Learning from hyperlocals to make sure the news still matters

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How do you define success as a local journalist these days? Number of front pages? Number of page views online? A sense of job well done at the end of the week?

All of the above make sense in the here-and-now, an instant sign of job well done. But to find the key to a sustainable future, future, maybe journalists need to look at things a little different.

Big numbers against digital audiences are great, and very important. We saw that in this week’s half-yearly release of the ABCes in the UK for the regional press. But uniques and page views only tell part of the story, and they don’t tell the really important bit: What people think of you.

So to define success, you need to define how you want people to think of you. Most people want to be liked, but that’s probably not a great place for a news organisation to start. Being able to prove that you are trusted, seen as reliable, and seen as useful and entertaining are probably the goals we should be aiming for.

Audience metrics allow us to see this, and newsrooms I work with increasingly focus on pages per visit, visits per user, time spent on site, increase in ‘brand visits’ – people visiting directly or via searches based on the brand name –  and volume of organic shares on social media. For organisations which can offer metrics to support newsrooms in monitoring this – think BuzzSumo, or Chartbeat – now is a very good time to be in business.

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Top 10 most read journalism posts of 2011 on this blog

When I first started this blog, I was determined that it wouldn’t just be my opinion on stuff, or rants about stuff, either. I’m not sure how well I’ve done in achieving that aim – but going through the most read posts of 2011 (I’ve done a separate list of FOI posts here):

Manchester Evening News front page1. Is this the most jaw-dropping CCTV still ever?

Do you remember the days when a police call which involved a promise of CCTV was pretty much always guaranteed to end up with a long battle with technology or a trip to the cop shop to pick up a grainy image which had more in common with Magic Eye pictures than it did with 20:20 sharp focus?

Friday’s first edition front page of the Manchester Evening News carries what I think is probably the most striking, and shocking CCTV still I’ve ever seen on a newspaper.

2. 10 Social Network search engines for journalists

Google Realtime, the search engine which was intended to integrate social network updates into Google, has been suspended, the company announced at the weekend.

Whether it returns at all remains to be seen – in my opinion, it’s the sort of tool Google can’t afford to be without.

It was a very useful tool for journalists too, especially as the ‘say what you see’ culture on Twitter exploded, providing excellent first-hand accounts and sources for reporters, especially local ones.

But there are plenty of other social network search engines worth checking out. Here are 10 of the best.

3. Council spending data: 10 tips for journalists looking for stories

Today marks the deadline for councils to start publishing details of all spending over £500. Local government minister Eric Pickles says he expects all councils to be as open as possible. Some, such as Liverpool, have admitted they’ll miss that deadline, and final details of exactly how all councils should produce the information has yet to be issued.

So how should journalists deal with the data? Here are ten points which I hope might help…

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Credit the picture, but not the story? A Blottr paradox

While compiling FOI Friday this week, I spotted this story on Blottr: Over 40,000 weapons seized at courts in Birmingham.

Blottr describes itself as ‘the people-powered news service.’ It’s a way for ‘citizen journalists’ – I stick the phrase in quote marks because I’m never sure how many people would consider themselves to be citizen journalists – to get their stories out to an audience on an established network.

Read all about it ... normally here first

The story stood out for me for one reason – a confused policy towards crediting sources. The picture at the top of the story carries a picture credit at the bottom of the article. The source of the story – the front page of the Birmingham Mail that day – does not get a credit.

It was a reporter for the paper’s FOI request which led to the story making the front page.

It isn’t the only story on Blottr’s Birmingham page to have appeared on the site after appearing in the Birmingham Mail. Newspaper newsrooms are used to that – after all, the BBC have been doing it for years.

But if you advocate crediting for pictures – and indeed, birminghammail.net gets picture credits on the site – then surely you should credit the source of a story too.

Hyperlocal sites up and down the country have shown that the ability for anyone to publish news can lead to a richer sharing of content and information, providing material and coverage of events and stories which wouldn’t get covered elsewhere.

They know there’s a difference between volume of content and content which stands out. It’s a lesson the minority of sites which do seem follow the lead of the local newspaper – to put it politely – could do with learning.

It’s therefore a shame that a ‘citizen journalism news service’ appears to be not so much powered by the people, as powered by the local newspaper.

It feels like an opportunity missed.

Learning from #hyperlocal: An effective way of making councillors accountable

Up and down the country, the annual budget meetings are taking place at local councils. Town Hall budgets are being slashed due to government cuts with most councils having to make very difficult decisions.

Central government has been quite good at passing the buck on the cuts – indeed, the fact local government is bearing the brunt so much is, in part, because ministers can remove themselves from the difficult local cuts which follow.

