Category Archives: Articles

Using Flow XO In The Classroom To Create Facebook Messenger Chatbots

My final year classes used Flow XO this week.

The first few classes of my final year Journalism Innovation module at the University of Huddersfield focus on some different bits of media and journalism skills the students may not have come across earlier in their time at university. This year we did making gifs, creating socially shareable graphics, doing subtitles for Facebook videos and, this week, another Facebook-based challenge: creating a chatbot for Messenger.

To guide students through the process I chose some local software in the form of Flow XO, a company based at Padiham in Lancashire. It’s got an easy to use interface and plenty of pre-set elements, allowing students to use it more or less off the shelf. The basic version is also free, and that was more than enough for the purposes of one two-hour class session.

Some students had already come across Messenger bots in the wild. Not from the few and mixed experiments that media companies have so far undertaken – the Wall Street Journal’s may be the best one I’ve used – but with some businesses who have already taken the leap into this area.

But with Amazon Alexa and its rivals signalling an increase in voice services around the home, and either WhatsApp or Messenger giving Facebook the number one messaging app in more than 150 countries worldwide, making content available in a form that will fit one or both is likely to become increasingly important for the news business too. Chatbots in and of themselves might not be the future, but I think we’ll soon be seeing more of them. Perhaps it won’t be long before we’re adding this to the lengthening list of ‘essential’ skills to be taught on a journalism course.

Using Canva In The Classroom

Displaying Canva on the screen in my classroom.

My final year Journalism Innovation class is running for a second year, and as was the case last time round, there are more than 50 students spread across three seminar groups. They’ve all chosen the module as an option, which is great.

The module begins with a few weeks of learning various more advanced social media and digital skills, with which they may not already be familiar. Week one was making gifs using Giphy, and today for the second session we made subtitles for Facebook videos as well as socially shareable graphics, the latter with Canva.

It’s one of the best free tools available for quickly making shareable content and is particularly useful for the range of size templates it allows you to play with, including Instagram images and website banner ads as well as the more normal Twitter and Facebook posts. Canva operates on a freemium basis, with certain fancier patterns and backgrounds costing small sums of money, but plain ones come free.

I asked each group of students to suggest someone in the news, then took them through how to find a copyright-free image before adding a quote to create a suitable graphic. Then, I let them do one on their own, before sharing to Twitter. I had produced a helpsheet in advance, too, and that helped keep this part of the sessions to a brisk 30-40 minutes or so. The students all picked it up very quickly and I’d definitely use Canva to do this again.

One sign of the times: groups were split roughly equally between those who wanted to produce Tom Petty tributes, and those who had never heard of him.

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!

Using Balsamiq In The Classroom

One of my final year students using Balsamiq.

One of the tools which I learned about during my recent visit to Arizona for the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute, was Balsamiq. It’s an online tool which allows you to create a mock-up – a wireframe – of what your planned website or app would look like. We used it when putting together our pitches, so we could give a flavour of what we were proposing without having to go through the actual process of knocking up even a basic version for real.

I found it easy to use, and so I’ve already incorporated it into my new final year module, Journalism Innovation. Students are working on their second and last assessment of the academic year, which is to work in groups to create a business plan for a proposed media start-up company. They’ve got formative pitches to do next month, and so I decided to use some class time both last week and this week, to get them doing a few Balsamiq wireframes, so they could include a couple in their pitch decks.

And it’s worked well. The software is easy to use and the students really took to it. Although it would be easy enough to get them to start websites for their projects (and many will anyway), it would be time-consuming, and also pointless if they’d rather do an app (which neither I nor they have the skills to create) or have an idea that lives on social platforms only. An added bonus: for the 30-day trial at least, it’s free. And for this sort of student project, the basic 30-day version is more than enough.

I’ve also made up a helpsheet, which can be downloaded here for anyone to use.

My Week At The Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute 2017

It’s me.

