Trinity Mirror In Talks To Buy The Express

The old Daily Express building in Manchester.

I was asked by the University of Huddersfield’s press office to write a bit for their View From The North blog on Friday about the announcement that Trinity Mirror is in talks to buy the Daily Express and its sister titles. And here’s my by now lukewarm take in full:

THE Daily Express was once the biggest newspaper in Britain. Owned by Lord Beaverbrook and produced in art deco palaces in Manchester, Glasgow and on Fleet Street, it routinely sold four million copies a day.

Now it struggles to shift a tenth of that and has a reputation for being more interested in lurid conspiracy theories about Princess Diana than serious journalism. So why would the owner of the Daily Mirror be interested in buying it?

Trinity Mirror is the UK’s biggest publisher of newspapers and magazines, with the Huddersfield Examiner among more than 200 local and regional titles in its stable.

Buying the Express and its sister publications would allow it to squeeze more cash out of the dwindling print journalism market, with significant cost savings to be had across advertising sales and back-office functions.

Trinity Mirror is nursing a hole in its pension scheme of more than £400 million – significantly more than the value of the entire company. And with the might of Google and Facebook making it hard for anyone else to make serious cash from online advertising, doubling down on print remains the easiest way for Trinity Mirror to stay afloat in the medium-term.

There’ll be changes to the actual newspapers, too. Expect glossy showbiz photos which currently feature in OK! Magazine, also part of the Express empire, to start turning up in the Mirror titles.

A big change in the politics of the Express is surely inevitable as well, with hard Brexit Euroscepticism likely to give way to a softer, potentially pro-Labour stance. This would make for a notable shift in the centre of political gravity of Britain’s declining but still influential print media.

But no matter what Trinity Mirror does, the real glory days of the Express will remain a distant memory.

New Editor For Saddleworth News

Saddleworth News

Congratulations to Ruby Anstee, the new editor of Saddleworth News. This is the hyperlocal website for Saddleworth and the surrounding area I started almost eight years ago, and it’s great to see it still going strongly long after I stopped having any involvement with it.

Well done also to Stuart Littleford, who has done a great job with the website over many years. He’s made sure Saddleworth News is a lively, well-read source of local information, with great engagement on social media too (more than 9,000 Twitter followers and 7,500 Facebook likes is good going for an area with a population of about 20,000). It’s undoubtedly one of the longest-running and most successful hyperlocal websites around, and long may that continue!

Journalism Technologies: 24. Your Future Is Arriving Now

And so to the last week of term, early this year because of a late Easter, and the final week of teaching in the inaugural Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield. Wrestlemania overnight on Sunday cut the lecture attendance a bit (although some students came straight in having not been to bed, which shows a remarkable commitment to both professional wrestling and academic life).

The lectures up until now had been preoccupied with the present day and the very recent past. So it seemed sensible to use the final one in the series to look into the future, and speculate on some of the developments we might be able to expect in media in the coming years. Likely to play an increasingly significant role in our world more generally is the sharing economy, and with its tradition of freelancing and part-time work, there’s no reason to doubt that more journalism will be done this way. At the centre of this part of the economy are the rising giants of Uber and AirBnB, and so the first section of the lecture traced their stories, the problems they’ve recently faced, and where they might go next.

One intriguing battle dominating the thoughts of many industrial leaders, from Uber to Google and GM and Ford, is to be first on the grid with a driverless car that really works. The reason why this is potentially vitally significant for the media: a potentially dramatic increase in the amount of leisure time for commuters and drivers, which they will probably spend, well, consuming media. Might an Uber TV be the next Sky or Netflix? If it is, then a taxi company which doesn’t own any taxis will suddenly become one of the world’s most important media companies. But then, companies that already fit that bill used to be just social networks, computer makers and online bookshops, so Uber would just fit into a well-established trend.

If there is a lesson, is that’s to see the future of media, we probably need to look outside what we currently think of as the media.

