanwhile, over the summer, the editor of the South Wales Argus, Kevin Ward, took to his blog to criticise the tone of comments appearing on his own website. “When did Britain become such an ugly country?” he asked, referring to comments which encouraging a suicidal man to to jump from a bridge, and backed an MP’s calls for water cannons to be used on refugees at Calais. Comments remain open and active on the Argus website.


When you look at the dictionary definition of clickbait, critics of popular content suddenly look like journalistic snobs

Not so many years ago, the worst slur a journalist could hit another journalist with, particularly in regional newspapers, was the accusation of being ‘too tabloid.’

These days, it’s to lob the claim that you’re writing ‘clickbait.’ Both insults have the same message: It’s not *real* journalism, it’s not what we’re here to do. It’s not what the public expect of us. And writing content which proves to be popular is not what we’re here for.

The problem with the clickbait challenge is that it means many things to many people. I’ve heard the clickbait accusation a lot since we first talked about audience goals for reporters at Trinity Mirror, where I’m digital publishing director for our regional titles.

Most of the people lobbing the word clickbait around are people who haven’t taken the time or trouble to understand what we’re actually doing. But one thing is very clear: Most people define clickbait differently, with only a notion of negativity links their definitions.

My definition of clickbait is a negative one: It’s content where the headline doesn’t reflect the content. Content which is destined to disappoint.

The Oxford dictionary, however, is more upbeat:


Proof the BBC just doesn’t understand the regional Press – but so easily could make a difference if it did

It’s easy to write a blog post bashing the BBC, especially when writing about the relationship the BBC has had with large parts of the regional press for a long time.

There’s no doubt that there has been a change in thinking and approach within parts of the BBC over the last year, perhaps triggered by the Revival of Local Journalism Conference, spearheaded by the Beeb and held at MediaCity.

I’ve sat on the regional journalism working group which was one of the results of that event for over a year now, working with colleagues from elsewhere within the regional Press, and from other sectors, such as local radio, the hyperlocal community, academia and, of course, a fair few BBC folk.

And I’ve enjoyed working with them. I think progress has been made. The BBC has listened and responded to concerns about lack of linking to original sources of content. It has tried to ensure credit is given where it is due – although national radio and TV remains a law unto itself, seemingly destined to disguise sources of material.

And there has been collaboration too, including a data journalism workshop, another workshop in the planning, support for Trinity Mirror’s Real Schools Guide across the BBC News website and early access to BBC projects which make new headlines for the regional press.

So the BBC’s new collaborative approach – a long time in the coming – is welcome. What I find incredibly frustrating is the insistence of the very top brass at the BBC to try and create a justifiable future for itself by diminishing the work of the local press in 2015.

Ever since James Harding, the head of news at the BBC, published his Future of News report last year – an excellent document in many respects, apart from the analysis of local newspapers – there has been an absolute failing to acknowledge that their view of the local press as articulated in that report is wide of the mark.

It marked a departure from his plaudits about the regional Press aired ahead of his revival of local journalism conference:

“Budgetary pressures have been brought to bear on regional newsrooms in recent years and there is a concern about the impact this is having on our society and our democracy. But is the pessimism overdone? Local newspapers are reinventing themselves for the age of mobile and social media; new forms of local journalism are emerging online; local and hyperlocal radio is proving to be commercially resilient, not to mention very popular; mobile phone operators are experimenting in the area; new television operators are starting out; and, from local radio to the nightly regional news on TV, we at the BBC see that nothing matters more to our audiences than what’s happening where they live.”

Is the pessimism overdone? Yes – and largely due to the BBC. Indeed, last week’s News Media Association report about the BBC was spot on when it said the BBC “misreads and overplays the imminent demise of other news media”.


For all the wisdom of how to do ‘social media’, surely only 4 rules are needed to keep out of trouble

This post popped up in my Facebook feed this morning, shared by a friend:

GMP Salford

As social media posts go on behalf of an organisation, it probably deserves a place in presentations about how to get it right.

It makes a serious point, is written in a friendly, engaging manner and achieves the right balance of humour with an underlying message: Fly tipping isn’t on.

In theory, such posts should be easy for anyone to do, regardless of their role in the organisation: Think like a human, talk like a human.


