The hook on which we are caught

These are some of my reflections on the Revival of Local Journalism conference, organised by the BBC and Society of Editors at MediaCity UK, and held on June 25. There are links to others’ posts and articles from the day throughout this piece. 

The Revival of Local Journalism conference (hashtag #localjournalism) on June 25 was a fascinating day, with stimulating conversation, proffered olive branches and some snappy presentations.

For me, it was thought-provoking and occasionally frustrating in terms of complacency and inertia . Perhaps if the day ended with some agreed outcomes and action points from others apart from James Harding (of which more here) it would have felt like a satisfying conclusion (maybe I’ve just sat in too many meetings?) because this needs to be a springboard and catalyst for wider discussion and momentum, not a cul de sac.

So, as to my reflections on the day’s theme and tone, here’s the thing: the media industry is either disrupted and the mainstream within it is either resisting or attempting to disrupt right back. The entrepreneurs and startups are more able to say “yep – so deal with it” and grasping what the next steps need to be more effectively.

Finding things out, writing them down and publishing them has fundamentally not changed; the hook on which too many of us are getting caught is platform.

So when the established regional media bends its thoughts to the revival of local journalism, there is a real danger that we end up talking in circles about our own platforms – whether that be print or broadcast or digital.

The revival of local journalism is a theme that spans staffing, tools, training, best practice, collaboration, competition and innovation – it isn’t whether newspapers are going to disappear at some point in the future, or whether Google is a publishing aid or a publisher in its own right.

I suspect that the best people to lead objective discussions on the revival of local journalism are not those enmeshed in the industry as realities intrude, defences laid, and the trouser of reinvention get snagged on the barbed wire fence of practicality.

We also have to set aside nostalgia – as flagged by Clay Shirky here.So, for a moment, I’m going to think about platforms, deal with it and then dismiss it for the rest of this post.

I was asked at RoLJ  if newspapers were going to disappear, and I replied along the lines of “if you had a better delivery method for news, why wouldn’t you use it?”

Me and my mouth. That prompted the more direct question “Do you think newspapers will die?”. To which I answered “yes”, and then there was an audible intake of breath from the room.

It was a fairly bald statement in a room full of press people (and my boss) but, yes, I think newspapers will cease to be required.  Which is a far different thing to journalism being required, although platform obsession seems to blur that distinction.

I plucked a number out of the air, and said within 30 years, Jasper Westaway , of, said it would be more like 15, and followed it up with a lot more unpalatable truths about where things were headed.


I can’t say what platform we will be publishing on in five years time because predicting the technological, creative and cultural shifts likely to happen over that period of time is like, well, asking to be reminded of your naivety in five years time…

I’ve posted a lot over the years about the need for aggregation and curation. I am starting to wonder about what doing the opposite of these things could offer.

Is there an opportunity in dis-aggregation? The death of the homepage idea is well discussed, as is the  ‘each piece of content should be a destination’ viewpoint. So what if a mainstream legacy brand decided to make and distribute its content designed to travel purely through social platforms? And made it was self-sufficient, with its own life support system – commercial, editorial and marketing all bound up in one – networked to sister content through links?

Would that start to get us off the hook?

Anyway, enough platform.

I wish we could have talked more about the social media contribution. Jo Geary gave a storming presentation about Twitter which included a fairly damning slide about a US newsman scooping the UK media on the Glasgow helicopter crash, courtesy of an established and intelligent Twitter search.

And she also spoke nostalgically about the past – but it was just that. Platform does not define her type of journalism.

Understanding that isn’t throwing the baby out with the bathwater; it’s appreciating the baby is a teenager now, and is therefore an entirely different animal altogether.

Peter Barron, head of communications for Europe, Middle East and Africa, spoke of collaboration and the free tools to help understand audiences and connect with them.

In fact, considering the theme was revival, an oft-raised point was not knowing the tools to use.

This is a Google search of the phrase ‘best online tools for journalists’ – there are plenty of people out there writing about the free things you can use, and sharing their knowledge of how-to and why-to in great detail.

None of the apps or tools mentioned is particularly complicated, most are free and someone  (hint – the boss) in any media business should be taking responsibility for ensuring at least one member of the team is trained up to be expert in this stuff, so they can, in turn, make sure everyone else in the newsroom is getting clued up on it too. That’s as true for a local weekly paper as it is for Sky. Ensuring the skills are there may require hard decisions and maybe someone does need to be taken off the rota for a few days at a time to go on courses or conferences, and the company has to stump up for this. The outcomes will pay for themselves 20 times over in a few months, as you start bringing in better stories and connecting with your audience.

* Final points:

The folly of Giving It All Away For Free Online point was made. Paul Bradshaw took the parable offered up, turned it into a fairytale guaranteed to give some industry types nightmares, and posted it here. Recommended reading.

Staffing was also raised – David Higgerson’s excellent summation and reflection post on the conference and this particular issue is worth a read.