Journalism Technologies: 23. “The Internet is a Series of Tubes”

What a week to be discussing why politicians don’t always have the best grasp of issues around technology, security and privacy. The title of the lecture comes from the memorable, rambling attempt at explaining net neutrality, delivered by aged Senator Ted Stevens in 2006. Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s remarks on Sunday about WhatsApp encryption and ‘necessary hashtags’ don’t perhaps quite come into that category, but they’ve attracted plenty of amused scorn all the same.

With three separate tech giants – not just WhatsApp but also YouTube and Uber – facing negative stories on three different front pages on Monday morning, it made sense to put those at the start of this lecture. The rest covered an exploration of the dark web, how an initial failure to properly understand security almost cost Glenn Greenwald the Edward Snowden story, and then a discussion of privacy and social media, informed by some positive and negative academic perspectives on the topic – from Jeff Jarvis and his optimistic view of ‘publicness’ to Christian Fuchs’ often-criticised but still interesting Marxist perspective on whether Facebook exploits its users.

We had a bit of fun in the workshops this week. After a brief chat on the WhatsApp/encryption issue following the terrorist attack at Westminster, I encouraged students to consider how much information we all leave scattered around social media, and what that means for our privacy. To illustrate the point, I asked a series of questions about me, and got them to examine my online footprint to see what they could find out in just a few minutes. After that, I got students to put their email addresses into haveibeenpwned.com so they could see whether their details had, at some point, been stolen as part of one of the major tech hacks of recent times, and could therefore theoretically be on sale somewhere on the dark web right now. Suffice to say, quite a few passwords needed changing.

A hat-tip to Reply All for this interesting recent episode on the sale of Uber accounts, which helped me develop some ideas for this week’s classes.

Journalism Technologies: 22. Hyperlocal

Week 22 of Journalism Technologies brought me back to a subject I know a bit about, hyperlocal journalism. I was very closely involved in this area during my time setting up and running Saddleworth News in 2010 and 2011, and I’ve maintained an interest in it ever since.

It’s probably true to say that the hyperlocal sector has, in general, not lived up to some of the expectations which certain commentators ascribed to it back then. With some very honourable exceptions, it hasn’t really replaced some of the declining ‘district’ coverage offered by local newspapers. Experiments conducted by legacy media companies in this space, such as Guardian Local and Sky Tyne & Wear, have been scrapped despite some critical acclaim. Nor has there been much outside cash, whether through investment, grants or advertising, for UK hyperlocals, which has left our sector looking rather impoverished when compared with the US.

But on the other hand, I don’t think many of us involved in hyperlocals really believed the hype back then. Hyperlocals at their best, then and now, and whether on a WordPress site or a Facebook page, offer information which helps bind communities together, information that may not be readily available anywhere else. Sometimes this is journalism, and research by Andy Williams, Dave Harte and Jez Turner shows that council coverage is a key part of many hyperlocal sites, while at other times it’s probably not – that same research demonstrates the eternal popularity of posts about community events and local history. Hyperlocals may not be the flavour of the month these days, but they are a part of the media landscape and will certainly remain so.

In the workshops this week, I got students to find a hyperlocal from their hometowns and discuss their strengths and weaknesses, before searching for new ones to add to the Local Web List directory. This is the best online resource available to navigate the UK hyperlocal sector. There are more than 600 entries, and after a bit of work from my students this week, there’s a few more on there now.

Journalism Technologies: 21. Data Journalism

It was over to my colleague Caroline Pringle once again this week, for Monday’s lecture in our Journalism Technologies module. She looked at data journalism, a term often used in passing but relatively poorly understood by a lot of journalism students, who may not get much opportunity to put it into practice while also learning the more traditional basic skills of their trade.

Of the points which Caroline made in the lecture, the one about 90% of all data in human history being generated within the last two years is the nugget which remains the most jaw-dropping. With all that data floating around, journalists simply can’t afford to be put off by charts, tables and statistics, even if they ended up becoming interested in this as a career because they enjoyed English and couldn’t hack maths.

For the practical sessions, we gave students a dataset each – Sports Journalism students, for example, got the BBC’s Price of Football survey from last year – and they were told to work in small groups to identify some key lines, and then write the first few sentences of a story for either a local, regional or national publisher. This worked well as an exercise to fit easily within an hour-long class. There are plenty of interesting factoids in even such a relatively straightforward dataset, ranging from the cheap prices on offer at high-flying Huddersfield, to the extraordinary fact that North Ferriby’s cheapest season ticket is actually dearer than the ones at their Premier League neighbours, Hull City. Now all of the students have done a tiny bit of data journalism once, it’ll be much easier for them to believe they can do it again.

Journalism Technologies: 20. Did That Really Just Happen?

This week’s lecture in Journalism Technologies was listed in the module handbook at the start of term as being about UGC and verification, an important skill which journalists increasingly need when sorting fact from fiction on social media. But with the growing focus on fake news since then – a term which has had an extraordinary half-life, taking it from little-known buzzword to over-used cliche in a matter of months – I thought this was a good opportunity to explain to the students that recent history.

For an academic concept to help illustrate these overlapping areas of fake news and UGC verification, I turned to a great book by my PhD supervisor Stuart Allan, Citizen Witnessing. Students are often familiar with the idea of ‘citizen journalism’, something often taught in A-Level media classes. Stuart’s book offers a nuanced evolution of that rather broad concept, and examines more closely those who record, post and share content when they find themselves caught up in dramatic news events.

A key difference from the ‘citizen journalists’ of Indymedia who came to prominence covering the Seattle protests of 1999 – who can arguably be described in turns as cousins of the sport and music fanzine writers of years gone by – is that citizen witnesses aren’t actively trying to do journalism as such.  To me, the greater journalistic act takes place when a newsroom attempts to verify that material, before publishing it as part of a news report. So I agree that those witnesses are better not described as journalists of any kind. But regardless of the terminology, journalists are increasingly under pressure to do that verification, and quickly, and the emergence of a skills gap in this area within journalism has led to the outsourcing of that task to growing players such as Storyful.

Rather than getting all the students to take a look at Stuart’s book though, I decided to get them to read Guardian editor Kath Viner’s essay of last summer. Even though it was written largely before the Donald Trump-based rise of fake news, it’s still a good read, especially for an audience with little prior knowledge of this area. One interesting aspect of that: plenty of students were more than a bit surprised to discover the rather uncertain provenance of the infamous David Cameron/pig story.

Journalism Technologies: 19. The Power of the Crowd

We’ve moved onto the final part of the inaugural first year Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield. The opening term before Christmas was all about introducing the students to different platforms week by week in the lectures, then taking them through how to use them in the workshops, before they submitted a reflective learning log on their blogs. Next, we examined the ways in which changes in technology have impacted on media companies both old and new, and students produced content analyses comparing legacy journalism outlets with pure players.

Now, students will be required to do a third assessment by Easter, in which they complete a piece of journalism using at least two social tools to help tell the story. And the first lecture to support this part of the module came from my colleague Caroline Pringle last Monday, on how to make the most of online communities.

Caroline took the students through some of the ways in which people gather online, and the places where they do that, from more traditional forums to Facebook groups both public and private. Mumsnet remains a classic example of how a strong community can become not only a thriving forum, but a significant media brand in its own right. Perhaps unsurprisingly though, of those of us in the room only me and Caroline would admit to ever actually going on it, but I suppose 18-year-olds aren’t really in their target demographic (I went on Mumsnet occasionally in my past life as a stay-at-home dad, although really only for recipe tips – the rest of it seemed a bit impenetrable, even for me).

For concepts to help students understand the power of online communities, Caroline turned to both the classic idea of the wisdom of crowds, as well as Clay Shirky’s idea of cognitive surplus: that many of us use much of our increased spare time in order to create and share things online, just as in the past we’d have used that time to, perhaps, inadvertently become experts on TV shows. For Shirky, it’s a typically optimistic view of how the development of technologies is generally a positive thing in all sorts of unexpected ways.

