What Next For Community Journalism? Cardiff Conference 2015


Cardiff. It was a nice day.

I was at JOMEC in Cardiff yesterday for the What Next For Community Journalism? conference, being held as something of a warm up for the Future of Journalism event taking place there today and tomorrow. Although to describe it as a warm up is doing the conference a real disservice. It was packed with interesting speakers from the UK community media scene and further afield, and huge credit must go to the team at Cardiff’s Centre for Community Journalism for organising such a successful day.

The centrepiece of the occasion was the launch of the latest report on hyperlocal by Damian Radcliffe, called Where Are We Now? (yes, another question – there were more questions than answers at this conference but, as a veteran of quite a few of these things, it was ever thus). He noted that many of the issues facing the sector remain similar to those which have existed for some years, back to when I set up Saddleworth News in 2010 and even earlier – including money, sustainability, relationships with the BBC, newspaper publishers, Facebook and others, potential legal and regulatory threats and more. Damian called for more academic research in the area, building on that already done by Andy Williams, Dave Harte, Jerome Turner and others, and I’ll certainly be contributing to that as part of my PhD on local court reporting.

Will Perrin of Talk About Local picked up on one key theme touched on by many speakers, which is that Facebook isn’t what it used to be for hyperlocal publishers. I well remember it as something of a gusher of views to Saddleworth News in 2010 and 2011, which allowed the site’s audience to grow quite quickly. But algorithms can and do change, and these days organic reach from Facebook posts can be as low as 1-2% of your ‘likers’ on Facebook. So, for a hyperlocal with, say, a Facebook community of 2,000, each post may initially only be seen by as few as 20 of those.

Will and his colleague Mike Rawlins also revealed an updated version of the old Openly Local map of UK hyperlocal sites. They’re currently populating the Local Web List, and estimate the number of local sites offering civic information, news and other things, may actually be a lot higher than previously thought – perhaps in the 1,500 to 2,000 range. They need help finding all the sites, and more details are at the Local Web List site.

Dan Gillmor giving the keynote address.

Dan Gillmor giving the keynote address.

The outsider’s view came from Dan Gillmor, over from Silicon Valley. He also discussed Facebook, describing it as the biggest competitor to independent local publishers. This part of his argument really came back to the idea that whenever someone else has a significant control over the way in which the audience sees your stuff, you’re putting yourself at some risk. The slightest tweak to a line of code in Menlo Park, even if it’s aimed at solving some entirely unrelated problem, can have a potentially disastrous impact on a hyperlocal.

Gillmor was sceptical about Google and Facebook but conceded he didn’t believe the current leadership of those companies was necessarily “evil”, although he did reserve some harsher words for Apple. After explaining he tries to avoid products from those companies as far as possible, he admitted he still uses Google Maps because there’s nothing else nearly as good. He closed by saying “I try to manage my hypocrisy”, which I thought was quite a nice way of putting it.

Jonestown Cables Revealed In Wikileaks Public Library Of US Diplomacy

A trove of US government cables from the immediate aftermath of the 1978 Jonestown Massacre has been published quietly, tucked away as part of the much larger Wikileaks Public Library of US Diplomacy. The cables seem to have been approved for release last year by the US State Department and form part of Wikileaks’ Carter Cables series, but I can’t find any record of them elsewhere online (apart from on this website, which is no longer active and features only broken links). So I’m posting a few links here.

Perhaps the most interesting cables are those sent by the US Embassy in Georgetown back to the State Department in Washington, as the very first reports start to come in of the shooting of Congressman Leo Ryan and others on a runway near the Jonestown site. Shortly after that incident, more than 900 residents of Jonestown under Rev Jim Jones would begin a mass suicide.

In this cable, US Ambassador John Burke files an initial memo following a meeting with the Guyanese Prime Minister and others. Although he is by then aware of the murder/suicide of four Temple members who had stayed behind in Georgetown, there are no reports yet of the start of the mass suicide at the remote Jonestown compound. That story unfolds in a series of Situation Reports sent over the coming days.

The earliest I can find in the archive is Situation Report 3, sent the following day, but still before any Guyanese soldiers have been able to reach Jonestown. The scale of the tragedy begins to become clear in Situation Report 5, with the widely-quoted figure of 400 dead (a significant under-estimated, for which the Guyanese and US governments would be widely criticised, as families of the dead were given false hope their relatives may have escaped into the jungle).

There is a wide range of other documents in the library, which is easily searchable. Probably the best online resource about Jonestown is this website maintained by San Diego State University. This 2006 documentary film about Jonestown, which prompted my own interest in the subject, is excellent.

The BBC’s Hyperlocal Consultation

The BBC consultation.