In the last panel session of the day, I was asked to respond to a question about why students didn’t want to work in newsrooms because they were sweatshops. However, that became a bit sidetracked by the whole ‘what tools to use’ debate.

I am in contact with journalism students from various J-schools via social media and email all the time – some of them I consider friends I’ve yet to meet in real life – and they don’t ask me about potential sweatshop conditions ahead of them. But perhaps that’s out of politeness.

So it’s a hard one for me to answer, too, as I don’t know enough about the situations in all newsrooms.  Perhaps it’s one for the industry press to pick up and examine in greater detail?



Interesting reads (weekly)

Posted from Diigo. The rest of my favorite links are here.

Crime, mugshots and the public interest (updated)

Update: Lancashire Police has now retracted this policy.

Liz Riding, Lancashire Constabulary’s Corporate Communications Manager has reviewed the decision: ‘I have had a further look at this and have decided that we will not be applying the 12 month limited tariff for releasing images on conviction.

‘We are reviewing the demand into our press office, having lost two thirds of our resource over the last few years, and picture requests do add up to some significant demand.

‘However, on reflection, setting a minimum tariff is not acting in accordance with the spirit of which the ACPO guidelines were intended to be interpreted.

‘We will retain the right to look at each request on a case by case basis, and make the appropriate decision based on proportionality, necessity and legitimacy.’

She explained that the ACPO guidelines were open to interpretation: ‘We will not introduce it in Lancashire at this time but we will be reviewing our internal approval processes relating to the release of images.’

More on that turnaround here

[Original post began here] Lancashire Police is no longer issuing photos of criminals jailed for less than 12 months, and as the news got around today that decision did not play well with journalists.

As I am a long-time recipient of their police press office emails (along with the rest of the world, it seems) my inbox was soon pinging with launched broadsides from regional and national hacks, baffled by the decision.

Police photo release email
Lancs Police email announcement

Although, as Liverpool Echo crime reporter John Siddle pointed out, it’s by no means a single issue…

Every police force seems to use different criteria (and often, undisclosed ones at that) for photo releases. There are clear ACPO  checklists for decision makers –


The proportionality argument covered guidelines leaves it hard to think of many people who wouldn’t be interested if someone from their community were locked up for 12 months or less.


And the ACPO guidelines also state:

“Post conviction there is likely to be much demand from the media and from the public for information and this may include releasing an image. Forces are
Version 1.2 March 2009 5encouraged to engage with the media and be as open as possible. The release of images at this stage in the criminal justice process could assist with deterring potential criminals and preventing subsequent crime as well as encouraging other victims and witnesses to come forward.”

Anyway, as to the tweet that sparked the original email from the police, I’d imagine it is very much in the public interest, as Rebecca Koncienzcy revealed. And I don’t think she should feel awkward about it at all – at least it’s being discussed now:

However, not all police forces are as reticent with images. I remember well the golden moment  Liverpool Echo crime reporter James Glover (now poacher-turned-gamekeeper for a police press office) asked a force in the Netherlands if they had a headshot of a fugitive Liverpool gangster, found shot to death in their jurisdiction.

Yes, said the police officer, we do have a photo. When the emailed pic arrived it showed the corpse, in the morgue, with a gaping bullet wound to his temple.

A headshot in every sense of the word.



Innovation and the perils of “yes, but…”

There’s an interesting post on the WAN-IFRA blog now, which details are the key attributes of an effective editor, leading at a time of industry disruption.

It’s a subject close to my heart as it was the topic of my MA, and I agree with a lot of the points made by David Boardman, Dean of the School of Media and Communication at Temple University, Philadelphia.

Among the points he lists (and if you want all of ’em, this link takes you to WAN-IFRA’s post) that resonate with me is ‘Practice innovation as a means, not an end’; I completely agree with that, especially if it means the end of the dreaded “yes, but…”.

Most projects involving innovation will need a system of checks and balances, and the voice of a critical friend is often the one you least want to hear but most need to. However, to achieve innovation often means suggesting something you can’t quite articulate – it’s more of an idea-in-progress. Of course, every  now and then ideas spring, Pegasus-like, fully-fledged from someone’s brow but more frequently they venture forth tentatively and are encouraged to grow by the wider collective. In the face of a “yes, but…’ they can flicker and die before they have the chance to fully develop.

Journalists are trained to be questioning skeptics, who often want to analyse things and see the stages along a route. Furthermore, not everyone involved in the gestation of a project will feel able to support a burgeoning idea, sometimes simply because of the stark reality of just getting it out of the starting blocks is so tough. Or perhaps the existing CMS won’t support it. Or maybe it’s summer, and too many people are on holiday. Or… or… or…

And so it goes, as Father Kurt tells us.  

Innovation tends to happen when you can see your end point; the game is getting there.I was taking to Dave Brown of Apposing the other day- a true innovator and entrepreneur, if ever there was one – and he explained his approach was to imagine the desired outcome, and then plot the way towards that. And if something didn’t work, you take a detour around it. Ultimately, the way might not be direct but there is a way, if the idea is worth doing. I like that.