At a local level, there’s been the usual mixed picture of blame. Some councils have been very vocal in their opposition to the cuts, such as Liverpool and Manchester, and the government has replied that these councils are cutting more frontline services than they have to, just to make a political point.

Other councils are preferring to do their lobbying behind closed doors, arguing that they can have more influence away from the spotlight. Opposition councillors in these areas will hope they can use this lack of public criticism from councils to their advantage when the election comes.

And then, of course, there are the councils who have very little to complain about as a result of the new funding formula which saw dozens of grants placed into one pot and then distributed evenly across the country, with no recognition of deprivation in an area.

Ventnor Blog, the Isle of Wight hyperlocal site, has come up with a brilliant way of making sure people know who to blame for the cuts which come their way over the next 12 months. Regardless of the reasons for the budget cuts, local councillors are the ones taking the decisions on what gets cut, and therefore they are the ones who should be held accountable.

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Councils and hyperlocal ‘bloggers’: It’s the council system which needs changing, not how people are allowed to cover them

A lot of discussion today around Eric Pickles’ demand that councils ‘open up their public meetings to local news ‘bloggers’ and allow filming of council meetings as standard.

According to the Department of Communities and Local Government, Mr Pickles feels this is essential  ‘to ensure all parts of the modern-day media are able to scrutinise Local Government.’

The press release from the department states: “Local Government Minister Bob Neill has written to all councils urging greater openness and calling on them to adopt a modern day approach so that credible community or ‘hyper-local’ bloggers and online broadcasters get the same routine access to council meetings as the traditional accredited media have.”

Much as this positive statement is welcome, I can’t help but think it misses the point somewhat. The problem with ‘scruntinising local government’ is not about who has what access, but the way in which local government operates.

On the point on hyperlocal bloggers – the government’s term, not mine – having meetings ‘opened up to them’ this should never have been an issue in the first place. Most council meetings are public meetings, and there should be nothing to stop ‘bloggers’ attending these meetings in the first place.

The issue, so far as I can tell, has been the differentiation between ‘blogger’ and mainstream media. The example cited in the press release involved Tameside Council accrediting mainstream media outlets to liveblog from meetings. Tameside’s argument was that too many people liveblogging could have disrupted the meeting.

Tameside appears to be the exception rather than the rule in this respect. If you look at Manchester City Council, it enjoys live coverage from the Manchester Evening News’s political team as well as others who wouldn’t fall into the bracket of ‘mainstream media.’ At the other end of the scale, Trafford Council banned all media from tweeting from a council meeting last year. So it’s by no means normal for councils to treat different parts of the media in different ways. Then the examples of those people who are able to cover meetings live already, such as Jason Cobb in Lambeth and Richard Taylor in Cambridge.

Liveblogging from council meetings should be an essential part of a political journalist’s job – but it’s important that we don’t confuse being able to liveblog with believing we’re holding a council to account.

So, even if we now have a situation where hyperlocal bloggers and the mainstream media are treated on an equal footing when it comes to what you can do in the council chamber,  we won’t actually be any closer to what Pickles described as scrutiny of local government.

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#Hyperlocal crime data arrives

There will be a lot of fuss in this morning’s papers about the arrival of the new police mapping tool Police.uk

Police division crime data has been available for a long time, but for the first time, details of a number of crimes will be mapped right down to street level.

Vehicle crime and anti-social behaviour are two of the examples given.

You can also access the data files behind the numbers.

How handy it becomes for journalists remains to be seen. The nationals, not surprisingly, have used it to compile the most dangerous streets in the UK. No-one who knows Preston will be surprised to see Glovers Court – a street with a lot of bars – is near the top.

Going forward, it’s a resource which I suspect will become handy when writing about anti-social behaviour or crimes in general – a handy reference to give scale to stories.

It could also generate stories if referred to every month – the top streets for burglaries in an area, for example.

But it’s real strength will probably be unlocked by hyperlocal sites. Just being able to scroll around and see where crimes were committed is potentially a very powerful tool.

It’s a site journalists everywhere should bookmark.

Update: Two good posts about this new site:

Mike Rawlins looks at how to use it on Talkaboutlocal

LouLouK casts a more critical eye over the new site

The top 10 most read posts on this blog in 2010

I write about all sorts of stuff on this blog, but try to stay focussed on the stuff I think people would want to read about, so check the top posts stats quite a lot.

I’m always amazed that so many people read my blog, and thanks to everyone who takes the time to read my posts and comment on them.

With the clock ticking down to 2011, I thought it might be worth seeing which posts were the most-read in 2010. Happy New Year everybody.

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