In local journalism, sometimes some things never change

One of the many lessons I learnt from wise editors was that you could tell the strength of a newspaper by the strength of its letters page.

The logic, I guess, is simple: If people care enough about what they’ve read to write in and have their say, you’re probably doing something right. I suspect it is also a reason why those mass send-out charity appeal letters were so frowned upon by some editors I’ve worked with.

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Data journalism, robots … and predictions on where we go from here

 

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At Google’s latest Digital News Initiative conference, held in Amsterdam last week, there were plenty of ideas being discussed around what the future of news looked like.

The DNI involves Google investing millions of pounds in projects put forward by media organisations large and small from across Europe, which could help shape the future of the media and support the development of journalism in the years to come.

Britain’s Press Association was one of the biggest winners this time, securing over 700,000 Euros to fund a new news service which will generate 30,000 local news stories a month sourced from data … and written by ‘robots’.

A team of five journalists will spot stories in data sets and then use artificial intelligence to create potentially hundreds of versions for different locations – hence the notion of robots.

AI-powered (Artifical Intelligence) journalism has been bubbling for a number of years. In America, Chicago Tribune publisher Tronc plans to use AI to auto-generate up to 2,000 videos a day to support stories, news agency AP has increased its volume of earnings reports from business announcements by 10-fold using AI (with the firm saying there are fewer errors than when humans did them), and the same company is now using AI to write minor baseball league reports.

At the Washington Post, ‘robots’ are deployed to write results of some elections, and also for sport. At the LA Times, a bot automatically sends out alerts whenever an earthquake is recorded – an inadvertently alarmed people about an earthquake predication for 2025 after a bug entered the system which powered the data the LA Times relies on.

So are we at a tipping point where technology now replaces reporters in newsrooms up and down the UK? I don’t think so – especially if we embrace their potential. Here’s why:

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Greggs opening drive thrus and the perception problem caused by unbundled content

greggs

Earlier this week, British Press trade website Press Gazette ran an article suggesting Trinity Mirror was forcing regional newsrooms to write clickbait.

Its evidence came in the form of a anonymous tip-off apparently from a journalist who said colleagues were ‘appalled’ at a ‘three-line whip’ to write an article which said Greggs – the bakers – had no plans to open a drive thru restaurant near them.

The article had appeared on multiple websites around the country, localised. Some newsrooms had pushed the story on social media, others hadn’t. The smell of a story guaranteed to go to the top of Press Gazette’s ‘most read’ was presumably as alluring as a steak bake when hungover for the team at UKPG. It certainly hooks readers in the same way that sausage roll smell does for many at lunchtime at Greggs.

The premise of the story, the three-line whip, is wrong. No such three-line whip exists. Greggs has opened a drive-thru in Greater Manchester, and as such titles around there published a story. Another title then ran a story about the fact Greggs was opening a drive-thru away from their area because they assumed local people (who probably go to Greggs or at least have a view on whether they’d go to a Greggs drive-thru) would be interested. They were.

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FOI Friday: Criminals applying to be taxi drivers, citizenship test failures and common names for crooks

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

Would be taxi drivers and their criminal convictions < Lincolnshire Live

Sex offenders who have assaulted children in the past have applied to become taxi drivers in Lincolnshire, new data has revealed.

Figures from the Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) show that those who applied to become cabbies between 2012/13 and 2015/16 included people with a combined total of 18 convictions for indecent assault, including 12 on children aged under 16.

A total of 869 applications from across the area between 2012/13 and 2015/16 were revealed to have previous convictions, out of 4,238 applications, with a total of 5,596 previous convictions, according to exclusive figures revealed following a Freedom of Information request.

Citizenship test pass rates < Manchester Evening News

More than half of the people taking the British citizenship test in Oldham failed last year – one of the highest proportions in the country.

Exclusive figures obtained under Freedom of Information laws show a total of 552 people took the test in Oldham in 2016. Of those, 330 – or 60% – failed.

The most common first names for criminals <  Yorkshire Post

The most common first names of criminals in West Yorkshire have been revealed by police. Men or boys named Daniel were linked to 632 local crimes last year, making it the most common criminal name across the county.

Which countries do hospital staff come from? < DevonLive

New figures have revealed a Devon hospital relies on 98 staff from the EU, which some fear could lead to a staffing crisis as the Brexit process continues.

So far no deal has been made with the EU regarding the fate of EU nationals living and working in the UK. Many health commentators are concerned about the number of NHS jobs filled by workers from the EU.

A Freedom of Information Request to Northern Devon Healthcare Trust was made by Liberal Democrat general election candidate for Torridge and West Devon, David Chalmers.

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Ignored by the party leaders? Maybe local journalism needs to come off the fence

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Local journalism has long been proud of its impartiality when it comes to covering elections. But in failing to see that it’s possible to offer endorsements while still providing balanced coverage, aren’t we effectively making ourselves irrelevant in the most important local conversation of all?

An investigation into the access afforded to local journalists by political parties was published The Bureau of Investigative Journalism on Friday. It concluded that both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn were short-changing local journalists during the general election.

This won’t come as a surprise to many local journalists – indeed, the Bureau began looking into the issue, and spoke to dozens of local journalists, on the back of hearing about Cornwall Live’s experience with prime minister Theresa May early in the campaign. May’s people refused permission for the website to film the PM, and kept reporters well away from much of the visit.

The Bureau concluded that May has done interviews with regional media, but often has little of substance to say. Plymouth Herald chief reporter Sam Blackledge summed up the experience I’m sure many have experienced brilliantly here. Corbyn, on the other hand, has done fewer interviews, but has given better answers according to some.

general-election-2017

I’ve seen examples which contradict both conclusions – May certainly delivered an answer to ChronicleLive’s Mike Kelly when he opened a press conference with a zinger of a question, while Corbyn made it quite clear he had no intention of talking to BBC North West Tonight when he visited Salford, and the subsequent package on the evening news (which I can’t find online) should shame the Labour Party.

But there’s no denying it’s becoming harder with each election that passes to get the national parties to take the local press seriously. The election of 2005, when I interviewed Tony Blair the day before the poll as was impressed by his apparent depth of knowledge about local issues, seems much longer ago than the 12 years which have passed. Cynics at the time said ‘he was just well briefed.’ These days, even that would be nice.

So what do we do about it, and why is this the case? I suspect local interviews are seen as a potential banana skin to be avoided at all costs. Much better (for the campaign) to be seen in Huddersfield, in front of a hand-picked audience of factory workers, preaching about issues which match the surroundings than risk actually engaging in those local issues.

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Manchester: The spread which shows how a nation cares

The Manchester Evening News carried a supplement on Saturday, reflecting on the week’s events which shook the nation, but made a city stronger.

The front page of that supplement has been widely shared online:

men supp

Inside the supplement is a spread of front pages from around the UK this week, anchored by the MEN’s fronts this week which have both set the tone and reflected the mood in the city over the past seven days:

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Manchester: Regional press front pages share horror, grief … and a determination to support those suffering

The terror attack on the Manchester will dominate the news for days to come. It was one of those events which stops you in your tracks, and poses so many questions.

For regional newsrooms across the UK, it was another occasion where the lines between ‘local’ and ‘national’ news were blurred by the fact events in Manchester were the only thing people were thinking about.

As today’s front pages show, this was a tragedy which stretched way beyond the city in which it was inflicted. Stories of escaping, of helping, of grieving and of helping dominate pages of the regional Press from across the UK.

The obvious place to start is in Manchester, with this front page from the Evening News:

terrorm MEN

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