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.

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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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General Election 2015: Learning from hyperlocal sites across the UK

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Last week, I blogged that the General Election seemed to be the moment the regional press came of age online, such was the confidence, ability and familiarity demonstrated by many newsrooms online.

And if a five-year gap between elections creates a good check point for the regional press, the same too can be said for hyperlocal journalism.

There are many reasons why people embark on hyperlocal websites, with many relying on volunteers propelled by a sense of social and community commitment to keep going. Damian Radcliffe, writing on the Online Journalism Blog, made the point that there remains a degree of snobbery in ‘mainstream journalism’ towards hyperlocal journalism. If that is the case (and I suspect there continues to be an element of that), then hopefully this post might help towards conquering that.

Because many hyperlocal websites had a very good general election, and here are 10 ideas for journalists elsewhere to consider:

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No, the 2015 general election was not the social media election

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One of the many predications given ahead of the 2015 general election was that it was going to be ‘the social media election.’

Similar predictions were made in 2010, but in hindsight it really wasn’t. But what about 2015?

I suppose it depends how you define what it would it would take to remember a general election by the impact social media had on it. So my conclusion is that no, rather like 2010, social media did not define the general election. Therefore 2015 was not the social media election.

That’s not to say it didn’t have a much bigger impact on the journalism surrounding the 2015 general election than ever before. It certainly did. In 2010, Twitter was still treated with suspicion or outright contempt by many journalists. Facebook was still, for the majority of journalists, a personal, rather than professional, space.

In 2015, social media sat at the centre of media coverage of the general election. Sky News built a whole part of its election website around social discussion, breaking out sentiment by age and sex, for example. 

The Press Association ran a UK politics page for Facebook, Tweets were referenced in content everywhere, and politicians and political parties were alert to the fact any post from them on social media was likely to attract mainstream media attention quickly.

But that’s where I think it fell down somewhat. Social media, for many politicians, remains a broadcast tool. It might have sat at the heart of election strategies – the Tories are rumoured to have spent fortunes on Facebook advertising – but the communication was very much one way.

And until that changes, I struggle to see how we can ever have a social media election – because until politicians realise that they need to have individual conversations on social media in the same way they do on the doorstep, they won’t be harnessing the power of social media properly.

To say social media is a powerful tool for change is rather like remarking that water is wet. Campaigns are won within days. The Manchester Evening News raised £1.4m in 24 hours for a burning dogs homes, thanks largely to people sharing on social media. Petitions, such as the one for a parliamentary debate on Hillsborough, reach their 100,000 target in days thanks to sharing on Twitter. Yet faced with the potential to connect with a large number of people, politicians seem determined to keep just shouting at them.

Indeed, at times Twitter’s best attribute to politicians has seemed to be the 140-character limit, providing politicians with a way to say as little as possible, but still get their message across. It’s not supposed to be like that.

There are exceptions, of course. Nicola Sturgeon has been widely acclaimed for her use of Twitter. She’s far from the first to be good on social. Ed Balls used to be active too, once giving me directions to a football ground. So to was John Prescott, once balling me out for disagreeing with him. But for every great political Twitter account i mention to someone, I invariably get back the question: “Ah, but do you know if s/he writes it themselves?”

The answer is that I don’t know. But what I do know is that the big political parties treat social media the same way they do every other form of communication: The more people you can reach for the least amount of effort, the better.

And while that approach works when determining the merit of a wrap in a local newspaper, or buying Facebook advertising, it misses the point of social media entirely. And as a result, the likes of Sturgeon are few and far between.

This isn’t a ‘let’s bash social media’ blog. It’s hopefully a ‘let’s get real’ blog post. Social media works so well because it fits into people’s lives, and reflects the real world too. Treat Twitter like you would going into the pub is a common piece of advice. Reply to people, and listen to them, is another. Be useful is another. The political parties miss all of these points but probably pat themselves on the back for the reach of a Tweet or Facebook post.

An MP last autumn boasted to me: “My local newspaper only sells 10,000 copies a week but a post on my Facebook people can be seen by 40,000 people. What do you think of that?”

In hindsight, my reply should have been: “I think you should focus on talking to people locally, rather than getting carried away by meaningless global numbers, you nugget.” Sadly, it wasn’t.

Social media does have the power to determine an election in the future, in a far more democratic way than any traditional media outlet could ever claim to do (and let’s be frank, has The Sun really ever won an election, or has it just always ensured it’s backing the winning horse?)

The right party, with the right message, could do exactly what Barack Obama did a decade ago and bring together many people and secure a victory against the odds. But do so requires people to buy into the message, and buy into the person presenting that message. For that to happen requires personal relationships and engagement on social media.

As any newsroom social media editor will tell you, social media isn’t easy. It takes a lot of hard work to maintain relationships. But if you get it right, the rewards are there.

The social media election can happen – but only once politicians start treating networks as more than just an extra channel for an off-the-shelf party political broadcast.

So succeed at social, you need to succeed at being human. That’s where I fear our mainstream parties go wrong.

Election 2015: How regional newspapers showed they are as relevant as ever in print

The 2015 general election was probably the first where the vast majority of local newspapers no longer printed on day.

While the assumption many made when papers switched to overnight printing was that the papers suffered as a result, I think the last 48 hours have shown this is wrong on two counts.

The first point to make is that a constantly changing pattern and picture on election night, and the morning after, means that trying to sell a local newspaper as the up-to-the-minute source of information in a world of Twitter, Facebook and rolling TV news is bonkers.

That’s what a newsroom’s digital service is for and across the country, regional newsrooms demonstrated that they were second to none when it comes to covering the elections from a local perspective (more on that tomorrow).

The second point to make is that newsrooms across the country rose to the challenge of ensuring their newspapers remained relevant by coming up with a multitude of of creative ways of telling the stories of the election, and the issues emerging from the ballots. Highlights for me included: Continue reading

Local media election diary: The light and dark of social media, advice from Eric Pickles and the ‘MP’ who has already won

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A fascinating story from the Belfast Telegraph, involving a candidate called John Doyle who was subjected to online taunts after a poor performance in a TV debate:

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Mr Doyle is quoted as saying:

“I broke down in tears. I didn’t get into politics to be abused,” he said. “I was bullied at school and this is the exact same thing.

“It was abusive bullying – it was just to belittle me.

“I got into politics to make a bright future for the people of Fermanagh/South Tyrone.”

Much as anyone would say a politician has to have a thick skin to get on, this story is a fascinating insight to the impact social media is having.

We’re all familiar with the stories of journalists being trolled for their coverage – particularly those covering SNP affairs in Scotland too.

If 2015 really is the social media election, then it’s perhaps also the election at which a sinister side to the political debate became an unintended norm.

You can read the full Bel Tel article here. 

Parents…

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Local media election diary: West Country antics, a great front page, the UKIP dominance of the Fens (sort) and how to make the Tories like you

If in doubt, start in Burnley. Where I think I’ve seen my favourite front page of the general election so far:

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At time of writing, Burnley FC are still looking for the killer instinct, but (obviously) it’s the main story which I’m interested in.

It might look like a run of the mill ‘here are the candidates’ front page from the Burnley Express, but it’s who isn’t standing which makes it noteworthy.

For the first time in four general elections, the BNP aren’t present. The collapse of a party which at one time was a dominant force on the local council, and widely believed it could ‘take’ Burnley at a general election, has been little short of spectacular.

And, in many ways, very, very good news for anyone who believes hate has no place in politics.

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