Before the Easter break, my attention in the Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield turned back to one of my favourite topics, hyperlocal media. In a past life I set up and ran Saddleworth News, which well over eight years later continues as one of the UK’s leading examples of independent local media (I can’t claim any credit for most of that!). The sector is still as interesting to me now as it was then, even if it has far less of the ‘flavour of the month’ feeling in media circles than it did in 2010.
It has attracted academic interest over the years, not least from Andy Williams of Cardiff University and Dave Harte of Birmingham City who, along with Rachel Howells, former editor of a hyperlocal in Port Talbot who completed a PhD on the subject, have written a book about it which is due out in the summer. It should be great.
Looking at the sector today, and encouraging students to find sites local to their hometowns in the seminars, it was fascinating to see just how much it continues to thrive. On websites, blogs, Facebook groups and Twitter accounts, covering villages, suburbs, towns and more, some updated daily, others rarely, some defunct, others thriving, the world of hyperlocal has perhaps proved more resilient than some of us feared, especially when it became harder for smaller publishers to get any play at all in Facebook newsfeeds.
The forebears of hyperlocal websites are probably the alternative papers and fanzines which flourished during the latter part of the last century. The slow death and eventual collapse of the alternative printed press from the late 70s through the 1980s is apparently not really being repeated with hyperlocal, though. This is no doubt because of lower costs and barriers to entry, and perhaps too because sites today are less keen to focus on politics and antagonism down at the town hall, than providing timely information about events of an ultra-local interest. I’m looking forward to still reading hyperlocals in decades to come.
After a break for reading week and then a snow week which put paid to my colleague Caroline Pringle’s lecture on online communities, Journalism Technologies resumed at the University of Huddersfield last week with my lecture examining the related fields of UGC verification, citizen witnessing and the context of what is often described as fake news.
In some ways, the debate around all of this remains in a similar position to when I addressed this topic a year ago. Then, with Donald Trump newly in the White House and Facebook scrambling to work out what to do amid mounting criticism of its perceived role in the spread of various nonsense before polling day, it seemed as though some significant changes might happen, in particular to the look and feel of Facebook’s news feed (with checkmarks for ‘approved’ sources, or warnings of potential fakery, perhaps). As it is, the main change to Facebook’s algorithm since then has seen a general downgrading of news of all kinds. Good news if you’re a fan of other people’s baby photos, but a notable risk to publishers large and small in terms of traffic, and therefore money.
But it still seems to be Facebook under pressure, rather than publishers. This is probably no surprise considering its enormous scale. But not for nothing was 2017 arguably the toughest year in its history. It will go to great lengths to avoid the cold hand of regulation from the US, EU, or anyone else, knowing well that it was long-running anti-trust legal issues that did as much as anything else to nobble tech’s last undisputed giant, Microsoft, in the late 1990s. Facebook also still wants to break into China, and having all kinds of news content swilling about will do nothing for its prospects there. Squaring all of these complicated, overlapping circles still looks out of easy reach.
Week 11 of the first year Journalism Technologies class at the University of Huddersfield was all about direct messaging, a form of communication that seems even more pervasive than the major social networks. Which certainly helps explain why so many have become dominant players, not least Facebook’s own Messenger and WhatsApp, which it memorably bought for an absolute fortune almost four years ago. And when better to look back than in the week when texting turned 25.
Snapchat has been the focus of a lot of scrutiny this year, after turning out repeated overtures from Facebook and going through an IPO. Early highs have been followed by a few months of downbeat news, with reports of less interaction with power celebrity users and a possible dwindling of interest in its key under-25 demographic, mainly because of the way in which Facebook has ruthlessly copied many of Snapchat’s central features for its own Instagram platform. There’s no evidence of it in my seminar groups – Snapchat remains almost unanimously used, and in many cases by far the most popular app around.
With references to the Uses and Gratifications Theory and the 2016 paper by Vaterlaus et al on why teenagers in particular actually use Snapchat, posing this question to students drew some interesting responses. But if there was one theme above the others, it was that Snapchat was the best way to communicate with a select group of maybe four or five friends, often in a group chat, and often using just text. In a sense not much different from WhatsApp or Messenger, and students said they quite regularly have the same friends in chats on those platforms too. All very confusing if you’re my age and older but then, Snapchat’s still not really for us.