The BBC consultation.

There’s lots of consulting going on this week. Two extremely interesting ones began yesterday, with the government asking for views not only on the future of the BBC, but also on plans to further reduce the number of court buildings across the country, with magistrates courts in Oldham and Halifax among those marked for closure.

But I’m going to save both of those for another day. Earlier this month, the BBC announced a consultation of its own, on how it could work more closely with hyperlocal publishers. You can read the proposals here. But to sum them up in a sentence, it’s better linking to hyperlocal sites, training for hyperlocal practitioners, having the sector represented on various working groups, making sure local BBC journalists know what hyperlocals are, and compiling an updated list of active hyperlocal sites.

All very sensible and achievable. In fact, many of these proposals have been kicking around in one form or another for some years. I’m not as on the inside of the hyperlocal world as I used to be when I ran Saddleworth News, so I’m not clear why issues such as more linking have never actually come to pass. But anyway, in my brief response to the consultation, I made a couple of extra suggestions.

One would be to appoint a named individual within the BBC responsible for driving forward this agenda (this being the BBC, it would have to be a ‘hyperlocal lead’). It seems to have been done informally in the past with the result that when an individual moves on or leaves, any momentum behind the partnerships is lost.

My other suggestion is to get hyperlocal practitioners involved in BBC local radio. Stations are always desperate for lively contributors, and if they can add a little journalism alongside local colour, so much the better. A regular slot with a modest tip fee of a fiver or a tenner would be mutually agreeable, I’d have thought.

The consultation ends on 30 September, with a summary due to be published in November.

Huddersfield Teachmeet: Using Social Media In The Classroom

I gave a short talk last night at a Huddersfield Teachmeet event, hosted by Huddersfield New College. Given seven minutes I thought I’d do a PechaKucha, and it’s embedded above. It’s on the topic of using social media in the classroom, and was a brief overview of ways to potentially use tools including Instagram Video, Buzzfeed and Findery.

PechaKucha Election Special

We’re going back a few weeks now, but just before the general election I was asked to take part in a PechaKucha night at the Media Centre in Huddersfield. Andy Mycock, a politics lecturer at the University of Huddersfield, was curating the night, and I was glad to go along and use my slot to discuss TV coverage of election nights (it turns out I was wrong to predict a hung parliament, but right about the accuracy of exit polls).

PechaKucha presentations are 20 slides of 20 seconds each, so you end up with 6 minutes and 40 seconds in total. Having to rush through everything is kind of part of the fun, although listening back I did end up rushing quite a bit at a few points. There was a good crowd of a few dozen folk there, students and others, and I think there’ll be more of these nights at the Media Centre in future.

First PhD Conference

The former Salford Town Hall and, until recently, Magistrates' Court. Now becoming flats.

The former Salford Town Hall and, until recently, Magistrates’ Court. Now becoming flats.

I was back in Cardiff last month for the first PhD conference of my time as a student at JOMEC. These are days on which PhD students present their work so far to colleagues and supervisors, and take questions about it. My presentation is here.

I’m already some way behind the students who were inducted along with me in October, because they’re working over three years full-time, while I’m aiming for five years working part-time. So in comparison to those well on with their literature reviews, I didn’t have that much to really say.

The whole project is still probably best summed up by the image I’ve used above, which I also included in the presentation, of the empty former Salford Town Hall and Magistrates’ Court. What impact is the closure of it and dozens like it having on local justice and democracy, and what can we do about it? I’m looking forward to getting on with answering those and other questions.

I’m going to do a bit of test research in the archives as part of my literature search, and I’m planning to visit the British Library’s northern outpost at Boston Spa next week to start that. So hopefully by the end of the summer I’ll have something more substantial to update this blog with.

Saddleworth News Is Five

The first post on Saddleworth News, 16th February 2010.

The first post on Saddleworth News, 16th February 2010.

It’s happy birthday to Saddleworth News. Five years to the day after I hit publish on the first post, and more than three since I last had any day-to-day involvement with it, I’m pleased to say it’s still going strongly under editor Stuart Littleford.

I’ve always said I started the site for two reasons: one to keep me involved in journalism while I stayed at home looking after my baby daughter (who is now also five, and has a little sister), and the other to provide a news and information resource that would be useful to the community in an era of declining traditional local media.

The first part of it worked out better than I’d imagined, and the attention I got from Saddleworth News turned into freelance work at BBC Radio 5 live, guest talks at universities and colleges across the north, and now a full-time job as a lecturer at the University of Huddersfield.

Much more importantly, Stuart and his regular readers, advertisers, contributors and commenters, have made sure the second part has been a much greater success than I could ever have imagined. Congratulations are due to everyone involved.