Journalism Technologies: 17. BuzzFeed’s Luke Lewis

The winning entry, from the first year Broadcast Journalism students.

This week in Journalism Technologies we welcomed the second guest speaker of the term, Luke Lewis, the founding editor of BuzzFeed UK and now the company’s Head of European Growth. Luke graciously joined us by Google Hangout from London and gave students an overview of how he spearheaded BuzzFeed’s remarkable growth here since it opened in London just four years ago.

Among the key takeaways from Luke’s talk and the Q&A which followed was the large and growing importance BuzzFeed is putting on video content. On the face of it, that’s not too dissimilar from the similar emphasis at Trinity Mirror which we heard about a fortnight ago. But there are differences in purpose and execution.

TM is particularly interested in the greater value of ads which it can sell around its videos, while the different business model of BuzzFeed favours community and sponsored content. Luke gave some valuable insight into the development of BuzzFeed’s extraordinarily successful Tasty videos, and how relatively few of the people who look at them on Facebook ever actually end up making one of the recipes (a show of hands in the room confirmed Huddersfield students back up this part of the analysis).

It’s perhaps no surprise Tasty’s been such a hit. Luke noted that content around food, as well as sexual health, tends to do well regardless of the country, even if distribution platforms can vary (curiously, Facebook is “nowhere” in Japan). Luke also did a spot of futurology, looking ahead to a future where even conventional desktop websites gradually disappear in a mobile-only world.

Our workshops looked back at a more traditional aspect of BuzzFeed though, the listicle. We got each group to work together to make one during their sessions, then challenged them to get as many views as they could within a week.

The winners were the Broadcast Journalism group for this effort, although the total number of clicks (fewer than 300) meant it didn’t exactly set Facebook on fire. I’ve done these sessions often with school and college groups over the years, and the undisputed champions remain a group of students from Wakefield College, who last year clocked up more than 8,000 viewers for this list of the worst things about their hometown. It even got its own YouTube response video. The corresponding ‘best’ list didn’t do nearly as well, although surely that tells us more about people’s sense of humour than what that fine city is actually like.

Journalism Technologies: 16. How Journalism Is Being Saved (The Ending Will Shock You!)

After a couple of weeks spent examining legacy media companies and how they are adapting to digital journalism, this week’s focus in Journalism Technologies turned to the pure players in the scene: ranging from the long-established such as Yahoo and MSN, to the newer (and certainly more interesting for my audience) entrants such as BuzzFeed and The LAD Bible.

The latter is a particularly intriguing case study: not least because, in contrast to the US-dominated world of tech and media, it’s a company which emerged not just from the UK, but from the north of England. It’s also fascinating because of its popularity – it has almost as many weekly UK users as The Sun and ITV News websites, according to the latest Reuters Institute Digital Report – and the way it has pivoted in an attempt to shake off its reputation for, well, laddishness. Its hugely popular Facebook page, and accompanying website, have been virtually purged of the overtly sexist and misogynist content which were once its trademark.

The LAD Bible today. No cleavage anymore.

For fans of the genre, I must report that “Cleavage Thursday” is a thing of the past. Instead, clicking on even an old link to that ‘feature’ instead takes you straight to the very smart homepage, today being led with a story about Iraq. There’s still plenty of ladbantz going down on FB, but it’s clear The LAD Bible wants to be taken seriously now, and the display ads for well-known high street names suggest the strategy is making progress.

I turned to Mark Deuze and his notion of ‘liquid journalism’ for this week’s theoretical viewpoint. First coined a decade ago, Deuze used the term to describe the way in which journalists and media companies needed to change their ways of working, from the traditional methods to those better suited to the more fluid nature of modern society. Arguably, formats such as BuzzFeed’s listicles are an example of exactly this, which legacy publishers have sometimes struggled to match. In this week’s workshops the students have been working in groups to come up with competing lists using BuzzFeed’s Community feature, an exercise I’ve run successfully for many years with visiting school groups. I’ll see which  has got the most views in time for next week’s lecture.