Posted in Lectures
Tagged AOL, Brian Acton, Evan Spiegel, Facebook, Facebook Messenger, Instagram, Jan Koum, MSN, SMS, Snapchat, Uses and Gratifications Theory, WhatsApp
For the fourth week of this year’s Journalism Technologies module at the University of Huddersfield, I was in Dubai for a work recruiting trip and so my colleague Caroline Pringle not only did the lecture, but also led all six workshops. Thanks Caroline!
I’ve embedded her lecture on Facebook at the top of this post. And even since the lecture was delivered last Thursday, the Facebook Effect on the media has become even more pronounced. Tests of a different form of news feed, with all non-friends and sponsored posts hived off elsewhere, has prompted panic among news executives in the six countries where the trial has been taking place. This Medium post by a Slovakian journalist reports a drop in post interactions to just a quarter of previous levels, virtually overnight.
The days of Facebook being a simple firehose for traffic aren’t quite what they once were, and occasional tweaks to the algorithm have from time-to-time prompted similar palpitations among social media editors, but this appears to be another step closer to a ‘pay to play’ regime, with only publishers and others willing to pay for the privilege getting real estate in your news feeds. This may be superficially attractive to Facebook as a way of tackling arguably its biggest ever challenge – fake news – but would have an immediate and serious financial impact on publishers which have spent years trying to build traffic through Facebook, in turn using that to raise advertising revenue.
Facebook’s head of news feed, Adam Mosseri, has used this blogpost to try to reassure nervous publishers. The key line is: “We currently have no plans to roll this test out further.” But ‘currently’ doesn’t mean forever.
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.
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.
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Tagged Andy Williams, Dave Harte, Facebook, Huddersfield, Hyperlocal, Jez Turner, Journalism Technologies, Saddleworth News, Sky News, The Guardian, University of Huddersfield, WordPress
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.
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Tagged Caroline Pringle, Clay Shirky, Cognitive surplus, Facebook, Flickr, Huddersfield, Journalism Technologies, Mumsnet, Online communities, Reddit, University of Huddersfield, Wisdom of Crowds
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.
Posted in Lectures
Tagged Buzzfeed, Facebook, Google Hangouts, Huddersfield, Journalism Technologies, Luke Lewis, Sir Patrick Stewart, Tasty, Trinity Mirror, University of Huddersfield, Wakefield College
Having looked last week at how journalism was traditionally funded and how those models have been eroded (or, if you prefer, blown apart) by recent developments, this week’s Journalism Technologies lecture took the story on to the present day with an examination of what media companies have been doing to try to make money.
One thing that struck me about the material when delivering it, was actually how slowly some of the themes have moved in recent years. The Daily Mail and The Guardian are still pursuing a strategy of going for huge global audiences and trying to monetise those eyeballs, and while the former is still just about making a bit of money off the back of its sister Mail Online, the latter is, yet again, facing some kind of impending cliff-edge cash crisis. The Times’ paywall is holding firm and the paper just about makes a profit, while the Financial Times and The Economist continue to enjoy more success from their focus on the sort of quality that can’t be easily replicated elsewhere.
I remember mentioning most or all of this stuff to students when I first did some university teaching five or six years ago, and it feels as though we’re still waiting to see how it’ll all be resolved. If there was ever going to be a silver bullet to solve traditional journalism’s funding crisis, the fact it still hasn’t been fired rather suggests it never will be. This great list of 52 potential money-making ideas for local journalism by Josh Stearns offers as good a roadmap as any to the variety of ways in which digital publishers will have to raise revenue now and in the future. I’m slightly more confident than I was before that when it comes to hard cash, quality journalism might end up offering better prospects than the alternatives.
Posted in Lectures
Tagged BBC News, Blendle, Clayton Christensen, Daily Mail, Daily Mirror, Facebook, fake news, Financial Times, Google, Halifax Courier, Huddersfield, Innovator's Dilemma, Josh Stearns, Journalism Technologies, Mail Online, New York Times, paywalls, Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism, Susie Boniface, The Economist, The Guardian, The Times, Trinity Mirror, University of Huddersfield, UsVsTh3m