Hyperlocal isn’t the buzzword it was five years ago, but these sites have become an established part of the local media mix in the hundreds of places where they exist. The process of cutbacks and closures in the mainstream local media – which I wrote about in that first post five years ago – has continued in that time, and the sector as a whole still faces an uncertain future. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned from five years of Saddleworth News, it’s that the public’s interest in local news remains strong.

Lecture: Games Culture



I gave a lecture to second years at the University of Huddersfield on games culture today. It’s part of a module called Digital Cultures, and I spoke to the same group about trolling last term. The presentation I gave this time, complete with inevitable retro Prezi backdrop, can be found here.

Covering gaming and games culture in a single lecture is an impossible task, so by way of introduction I thought I’d give the students a quick overview of four separate areas among the many I could have chosen: games in culture (including the almost inevitable and rather tedious moral panics and stereotyping which still surround gamers in much of the mainstream media), the economy of gaming, gaming communities and games as art.

During the section on communities I got onto the subject of e-sports, and in particular Twitch, the platform bought by Amazon for almost $1bn last year. Only a couple of the students said they’d heard of the site, which was interesting, because when I did a session with some 12 and 13-year-olds last year most said they’d not only seen it but actually used it to watch gamers in action.

In her 2012 book Raising The Stakes, sociologist TL Taylor looks at the increasing professionalisation of gaming. She concludes it’s been a way for hardcore gamers to reclaim their niche, in a world now increasingly dominated by gaming on smartphones and Facebook. As more people than ever play casually, Twitch is the latest and biggest example of some gamers going further to turn their passions into something more serious. It’ll be very interesting to see how this whole area of games culture evolves, and whether more positive coverage for gaming and gamers in the mainstream media will be one result.

Coding For Social Change Conference In Cardiff

Alan Rusbridger (centre) was among those taking part.

Alan Rusbridger (centre) was among those taking part.

I was in Cardiff on Friday, and apart from continuing the early stages of my PhD I was there to attend an event called Coding For Social Change, which served as the launch of the department’s two new MAs.

There were three panels during the afternoon, and the keynote session featured outgoing Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger and freedom of expression campaigner Jillian York of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. On the screen behind them, as they chewed over the various rights and restrictions of the post-Edward Snowden era, was an image showing a whiteboard Rusbridger has scrawled all over with all sorts of headings and buzzwords, in an attempt to show just how complicated all this stuff really is.

Rather dryly (and Rusbridger gives the impression of rarely being anything other than dry), he noted that the government committee nominally charged with oversight of all this only meets on Thursday afternoons and is under the chairmanship of Sir Malcolm Rifkind. The former Foreign Secretary may be a “fine man” as Rusbridger conceded, but he’s not perhaps the best person to have such a job. Even if he was, the framework that exists isn’t really up to that particular task.

Rusbridger sprang a surprise by admitting he’d consider moving his paper’s HQ from London to New York if it became harder legally to do more Snowden-style stories in the UK. He doesn’t have long left in the editor’s chair so he won’t be doing this personally, but that remark does at least offer another example of The Guardian’s international focus. It will never again be the Manchester Guardian, but it might not always be the London Guardian either.

The Return of Tom Mason’s Handles

Just before last night's performance.

Just before last night’s performance.

I was at the University of Salford’s Robert Powell Theatre last night for the latest performance of Handles, a play about the impact of social media on our lives from Tom Mason. This is the second play of its kind by Tom, and after the original Handles made its debut at The Lowry last year, this was a bigger, longer and more ambitious effort altogether.

The story took place in a near-future world in which a new social network called Handles has come to dominate the lives of a group of connected twentysomethings, all glued to their phones in an attempt to become the UK’s first “platinum user” of the service. Trolling, sex assault rumours, hacked celebrity nude pictures, scurrilous showbiz journalists and the ethics of reviewing products on vlogs were among the themes, while the whole play kicked off with a spoof Steve Jobs-style keynote address, reminiscent of a similar scene in Grand Theft Auto V (only without the explosive conclusion).

As before, the audience was encouraged to tweet along, with tweets appearing on a wall behind the performers. Evidently, I was doing something right.

This territory is quite reminiscent of both Charlie Brooker’s acclaimed Channel 4 series Black Mirror, and the various allegations made about the widely-rumoured VIP paedophile ring of the 1980s. The play’s theme of the damage done to an individual’s good name by claims of sexual assault seemed particularly timely in the week that former Home Secretary Leon Brittan died, his reputation shattered by as-yet-unsubstantiated claims of his knowledge or involvement in historic abuse.

Warm congratulations to Tom and the team behind Handles for another enjoyable show. I’m already looking forward to a part three.