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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
One point made by @lukelewis: we talk about mobile-first, but one day it could turn mobile-only, in a way we struggle to conceive of now.
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.
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.
Ed Walker and Lauren Ballinger giving this week’s lecture.
We had two guests with us this week for the latest lecture in Journalism Technologies at the University of Huddersfield: Ed Walker and Lauren Ballinger of Trinity Mirror. Following on from last week’s session on the changing nature of business models, in particular for legacy publishers, I thought it was a good idea to invite two of the journalists leading the way in developing the way TM does things in its many local newsrooms.
Ed is the head of Digital Publishing at Trinity Mirror Regionals, while Lauren has been Executive Editor of the Huddersfield Examiner since last year. They both gave excellent talks illustrating some of the things they’ve been working on recently: Lauren took students through the Examiner’s online coverage of last month’s M62 police shooting, which featured a five-day liveblog and a huge increase in online traffic for January. Ed stressed the importance of the range of skills needed for the modern media professional. In particular, he highlighted the focus Trinity Mirror is now putting on video: a new recruitment round taking the number of dedicated video staff in TM’s local newsrooms from three just over a year ago, to 60 in the near future.
In many cases they were repeating lessons I’ve been trying to get across to the students already, in particular about professional use of smartphones and social platforms: but I’ve got no doubt they had much more weight coming from Ed and Lauren! So thanks again to them both for coming in on a Monday morning and giving such interesting insights.
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.
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.
Christmas has long since faded into the background and we’re well into the second term of the academic year at the University of Huddersfield. The Journalism Technologies module resumed on Monday with a change of focus. The first term was all about looking at different social tools and online platforms each week in both the lectures and workshops, whereas the classes now look much more closely at the response of the journalism world to those significant technological changes.
I’ve found in the past that students have only a sketchy idea of how the career they want to pursue is actually funded, so the opening lecture of the term was all about traditional business models in journalism, and how those have been disrupted. Looking back at the development of commercial media companies in the UK, I couldn’t resist including this classic ITV Yorkshire Calendar report on the opening day of Radio Aire in 1981, fronted by none other than Richard Madeley, and featuring an interview with news editor Mike Best (later of Calendar himself, now a lecturer at Leeds Trinity University).
The sheer concept of a ten minute news bulletin at 7am and 8am on a local commercial radio station is quite something. These days only Today on Radio 4 manages that.
In the middle part of the lecture I got into the decline in classified advertising, and lamented the failure of newspapers to capture very much of the market for digital classifieds. Rightmove, established in 2000 as a partnership between four leading property agents, successfully cornered the market in property, and now has a market capitalisation of (wait for it) £3.8 billion. Trinity Mirror, the UK’s largest newspaper publisher, is on £280 million. Here’s what you could have won, as Jim Bowen used to say.
The session finished by introducing a classic business theory, the Innovator’s Dilemma, first coined by Clayton Christensen. Applying it to some well-known examples from technology, I highlighted the failure of Xerox to capitalise on the incredibly innovative computers it developed in the early 1970s but never released, and then the fall from grace of Kodak. Posing the question, have newspaper companies suffered from the innovator’s dilemma, I left the students to do a bit of reading in time for next week. The spoiler alert is, of course, that they pretty much have.