So, I spent the first week of 2017 in Phoenix, Arizona, as a fellow of the Scripps Howard Journalism Entrepreneurship Institute. There were 15 of us taking part, with 12 lecturers drawn from around the US, one each from the UAE and Mexico, with me rounding out the group. We’re all either in the early stages of, or about to start, teaching a class in journalism and entrepreneurship, and the week was all about making connections, sharing best practice, and learning from thinkers and trendsetters in both education and journalism.

Prof Jeff Jarvis appeared via Skype.

The event was overseen by Prof Dan Gillmor, and he invited a range of excellent speakers to participate in person or via Skype. There was a particular focus on the role of verticals – that is, digital media companies focusing on a niche, rather than attempting to match the broad scope of the legacy organisations and some of the better-known pure players such as BuzzFeed.

The great man’s famous sign-off.

Steven Levy, veteran Silicon Valley journalist and now Editor of Backchannel, delivered a keynote address with the hopeful conclusion that high-quality reporting could just be the very thing that eventually sustains business models for more publishers. From a UK perspective, The Economist, the Financial Times and, to an extent, The Times have all demonstrated the possibility of this. But on the other hand, The Sun’s paywall was a failure. The Blendle model which has worked so well in Holland, has in its favour the fact that there is little global competition for Dutch language content.

Which arguably brings us back to verticals. One of the week’s most interesting sessions was courtesy of Rafat Ali, the one time founder of Paid Content, and now the person behind travel site Skift. For shame, I’d not heard of it, but it already employs more than 30 people, with a mixed revenue model consisting of paid-for insight reports and conferences, alongside a focus on more traditional forms of distribution including e-mail newsletters. Doing things that others can’t or won’t do, and to a level that customers are prepared to pay for, was a key theme of this and other talks.

The Cronkite School, early on a mild winter morning.

The week finished with all of us having the chance to pitch our own ideas to Dan. One of the most useful aspects of that process was being introduced to Balsamiq, a tool which allows you to create wireframe mock-ups of apps and websites. I’ve already incorporated it into my teaching on the Journalism Innovation class here at Huddersfield, and students have found it a very helpful bit of software. The connections I made with all of the other fellows are due to continue over the next few weeks too, with a series of webinars hosted by Michelle Ferrier of Ohio University, so the benefits of the Institute didn’t stop when I left Phoenix.

All that’s left is for me to record my thanks to all of the fellows, the Scripps Howard Foundation for picking up the tab, the University of Huddersfield for my flights to the US, as well as Dan and Joanna Sanchez-Alvillar at the Cronkite School for all their hard work organising the week.

IMPRESS, Regulation and Hyperlocal News

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Saddleworth News.

Should we be impressed by IMPRESS? Four years after the Leveson Report into press standards, a new regulator has finally won formal recognition by the independent body established to do the recognising. But there is some derision from Fleet Street for a body which is, after all, funded by sex scandal ex-motorsport boss Max Mosley.

Most newspapers and magazines around the UK have thrown in their lot with a different body, IPSO, while others including The Guardian and Financial Times continue with their own arrangements. Those publishers aren’t happy with running anything past a recognition panel, and would prefer their own forms of self-regulation.

In a past life I set up Saddleworth News, now at nearly seven years old one of the country’s best-established hyperlocal news sites. Even though I’ve long since moved away, I keep an interest in the site and the sector more generally. This is relevant because of the 50 or so publishers currently associated with IMPRESS (either being regulated by them, or having applied to be), most are hyperlocal.

The original idea was that being part of an approved regulator would offer publishers a carrot: quick and easy resolution of libel disputes, settled cheaply before anything got to court. Along with this, a stick: if you don’t join up, you’ll have to pay the costs, even if you win. This latter sanction is included in section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013, but has yet to be invoked because of the lack of a formally validated regulator. Now IMPRESS has been recognised, the prospect of section 40 has risen back up the political agenda. Although a story in Tuesday’s Times hinted that the government may now back down.