So, because the editors/innovation/disruption discussions looked so good, I grabbed the #editors14 hashtags stream from the World Editors Forum and dropped it into a Tweetdeck column to read at leisure.

I’m not sure what ‘editor’ constitutes for some of the speakers – I wonder if the US speakers are referring to managers with a different responsibility to UK editors, for example – but the message is still pretty clear:

  • Know what you should have knowledge of to fulfil your role
  • Accept what you don’t know and employ smart people who do
  • Be the strongest advocate for digital in your newsroom

Ideas thrive in newsroom cultures that don’t have a lot of truck with “yes but…” and when it comes to changing newsroom cultures, I would suggest an editor needs to be a lot more visible and accessible than ever, so the tentative, half-formed ideas have an advocate higher up the food chain.

If, as a parent, you’re not supposed to have a favourite child, when you edit a title I guess you shouldn’t have a favourite platform. However, if you want to make something succeed you have – in my opinion, at least – to advocate for that thing as hard as you can, doubly so if you’re doing it in the face of doubt or uncertainty.

So when I was an editor, my websites were always my favourite children, not because I didn’t believe in print but because that advocacy was important.

To try and make sure their teams believe, I’d argue editors need to believe twice as hard as anyone else in the newsroom, because the “yes but… [the paper has to come out on time]” and “yes, but…[there aren’t enough staff to do X] are compelling arguments.  They’re just the wrong ones to be having at this late stage in the game.

I need to think less about Audience, more about People


I managed to make it to the Digital Editors Network meet-up on Thursday – #visualDEN if you search for it on Twitter – and came away with head and notebook stuffed full of ideas.

The theme, as the hashtag suggests, was around the visualisation of stories, and talks touched covered the presentation of information through graphs, graphics and multimedia, among other things.

But the talk that metaphorically smacked me right between the eyes came from Amy Webb, because she made me realise I have to stop thinking about The Audience. 

I say it a lot – one of my hobby horses is the need to be ‘audience first’ – and we know a lot about The Audience because our analytics keep us informed.

I know what time they start waking up and reaching for their phones or tablets to scan the morning’s news agenda; I know when they get that pre-lunch attention dip and start surreptitiously  pointing the browser on their work desktop at interestingness on the internet; I know when they have their lunchbreak and head out armed with their mobile phone, and I know when they want to find out about their commute home. 

Most of all, I know The Audience likes to slob out at home, tablet or phone in hand, and watch TV while taking part in a running commentary with millions of others online. 

I know this because we monitor The Audience and try to meet its baby bird demands, as it gapes expectantly for content and entertainment. 

However, yesterday’s DEN made me realise, to paraphrase Ygritte: “You know nothing, Alison Gow”.

I have to stop thinking about The Audience and start thinking about The Person. There’s a tendency to adopt a hive-mind approach to your users when you use analytics to learn about them – we make assumptions because we can see the bigger picture, and this approach is fine and correct because the data backs our assumptions up, but the smaller picture offers a rewarding and rich canvas of information too. 

So I know that between, say 6am and 9am, The Audience is waking up and reaching for a device, but I really need to imagine what The Person is doing at that time. 

They might be using that tablet or phone in bed, or while blearily boiling the kettle, or using the bathroom. 

After 8am they might be on their commute – either in a car, so that’s the end of our involvement at that time, or on public transport, in which case they are still with us. 

What The Person probably wants at that time of the morning are snippets that fit around their busy routine; pieces of content that are quick and simple to consume and which deliver their information without requiring participation. Passive consumption of information: It’s probably why the Prozac lull of BBC Breakfast is so attractive compared to the technicolour of ITV.  

Does that mean a breaking news blog is ultimately, a frustrating use for The Person, as it involves a level of commitment to scrolling and finding things out? 

Putting myself in The Person’s shoes, I guess the answer has to be: Yes, sometimes; even with pinned summaries, it makes me work harder than I want, to find things out. 

However, breaking news live blogs are among the most popular things we do – so is the theory sound but the platform and delivery improvable? Or does it depend on the type of rolling news event being covered?

The answer may well be to ask users on one of our live blogs if it works for them but it’s never occurred to me to do so,because The Audience data tells me breaking news live blogs are a hit and, well, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But what if, by tinkering, you could take something that wasn’t broken, and make it amazing? 

It’s the same with the lunchtime traffic spike – factor in what people have to do in their lunch hours (or 30 minutes), from heading out to find food/a cashpoint/a service suppliers etc etc to doing actual exercise, and you realise this is a very time-poor Audience indeed. 

Amy Webb, presenting at DEN, warned against consumer-centric design because it did not take account of people’s lives as individuals, and said, according to my shorthand, anyway: “Modern journalism is incompatible with devices so it is important to design for people, not their devices”.

So the thing I’m musing on post-DEN is this: When you are Audience-guided is there a danger you can become Person-blinded? 

 Pic: BBC