Category Archives: Articles

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.

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.

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.

The Enduring Power Of Twitter Lists

My Hootsuite. I'm afraid I do look at this screen quite a lot.

My Hootsuite. I’m afraid I do look at this screen quite a lot.

Here’s a story about what Twitter used to be like, what it’s like now, and how it’s still more or less as useful as it ever was.

After a couple of false starts in 2008, I finally started to get it in early 2009. There wasn’t all that much you could do with Twitter itself back then, especially when it was interrupted by the all-too-familiar Fail Whale. But one of the things you could do was make a Twitter list of useful tweeters to follow. Import the list into a third-party application and suddenly you had an updating feed of tweets, a bit like the news wires familiar from all those hours spent in newsrooms.

I had a go at creating one of Formula 1 journalists, stuck it into Tweetdeck on my laptop, and kept an eye on it during one of the early Grands Prix that year. As the race went by I noticed I was looking at the list more and more, as reporters (James Allen’s was particularly good) passed on bits of information the TV commentators hadn’t spotted. Some people might remember it as the year when Jenson Button won the title, but in my house 2009 is fondly recalled as the ‘Summer of Second Screening’. Glory days, indeed.

I started to create a list of tweeting journalists to use at work. Local and national, newspaper, TV and radio, every time I spotted a new reporter on Twitter I’d add them. Soon, this list overtook everything else as my main source of news. As an early warning system for breaking stories, and a filter of the best stuff to read online, I found it was remarkably useful. After a while, I even worked out how to turn off the little chirrupy sound Tweetdeck used to make when it updated (I actually switched to Hootsuite and have stayed loyal ever since – evidently I change my bank more often than my social media management tool).

I used various Twitter lists extensively as a tool for gathering hyperlocal news when I did Saddleworth News. I noticed that one of my former employers, Sky News, was really getting into it, too. When I started teaching journalism students at the University of Leeds in 2011, one of the first things I would show them would be how they could use Twitter like professional journalists were starting to.

And all these years later, even though you’d have thought something else would have come along by now, I’m surprised how little has changed. I still add the odd name to my master list of journalists, and a tweet arrived the other day from Electoral HQ telling me it was now the biggest, and second-most popular, list of its kind on all of Twitter. I still look at it every day, several times a day, on mobile, tablet and desktop.

Growing up I found myself impulsively loading up Ceefax all the time, probably to check whether something catastrophic had happened since I last checked. Later when I worked in newsrooms, I was forever casting my eyes down the wires. At one level the Twitter list has really just filled this particular hole in my media consumption. But it’s not because of the technology itself, rather it’s the fact I’ve taken the time to interact with it and curate a list of users who are particularly useful to me that makes it so indispensable.

You can subscribe to the list here.

Lord Clark On The Mystery Of Victor Grayson


Victor Grayson (picture: Wikipedia/public domain)

It’s now 107 years since Victor Grayson won a spectacular victory in the 1907 Colne Valley by-election, standing as an Independent Labour candidate. But his life and mysterious disappearance continue to fascinate political historians. His biographer, and one of his successors as MP for Colne Valley, David (now Lord) Clark, was the main speaker at an event about Grayson at the University of Huddersfield last night.

Victor Grayson had a reputation as one of the great and most radical public speakers of his time, and the Pankhursts were among those who travelled to Colne Valley to join his campaign. His success was short-lived and his Parliamentary career ended at the next general election in 1910, after, with the help of a series of drunken outbursts on the floor of the Commons chamber, he managed to alienate just about all his fellow MPs, including those from Keir Hardie’s mainstream Labour Party. Grayson re-emerged after the First World War but was not seen again after 1920, amid suggestions he got himself mixed up with a shadowy Whitehall fixer called Maundy Gregory, a man responsible for co-ordinating the sale of honours on behalf of Prime Minister David Lloyd George.

The evening began with an extremely rare screening of a 1985 BBC2 documentary about Grayson, not thought to have been shown publicly since its original broadcast. It included interviews with Grayson’s landlady at the time of his disappearance in 1920, Grayson’s nephew as well as a New Zealand soldier who had served with Grayson during WWI, and claimed to have seen him in Spain some years after his apparent disappearance. A rather younger looking David Clark, who by this time had lost his seat in Colne Valley but been elected in South Shields, also featured prominently.

Having read and written a bit about Grayson during my time reporting politics in Saddleworth, in particular the 2011 Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election (Saddleworth and ‘Red Delph’ was part of the Colne Valley constituency in Grayson’s day, indeed it was up until 1983), I’d always assumed that the various sightings of him after his disappearance were probably false, and that he’d been bumped off on Gregory’s orders. A common suggestion is that Grayson knew too much about the honours scandal, and may have threatened to reveal it.

However, Lord Clark seemed fairly convinced, both in the original documentary and again in his remarks last night, that Grayson went to ground and was paid off, and continued living in secret under an assumed name. That would certainly explain the various sightings of Grayson recorded in the 1920s and 30s. But a stronger piece of evidence is the fact that somebody retrieved Grayson’s WWI medals from the New Zealand authorities in London in August 1939. If not Grayson himself, this would have to have been a direct and close relative. The only one alive at that time was his daughter, who, according to Clark, had told him she knew nothing about the medals. It strikes me the sightings can be easily explained away, but that can’t.

Lord Clark speaks about Victor Grayson last night.

Lord Clark speaks about Victor Grayson last night.

Lord Clark also revealed that files about Grayson and some of his political contemporaries held by the Home Office still haven’t been released. When asked by event organiser and University of Huddersfield lecturer Stephen Dorril whether his experiences investigating Grayson’s life had informed his later work on Freedom of Information during the first year of Tony Blair’s government, Lord Clark said it had up to a point. But he then added he was concerned it was the media rather than the general public which tended to use FOI today, which had not necessarily been his original intention.

After Lord Clark’s talk, University of Huddersfield history lecturer Keith Laybourn set Grayson’s life in the context of the Labour movement of the early 1900s, then both men took questions from the good-sized crowd of about 80 people. Thanks to all for a very enjoyable evening.

Printing Off The Internet With PaperLater

Look, I printed off the internet.

Look, I printed off the internet.

Here’s something you wouldn’t expect someone like me, a serial pisser-about-on-the-internet, to get excited about. It’s PaperLater, a new thing from The Newspaper Club which lets you make your own little newspaper of stuff you’ve found online.

You select the articles, either by clicking a desktop shortcut or by emailing the link from your mobile or tablet. They print it out and deliver it to your door, with a paper of 24 pages costing you £4.99.

On the face of it, paying someone a fiver to print out the internet seems like a borderline insane thing to do. And there’s no doubt, this is basically what is happening here.

The PaperLater folks suggest you might do this as a way of catching up on things you haven’t got round to reading, such as longform articles. And the number of fascinating-looking but sadly unread pieces from the New Yorker and suchlike in my Pocket folder certainly suggests that there can be too many distractions to consume quality writing in a satisfying way on a smartphone. I’ve found the Kindle app for iPad to be a much better bet.

I actually ordered a PaperLater full of longreads as a present for a friend I visited last week. I enjoyed the process of picking and choosing the articles to fill up by 24-page allowance, and the paper itself when it arrived was a decent quality object. I don’t know if I’d make one purely for myself – I’m probably more likely to continue with not only the Kindle but also the Longform apps on my iPad – but I reckon it’s not a bad gift idea.

If you want to have a go yourself, you’ll need to go to the PaperLater website and request an invitation, because it’s still in beta.

The Strange Case Of Willie MacRae

Willie MacRae's crashed car. (picture: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

Willie MacRae’s crashed car. (pictures: Police Scotland via What Do They Know?)

The death of Willie MacRae is one of Scotland’s most enduring mysteries. A prominent lawyer and SNP political figure, he was found dying from severe head injuries in his crashed car at the side of a road in the Highlands in 1985. Later examinations revealed he’d actually been shot. The official verdict of suicide has often been questioned.

I was only vaguely aware of the story until I read James Robertson’s novel And The Land Lay Still, which features the MacRae death as a key incident as part of its epic sweep through the events of post-war Scotland. He’s not the only author to have been inspired by the mysterious case: Ian Rankin writes here about how he studied it as part of his research for one of his recent books, and a new play is going to the Edinburgh Fringe this year. There’s also an old Channel 4 documentary on YouTube which is worth a watch.

Some information relating to the case was quietly released last year by the Northern Constabulary (now part of Police Scotland), in response to an Freedom of Information request made using the excellent What Do They Know? site. The pictures in this blogpost are among a series of images and documents made public, and they appear not to have been widely published before, if at all.

Willie MacRae's gun, recovered from the scene.

Willie MacRae’s gun, recovered from the scene.

The conspiracy theory goes, roughly, that MacRae was murdered because he was considered a threat to the state, perhaps because of his role in anti-nuclear campaigns. The official version is outlined in a letter from the-then Lord Advocate Lord Fraser of Carmyllie to the Conservative MP Sir Nicholas Fairbairn, that is included in the files released by the police. It states that MacRae had been considering killing himself following a series of misfortunes in his personal life, and had told his brother and a friend about it.

The case remains closed and that seems extremely unlikely to change. But, once again, FOI has helped shed a small amount of new light on a matter of public interest.