Jumping for joy: And why there’s more to A Level coverage than airborne teenagers

A Level results day brings back various memories for many reporters. Late-night inputting of every result in East Lancashire with fellow reporters at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph after someone had deemed we didn’t need extra copytakers to get them into the system is the first one which springs to mind.

But in the mind of many – particularly those who enjoy to parody the regional Press – it’s little more than lots of pictures of teenagers jumping in the air. Are they right? Well, sort of (and we’ll come to those picture in a bit).

A quick scan through today’s newspapers – most newsrooms were covering results day live via websites, m-sites and apps yesterday – shows a wide variety of takes on A Level results.

Triumph after tragedy – the relative of a Tunisia massacre victim celebrates his grades (Derby Telegraph)


Making the global local: Applying data journalism to bring stories closer to home

There has been a lot of coverage of the anniversary of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima, Japan. Long argued to have been the event which brought about the end for the Second World War, but also an event which killed tens of thousands of innocent people.

The Guardian’s look back at how the ‘Manchester Guardian’ as it was then covered the event provided a useful reminder that hindsight often packages up events in a way it isn’t possible to when details are still emerging. 

But the article which stood out to me was this one from the Indianapolis Star:


Why football writers shouldn’t fear being banned by football clubs

One of my favourite new phrases is ‘in-house journalist.’ As in: “We’re Swindon Town, we have an in-house journalist so we don’t need to talk to the local paper anymore.”

I like it because it is such an outrageous nonsense. If being a journalist really is just the ability to string a sentence together and making a shorthand note of what the manager wants to say, then something is very, very wrong.

Journalism should be, in my opinion, be defined as the pursuit of informing the reader in accurate, unrestricted way. Is it a craft, a professional or a trade? I don’t know, but hopefully the definition I’ve just outlined transcends that argument anyway.

So in that sense, anyone in the employ of a football club may have a journalism qualification, they may even have had many years working in a newsroom, and they may well still be using the same skills as journalists, but they aren’t committing acts of journalism. I know many fine journalists who have moved into PR – be it football clubs or other parts of that industry – but none would openly say they are now replacing the role of the local journalist.

Put simply, their role is to be club first. A sports journalist’s role is to be fan first. Not in the sense of being told what to do by fans, but always putting fans first in their work. Informing fans, debating with fans, reporting all sides for fans. The same argument should apply when the National Union of Journalists next decides to speak out in favour of council newspapers. That’s not journalism either – it’s PR on behalf of a public body, and not journalism. 


The BBC show that proves ‘clickbait’ isn’t the only stuff readers want

A lot has been written about the importance of audience metrics in newsrooms recently, and the predicted impact of assigning goals every month to individual journalists, something we’re about to start doing in one of the newsrooms I work with in Birmingham.

To be frank, a lot of what has been written has been ill-informed at best, based on the broad brush assumption that in the quest to get more people reading what we do, we have to appeal to what is seen as the lowest common denominator – essentially, regional cat gifs.

For as long as I have been fascinated by journalism, I have seen a very clear snobbery within it, with many journalists pinching their news at ‘popular’ news in favour of more ‘serious’ journalism. In national journalism, this often manifests itself with sneering between editorial departments and a superiority complex towards the popular press from what many call the unpopular press.

In the regional press, that snobbery manifests itself from time-to-time around user generated content, or parish pump material, despite the fact that faces sell papers – something the Derby Telegraph is proud to shout about when it announces over 200 faces in its weekly celebrations platform on a Tuesday.


Freedom of Information faces its biggest threat yet – here’s why


It shouldn’t be a surprise that a Government is planning to deliver what could be a devastating blow to the Freedom of Information Act. It probably should be a surprise, however, that it has taken so long.

This lunchtime, the Government, still in the first flush of ‘oh, so we really are in charge, aren’t we!’ thinking, announced a ‘commission’ to look at the Freedom of Information Act.

The Government’s position is pretty plain. Michael Gove, the former FOI-dodging education secretary who tried to claim sending emails via gmail and not government accounts meant they weren’t covered by the Act, set out the government’s view pretty clearly shortly after becoming justice secretary.

At the heart of this commission is the concern that civil servants don’t feel they can speak freely for fear of what they say, or more aptly write, ending up becoming public via the Freedom of Information Act. Call me a cynic if you wish, but I spy a smokescreen aimed at making it harder for those in power to be held accountable by those who ultimately pay their wages – you and I.

Why do I think that? Some reasons: