FOI: A hospital’s shameful secret, and the pathetic attempts to keep the public in the dark

The Manchester Evening New broke a story on Wednesday night which was result of months of hard work. It was a story which should chill the bones of any parent living in North Manchester, or any journalist who believes that those running hospitals should do so in an open and transparent way.

I’m not alone in falling into both categories on this one. It’s a story which shames the NHS, and shames the people who tried to keep a lid on it – the very people who were sent into a hospital because it was deemed to be failing. The fact they tried to keep the scale of those failings out of the public domain should shock us all.

By now, you’ve probably heard of the story. Social Affairs Editor Jennifer Williams got hold of a review into maternity services at hospitals run by the Pennine Hospitals Trust. It was a report which contained findings including:


The Second City Derby and the other problem with Facebook Trending


The ‘Second City Derby’ took place yesterday – between Aston Villa and Birmingham City. Having worked with the Birmingham Mail for almost a decade, I now understand why so many fans of the two sides get so frustrated with the national media’s attitude to the city’s football clubs.

You don’t need to spend a long time with fans of Blues, Villa, West Brom (not in Birmingham I know) and other Midlands teams to know that they are as passionate as any other set of fans, so the constant referencing by radio commentators and media pundits to the ‘passion on show’ from the fans always suggests more about how much Midlands football is ignored most of the time than anything else.

It made an appearance in the Facebook Trending box on my timeline today too – or rather, a reference to Gary Gardner, who scored for Villa, appeared.


How a ‘slow news week’ can separate the local Press stars from the critics on the sidelines



One of the myths swirling around Hackademia these days – and among many commentators who have exited day-to-day life within the regional press – is that focusing on audience analytics somehow undermines quality journalism.

And of course, there is a risk of that being the case. It depends on how you use the metrics. But a point made by Ian Carter, the editorial director of Kent Messenger group this week, reminded me that in many ways, there’s nothing new under the regional Press sun.

Yes, the platforms have changed. Yes, the audiences have changed. Yes, the habits of readers have changed (something many of the naysayers overlook). But the risk of being too internally focused at the expense of serving readers is no more likely than it was in the days of print.


Two charts which show the regional press has challenges – but credibility isn’t one of them

Another week, another academic popping up to shout ‘CLICKBAIT’ and ‘LISTICLES’ and heralding the end of local journalism as we know it – or perhaps how they remember it.

Maybe I shouldn’t rise to the bait, but then again, I’m quite opinionated. And I’m happy to debate the approach the newsrooms I work with take to local news in the 21st century with anyone who cares about the role of the local Press in challenged times.

But when I see Holdthefrontpage leading with the claims of an academic – this time a chap called Sean Dodson, of Leeds Beckett University – which are so outlandish (but I guess make for a good headline) I think it’s important to respond with facts. He’s published part of a chapter he’s written for a forthcoming book about how the local press survives as print declines.


Why the regional press has a greater sense of purpose than ever


In an article headlined ‘What’s the point of the regional Press’, The MediaBriefing earlier this week outlined an argument for why the regional Press no longer had a purpose.

The basis of the argument – you can read it here – can be broadly summed up like this: Facebook has launched its buy-and-sell marketplace service to take on Craigslist and ebay. The fact the regional press won’t suffer here because they’ve already lost classifieds to online verticals tells us there’s not much more for the regional press to lose. And as it loses more reporters it loses it purpose in life which is to be connected with local people, and we know this to be true because the NUJ says so. 

I suspect the headline was designed to be provocative, and to make you click the link to read it.

You won’t be surprised to learn I disagree strongly with the sentiments expressed on the MediaBriefing, partly because I care a lot about the role of the regional press, and partly because of the facts I know to be true.

Dealing with the second point first – some facts. Online audiences are at record levels for regional press titles. The ones I work with are about four times as big as they were five years ago, and the local reach of the titles I work with means those titles are now read by more people daily than at any point since the 1970s.

Those people reading them are reading for longer when they visit, and returning more often. Facebook may have put a greater emphasis on news from friends and families in its feeds, but we haven’t seen traffic from Facebook drop as a result. That tells me that people are sharing our links because they want their friends to see them. That, surely, points to a purpose which is stronger than ever.

If we do it right, we connect with people by giving them what they want, and then build a relationship with them so that when we have something we consider to be important to share with them, they are more likely to listen. Signing up for push notifications is a great example of this in real life.


Impact journalism: Lessons from a comedian’s success in analysing the news


The ‘impact’ journalism has is in danger of replacing ‘online ethics’ as the topic du jour – but maybe for once the subject is one we should all be diving into.

Providing recent analysis on how the American media is covering the US elections, Jeff Jarvis wrote on Medium:

We most certainly need to look at the impact our work has, not only in how interested parties exploit it, not only in how the public interprets it, but also in how effective it is in performing our key job: informing the public. Was the public better informed after this story?

In other words, it’s not just enough to write a story, file it and move on. We need to consider whether it will have an impact on readers. If we look at a story and conclude it won’t have an impact, then we need to ask why we’re writing it in the first place.

Because if an article doesn’t have an impact on a reader, then why would they remember it? And if they don’t remember it, then presumably we’ve lost the race to get that reader’s attention the next time they are looking for something online.

80% of the race for impact will be determined by making sure journalists use the right method to tell a story. Note that in the last paragraph, I used the word article. Whereas once an article in the Press was determined by length – nib, top, grout, lead, spread, splash etc – journalists now have a far wider range of ways to tell stories.


FOI Friday: The stories made possible thanks to FOI in September 2016

FOI ideas image: Yarn Deliveries

A look at some of the stories made possible thanks to FOI laws in the UK – most of which can easily be replicated elsewhere…

Ambulances called to one house 500 times < Kent Online

The astonishing figure came to light following a freedom of information request by the KM Group that exposed the full extent of the volumes of 999 calls from a handful of properties across the county.

Another address in Tonbridge was responsible for 467 calls while another in Swanscombe generated 446.

Scale of Post Office closures < Yorkshire Post

Fears have been raised over the sustainability of rural communities as it emerges nearly 40 per cent of all Post Offices in Yorkshire have been shut down since the year 2000.

The Post investigation, based on Freedom of Information requests to the Post Office, found that 614 branches – 39 per cent – have been closed in Yorkshire.

Hospitals attacked by computer hackers < West Briton

Cyber criminals have made “multiple” attacks on Cornwall’s main hospital in the past year with repeated attempts to hold health bosses to ransom by stealing sensitive information.

According to a Freedom of Information (FoI) request, the IT system of the Royal Cornwall Hospitals Trust (RCHT) was once infected ransom-ware, a type of malicious software designed to block access to a computer system until a sum of money is paid.

According to the FoI, the RCHT has experienced “multiple attacks” through cyberspace in the past 12 months.

Finding out more about police dispersal orders < Cambridge News

A fascinating article appeared in the Cambridge News, with a prominent credit to the man behind the FOI, local campaigner Richard Taylor. He sought to find out the background to dispersal order powers police had sought ahead of a game between Cambridge United and Luton.


The FOI response which revealed a little too much

Ever sent an email then realised you’ve probably said too much?

I think we all have.

Ever sent an email then realised you’ve probably said too much, then realised your email will auto-publish on a website which helps people submit Freedom of Information requests?

That’ll just be Natalie Hatswell of Devon and Cornwall Police then.


Facebook needs to offer newsrooms a panic button for important stories

33904_cooldnn20facebook20likeShortly before the elections in the summer, I was sat outside Dublin Airport trying to get an Uber ride to the Irish Mirror. A pop-up appeared on my screen telling me it was important to make sure I’d registered to vote.

Uber – reminding me of my civic duty to vote. Doing, in some ways, what the media has always tried to do, combining a role in civic life with the need to appeal to people, and occasionally being prepared to say to readers sometimes: “Hey, this is important.”

But how do we do that in a world of distributed platforms, and where eyeballs = money in the bank?

It’s a dilemma every social media editor will have faced — the need to get something out which is clearly important versus the very real risk that if readers on Facebook don’t feel it’s important, all in the knowledge that the signals Facebook will pick up will suggest you’ve suddenly got bad at knowing what your readers want.

And then Facebook penalises your subsequent posts, reaching fewer people than expected. And so the world of playing to get back in Facebook’s algorithmic good books begins. How do you overcome that?


But this isn’t a post to join the chorus of people decrying Facebook as ‘journalism’s public enemy number one,’ as the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade rather sensationally announced last week. In fact, it’s wrong to say Facebook is journalism’s biggest problem. Facebook is a symptom of two problems facing journalism.


As Facebook’s ‘fake news’ shows, the brightest future for news involves blending data insight and gut instinct

biff chip and craig

In the learn-to-read book, Craig, Biff and Chip found out they’d saved Pudding Wood by reading about it in the newspaper. How do we make sure online we’re the place to turn to for such news?

Facebook came under fire from the news industry this week for automating the trending news widget – until now, it had been a process which allowed for human intervention.

The problem with automation, it turns out, is that it allows fake news in. Facebook, of course, had to defend itself against claims of potential bias in the trending box when it did allow journalists employed by the social network giant to decide what went where.

For journalists getting to grips with the digital age, the dilemma facing Facebook will have a familiar ring to it. Do you go with what the audience tells you they want through their actions (Facebook talks about signals, newsrooms talk about audience data), or do you go with what your instinct as journalist tells you?

The answer, as with many things, is surely taking the best of both. Journalism’s success – and especially regional journalism’s success – is now inextricably linked with popularity amongst readers. That doesn’t necessarily mean biggest audience is always best, but every news organisation is seeking the right size of the right audience to sustain itself into the future.

That right audience may be just one of scale, as that drives a certain level of revenue on the back of it. Or it might be a smaller audience which values the content enough to pay for it, or register for it. Or, as is likely the case for many regional publishers, the right audience is surely a primarily local audience of a size no other news organisation can hold a candle to.

So what’s the best way to reach that audience? Facebook’s success is down to a combination of great product – giving people something useful – and superb relevance of what it serves up. Both aspects are built, refined and refined again using the ‘signals’ users send in the form of audience data.

Over the summer, the pursuit of the right size of local audience has been under the microscope after criticism from journalists who have recently left the organisation I work for, Trinity Mirror. I believe debate about what we do and the way we do it is healthy – we expect the right to scrutinise others, so we should expect to be scrutinised ourselves – so long as it’s a constructive debate rooted in fact, rather than personal opinion.

The editor of trade website Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, attempted to sum up the debate like this: