Facebook and journalism: After the storm, the challenge remains remarkably simple (but at the same time, very challenging)

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Oh no, another blog about ‘what Facebook’s latest change means for journalism.’ Hopefully, though I’m offering something new in what follows.

That, hopefully, is because I have the benefit of writing three weeks after Facebook unleashed a fresh wave of stormy weather on the media by seemingly backing away from news. And video, for that matter, but more on that later. It’s argument went: “It’s good for people to talk to each other, rather than having long, passive experiences on Facebook with brands.”

A week later, it said news would still be important, just not as important, and it would rely to an extent on public perception of brands to determine which to prioritise. Like many journalists, I believe that’s a recipe for boosting news sites which play to people’s prejudices and emotions for attention, rather than start from a point delivering useful news, information and, indeed, journalism. But more power to the people.

Then came the local news announcement, promising prioritisation for local news in feeds, based, from what I understand, on an assessment of what’s local to where you live, whether you follow that brand or whether friends are sharing links from that brand. It’s more power to the people.

It’s like Facebook realises it is in the customer service industry or something. And maybe that’s the biggest lesson for journalism here. If we want the public to value important journalism, we can’t rely on others to join the dots for us.

Those whinging, moaning publishers

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When national goes local, and the other way round too…

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Every week, millions of people rely on their local newspapers and websites to keep them informed of what is happening in their area. When seen together, they can paint a picture of life in the UK in a way no other collection of stories can. Life is local – and this is a look at the front pages which stood out over the last seven days

Listening to 5Live on Monday morning, I clearly wasn’t alone in thinking the Carillion story would be one which ultimately ended up with a last-minute rescue, followed by much political finger-pointing.

When the news broke just before 7am that the firm had liquidated itself, there was a gasp in the studio. The news agenda was rewritten at a stroke, and the political debate for the week formed.

But what was obvious quickly was that a firm employing tens of thousands of people would also be a huge influencer of the local economy in the towns and cities where it was based, so it was no surprise that it dominated Tuesday’s front pages, not least in Wolverhampton, where the company had an HQ.

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Life is Local: Erm, maybe the NHS is in crisis

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Every week, millions of people rely on their local newspapers and websites to keep them informed of what is happening in their area. When seen together, they can paint a picture of life in the UK in a way no other collection of stories can. Life is local – and this is a look at the front pages which stood out over the last seven days

The New Year began with what is rapidly becoming a tradition – problems. in the NHS as winter prompted a rise in demand. Who’d have thunk it? The government’s decision to tell hospitals they could cancel all non-urgent operations in January prompted accusations of the NHS being in crisis.

“Oh no,” replied the government. “It’s not a crisis, because we planned for this to happen.”

But if it looks like a crisis, smells like a crisis, is felt to be a crisis by those involved, is it a crisis? Certainly a crisis-like problem made it on to the front pages of regional papers across the UK this week:

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Making ripples in 2017: Why we need to learn to listen to each other more, and make decisions based on fact, not hope

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One of the great things about my job is I get to meet great people, every week, who care deeply about regional journalism. They are people who aren’t blind to the significant challenges the industry faces, but are trying to do something about it.

The risks of writing this post are multiple. I could offend colleagues who I don’t mention. I may mention someone who thoroughly disagrees with me generally and I end up looking a bit silly as a result. This could end up as a the basis of an article on Holdthefrontpage, thus inviting its commenting community to chuck metaphorical cabbages at me along the lines of ‘who does he think he is?’

And then there’s the risk to the people I may mention here. I wrote a similar post last year, largely in response to Holdthefrontpage blogger Steve Dyson’s annual ‘regional heroes’ list, which I felt focused very much on the negatives within our industry (in fairness, they do dominate the headlines). Dyson later referred to this list being ‘the corporate speaking.‘ So apologies to anyone who loses their street cred from what follows!

Having said all that, perhaps it’s odd to start with arguably one of the darkest moments of the regional press this year, in August when the Oldham Evening Chronicle became the first daily newspaper in the UK to go into administration in recent times.

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Call this news? If the readers say so, then sure!

I suspect I wasn’t the only person to work within the regional press who sighed when Buzzfeed popped up on Friday with their annual critique of local newspapers.

It’s hardly new, wrapping a mixture of headlines which either fail an individual’s ‘call this news?’ test or which seem utterly bonkers. The latter often looks like this:

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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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