So, confusion for a bit longer. But it’s hyperlocal publishers who have much to lose here. The News Media Association, which represents the newspaper and magazine industry, has claimed that the hyperlocals who have thrown in their lot with IMPRESS have done so unnecessarily, because they don’t meet the government’s own definition of ‘relevant publisher’ which includes a requirement of at least 10 members of staff. But those criteria also feature being subject to editorial control, publishing news content, engaging in commercial activity and having different authors – all of which apply to, say, Saddleworth News, the sort of organisation which could theoretically be wiped out by a vexatious litigant angry at coverage of a contentious local matter. Having the institutional support of an official regulator could offer welcome and much-needed back-up.

As the-then Culture Secretary Maria Miller put it in the Commons in 2013: “Those exempted by virtue of the fact that they are a micro-business can choose to gain the benefits of the costs clauses by joining the regulator, providing an incentive for them to join if they so wish and a choice to small organisations, perhaps before they grow in size and inevitably become a relevant publisher.” For all its faults, IMPRESS is probably even more appealing for a hyperlocal now than it was then.

There’s more on this from Matt Abbott over at C4CJ.

#TAL16: Talk About Local’s Latest Hyperlocal Unconference

Will Perrin and Dave Harte kick off the day's proceedings.

Will Perrin and Dave Harte kick off the day’s proceedings.

To Birmingham last Saturday for the latest in Talk About Local’s successful run of hyperlocal unconferences. In a past life I set up and ran one of the UK’s better known local independent sites, Saddleworth News, and even though I’ve long since passed the site on to a new editor, I’m still very interested in the sector.

The event was hosted in Birmingham City University and lecturer, hyperlocal blogger and researcher Dave Harte got us going, along with co-organiser Will Perrin of Talk About Local. Along with a handful of academics, journalism students and others, sites from across the UK were represented by their editors, ranging from the well-established such as On The Wight to newer entrants including Alt Blackpool.

The agenda.

The agenda.

I facilitated a small session on covering the local courts, which is the subject of my ongoing PhD research. It was a good opportunity to share a key test case from earlier in the year, when the High Court ruled that note-taking from the public gallery is permissable (full judgment here). Often, court staff, journalists and others have held to the traditional view that only reporters sitting at the press table may do so, but the Ewing case firmly established otherwise.

Other interesting sessions that I caught included Will demonstrating the Local News Engine, which has recently won funding under Google’s Digital News Initiative. Also, local MA student Sandro Sorrentino gave a great presentation on the nuts and bolts of getting hyperlocal sites onto Apple News, which given its higher profile in iOS10 is likely to become a bigger driver to traffic to news sites than has so far been the case.

Matt Abbott from Cardiff University’s Centre for Community Journalism managed to get round a bit more than me, and has comprehensively written up the day on the C4CJ site.

Book Review: All The Truth Is Out, by Matt Bai

Gary Hart speaks at Cornell University, late 1987. (picture: K. Zirkel/Wikipedia)

Gary Hart speaks at Cornell University, late 1987. (picture: K. Zirkel/Wikipedia)

I’ve had a book review published in Journalism Education, the journal of the Association of Journalism Education.

It’s a look at one of my favourite politics books of recent times, All The Truth Is Out by Matt Bai. It examines the scandal which ended the US presidential hopes of Democratic Senator Gary Hart, and the lasting impact which Bai believes it has had on American public life.

I’ve uploaded my review to my page on Academia.edu.

The Sun Sets On The New Day

Not much more than two months after it first appeared, Trinity’s Mirror’s The New Day is coming to an end. It’s closing tomorrow after circulation fell to a reported 40,000, making it the shortest-lived national paper in almost three decades.

I blogged about it here on the University of Huddersfield’s View from the North.

I was also asked on to the Andrew Edwards show on BBC Radio Leeds this lunchtime to discuss the story: