What we need in the adblocking debate is a fresh perspective. Cue Birmingham website Paradise Circus, which has today released a browser extension to get rid of all that pesky journalism slowing down your daily advertising consumption: Continue reading
In a guest post, Damian Radcliffe says that hyperlocal sites are being held back by regional newspaper snobbery, while he gives 10 reasons why hyperlocal should be recognised as a valuable part of local media.
With decade-old sites like the London SE1 community website and OnTheWight being joined by newcomers such as East Grinstead Online and Alt Reading, the hyperlocal sector is an increasingly established part of our local media ecology.
Research suggests that there are 408 active hyperlocal sites in the UK – compared to 1,045 local and regional newspapers (2011 Newspaper Society figures cited by the NUJ) – and hyperlocal media has attracted attention from funders, policy makers and researchers in recent years.
Despite this recognition, there remains a glass ceiling for the sector, particularly in terms of relationships with mainstream media. Continue reading
The Birmingham Mail is to invite its readers and followers to sign up today to a week-long experiment with the ‘crowdspeaking’ platform Thunderclap.
Thunderclap, launched in 2012, allows users to sign up to send coordinated social media messages around a particular issue or campaign.
Staff at the paper have already started ‘seeding’ the campaign by emailing their own networks. An email from publishing director Marc Reeves explains:
This week Matt Burgess launched the Northampton Data Blog, “exploring the data behind the headlines in Northamptonshire”. The site is at least the fourth local data blog to be launched this year after the Coventry Data Blog in May, and Behind The Numbers sections on Wales Online and the Birmingham Mail.
But are we missing any? Please let me know in the comments.
UPDATE: Philip Nye points out his data posts are largely about Hackney.
Disclosure: Matt Burgess was previously the editor of Help Me Investigate Education and Coventry Data Blog creator Ian Silvera has contributed to Help Me Investigate. I am regularly involved in the Birmingham Data Blog.
If a week is a long time in politics, then three years is a very long time in hyperlocal. With that in mind we thought it would be interesting to revisit sites we covered when this feature first started in 2010. (Don’t worry, we will continue to feature interviews with new and upcoming hyperlocal publishers too.)
1. What’s been the biggest change to the site in the last 3 years?
We’ve not consciously changed too much. There have been some changes to the design of the site just to give us a bit more flexibility in what we do. I suppose the biggest change has been in terms of trying to get more voices on LichfieldLive. We’re seeing a far greater level of contributions than we’ve ever had before and it really adds to the depth of the site – and makes my life easier because I’m not having to go out and source every last word! There has also been work carried out by Philip John (the other half of the LichfieldLive double act) in developing a What’s On calendar filled by user submissions.
2. What sort of traffic do you now get and how has that changed?
I’m told the traffic has had a spike lately, but that’s probably to do with the fact we’ve had some good stories drop for us. Part of this is because we’ve gone back to what we used to do in terms of the sort of stories we are digging out. In terms of audience though, I actually couldn’t give you figures because I don’t really bother with them too much.
In the earlier days of the site I used to be really impacted by the audience numbers but part of me has mellowed out now and part of me has realised that the numbers game wasn’t the reason I got into this. I place far more value on the amount of people who are submitting content or joining the discussion in the comments section of the site – it shows that they are buying into this in the same way I am.
3. Have you seen any changes in the way that audiences interact with you?
It’s peaks and troughs really – and depends a lot on where we are focusing our energy at any one time. We’ve tried to put effort into getting comments and discussion up on the site and have achieved that well.
Our next step is going to be upping the engage through the social media channels and examining new ways for people to access our content.
One of the simplest, yet most effective, changes we’ve made to improve interaction and engagement has been the addition of a Submit Your News button.
It’s so simple and basic, but has really given people an obvious route into the site. They no longer have to dig out an email address or worry it won’t get answered. This way they know they are being able to get their content into our site easily – and the big button keeps reminding them! It’s clearly working though as we’re getting far more submissions than ever before.
4. How would you describe your relationship with the traditional media in the area?
In terms of the really local media we don’t have as close a relationship (or a relationship at all!) as you would think might be healthy. After all, we don’t run this as a business so we’re quite open to ideas, suggestions or partnerships, or even ways of improving the overall media landscape of the city.
But the fact that we’ve had the local weekly newspaper launch two websites in the last year-or-so (one of them designed to look and feel like a hyperlocal) probably tells you that they don’t intend to play nicely anytime soon, but I won’t lose any sleep over it as we’re not in this to be a rival or anything like that.
We do this because we enjoy it and people seem to like what we’re doing.
5. What new blogs, bloggers or websites have you seen which you think are doing this stuff well?
I don’t really like to cast too much judgement on others because we’re all trying to muddle our way through the great unknown and find a way for this to work for us. It would also mean I’m assessing their success or otherwise against our own metrics of success. I’m a great believer that projects should have their own identity and traditional sustainability doesn’t always have to be what we judge them on.
But in terms of sites I quite like on a personal level, then my former ‘day-job’ colleague Pete Leydon has to get a mention for his NantwichNews site. He’ll be the first to tell you how much I’ve been pestering him to change his design, but in terms of content and community engagement he sets the bar really high.
I’m also intrigued by some of the hyperlocal print projects that are beginning to develop.
Hyperlocal is an awful term that means very little and too often is seen just as a digital offering, yet a return to true, successful community-based media could come in many shapes, sizes and platforms so we have to ensure we’re open and not taking a blinkered view.
6. What story, feature or series are you most proud of over the past couple of years?
It’s hard to choose really because some stories probably don’t get the traction or discussion that others do, but to those who are involved they are massively important and that’s a huge part of what we try to do.
I suppose one of our most recent stories about £1.7million worth of cuts being introduced at Lichfield District Council was a strong one for us.
It showed that people trusted us because we were approached off-the-record by council workers who face the prospect of losing their jobs to take up the story and get it out there. It says a lot when people feel that a hyperlocal project can be given such a sensitive issue and be allowed to work with it. I think the local authority also appreciated the way we handled it.
Part of the pleasure of producing that article (and the series which will follow it) was not only the joy of bagging a big local exclusive, but also seeing the amount of discussion it has generated on social media and in the comments section below the story.
Council cuts will have a huge impact on our area and a number of people from different walks of life are now engaging with the issue – something which can only be a good thing for Lichfield District.
On a wider scale I also hope the coverage of this story helps to dismiss the myth that is often peddled that hyperlocal media can’t do ‘hard’ news well.
Yes, we don’t always have the time in our current guise to tackle stories with huge amounts of depth but when we do, we feel we do as good a job on it as anyone in the local area.
7. What is currently your biggest challenge?
Like so many hyperlocals, it really does boil down to having the time to do all the great things we want to do. It’s really rewarding to give local events, organisations etc the depth of coverage that their work deserves, but it can often be a restriction because of the voluntary nature of what we do.
As the lives are evolving for Phil and myself – we’ve both got kids now – so the way we balance and juggle our commitment to the site is having to evolve too.
There’s certainly no suggestion of saying ‘we don’t have time for this anymore’ but it’s about being smart about what we do and introducing some of the intiatives we have to improve access to content and submissions from others.
8. What are your plans for the future?
We’re just going to carry on muddling our way through this ever-changing media landscape. There’s no grand plan and there never has been to be quite honest.
Part of the fun of LichfieldLive has been the organic nature of its evolution. I don’t know what the future holds and I’m fortunate not to be in a position with LichfieldLive where I don’t have to take a punt on predicting it. It’s nice to have that flexibility to take us wherever the wind may blow.
9. What one thing would most help you to move successfully to the next phase of the site’s development?
It would be lovely to have even more people engaged with the site and taking on some of the content bits and pieces and to perhaps investigate getting our content out in different ways and on different platforms.
Similarly, it would be nice for someone with a commercial background to take things on from that side of things.
We don’t want to stockpile cash and retire to the Bahamas by commercialising what we do, but we’d love to be able to pump revenue back into projects in the community and offer increased opportunities to community members and young journalists to be able to engage with our area.
10. This is in fact a trick question, as there is no Question 10, but please add any further questions or comments for Ross below.
Videographer Franzi Baehrle has published an ebook documenting lessons in delivering video training to non-journalists.
The ebook was part of her final project for the MA Online Journalism at Birmingham City University, and based on her experiences of working with communities online and offline in Birmingham, with the Guardian Media Group’s n0tice project, the Birmingham Mail’s digital team, and independently.
I forgot to blog about it at the time it was published last Autumn, but better late than never: it’s an excellent piece of work, and well worth reading.
I’ve been working recently with the Birmingham Mail to launch Behind The Numbers, a new datablog project with Birmingham City University supported by Help Me Investigate. I’m told that it is probably the UK’s first regional newspaper datablog, although whether that’s a meaningful claim is debatable*.
The first story generated by the project – what is the worst time to be seen at A&E – was published in the newspaper a week ago. But it’s what happens next that’s going to be interesting. Continue reading
News organisations across the country will today be running stories based on a report by Big Brother Watch into the amount spent on CCTV surveillance by local authorities (PDF). The treatment of this report is a lesson in how journalists approach figures, and why context is more important than raw figures.
BBC Radio WM, for example, led this morning on the fact that Birmingham topped the table of spending on CCTV. But Birmingham is the biggest local authority in the UK by some distance, so this fact alone is not particularly newsworthy – unless, of course, you omit this fact or allow anyone from the council to point it out (ahem).
Much more interesting was the fact that the second biggest spender was Sandwell – also in the Radio WM region. Sandwell spent half as much as Birmingham – but its population is less than a third the size of its neighbour. Put another way, Sandwell spent 80% more per head of population than Birmingham on CCTV (£18 compared to Birmingham’s £10 per head).
Being on a deadline wasn’t an issue here: that information took me only a few minutes to find and work out.
The Press Association’s release on the story focused on the Birmingham angle too – taking the Big Brother Watch statements and fleshing them out with old quotes from those involved in the last big Birmingham surveillance story – the Project Champion scheme – before ending with a top ten list of CCTV spenders.
The Daily Mail, which followed a similar line, at least managed to mention that some smaller authorities (Woking and Breckland) had spent rather a lot of money considering their small populations.
How many police officers would that pay for?
A few outlets also repeated the assertions on how many nurses or police officers the money spent on surveillance would have paid for.
The Daily Mail quoted the report as saying that “The price of providing street CCTV since 2007 would have paid for more than 13,500 police constables on starting salaries of just over £23,000”. The Birmingham Mail, among others, noted that it would have paid the salaries of more than 15,000 nurses.
And here we hit a second problem.
The £314m spent on CCTV since 2007 would indeed pay for 13,500 police officers on £23,000 – but only for one year. On an ongoing basis, it would have paid the wages of 4,500 police officers (it should also be pointed out that the £314m figure only covered 336 local authorities – the CCTV spend of those who failed to respond would increase this number).
Secondly, wages are not the only cost of employment, just as installation is not the only cost of CCTV. The FOI request submitted by Big Brother Watch is a good example of this: not only do they ask for installation costs, but operation and maintenance costs, and staffing costs – including pension liabilities and benefits.
There’s a great ‘Employee True Cost Calculator‘ on the IT Centa website which illustrates this neatly: you have to factor in national insurance, pension contributions, overheads and other costs to get a truer picture.
Don’t blame Big Brother Watch
Big Brother Watch’s report is a much more illuminating, and statistically aware, read than the media coverage. Indeed, there’s a lot more information about Sandwell Council’s history in this area which would have made for a better lead story on Radio WM, juiced up the Birmingham Mail report, or just made for a decent story in the Express and Star (which instead simply ran the PA release UPDATE: they led the print edition with a more in-depth story, which was then published online later – see comments).
There’s also more about spending per head, comparisons between councils of different sizes, and between spending on other things*, and spending on maintenance, staffing (where Sandwell comes top) and new cameras – but it seems most reporters didn’t look beyond the first page, and the first name on the leaderboard.
It’s frustrating to see news organisations pass over important stories such as that in Sandwell for the sake of filling column inches and broadcast time with the easiest possible story to write. The result is a homogenous and superficial product: a perfect example of commodified news.
I bet the people at Big Brother Watch are banging their heads on their desks to see their digging reported with so little depth. And I think they could learn something from Wikileaks on why that might be: they gave it to all the media at the same time.
Wikileaks learned a year ago that this free-to-all approach reduced the value of the story, and consequently the depth with which it was reported. But by partnering with one news organisation in each country Wikileaks not only had stories treated more seriously, but other news organisations chasing new angles jealously.
*While we’re at it, the report also points out that the UK spends more on CCTV per head than 38 countries do on defence, and 5 times more in total than Uganda spends on health. “UK spends more on CCTV than Bangladesh does on defence” has a nice ring to me. That said, those defence spending figures turn out to be from 2004 and earlier, and so are not exactly ideal (Wolfram Alpha is a good place to get quick stats like this – and suggests a much higher per capita spend)
The Birmingham Mail has been trying its hand at data journalism with school admissions data. It’s a good place to start – the topic attracts a lot of interest (and so justifies the investment of time) while people tend to be interested in more than just who finishes top and bottom of the tables (justifying the choice of medium).
The results are impressive. Applications data is plotted on a Google map on the main page, while an “interactive chart” page allows you to compare schools across various criteria, and also narrow the sample by selecting from two drop down menus (town and school).
The charts have been made in Tableau, which includes a download link at the bottom. However, you need Tableau itself (free, but PC only) to open it.
A further page features links to tables for each area. Sadly, the pages containing tables do not contain any link to the raw data. This presents an extra hurdle to users – although you can scrape the table into a Google spreadsheet using the =import formula. If you want to see how, here’s a spreadsheet I created from the data by doing just that. Click on the first cell to see the formula that generates it.
I asked David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Head of Multimedia and the man whose name appears on the Tableau data, to explain the process behind the project. It seems the information was a combination of freely available data and that acquired via FOI.
“The Mail took the data available – number of places available, number of first choice applicants and number of total applicants – and worked out a ratio of first choice applicants per place. This is relevant to parents because councils try to allocate places to children based on preference once they’ve decided which schools a child is eligible for. Eligibility varies depending on type of school.
“The figures showed how popular faith schools were, and also how fierce competition was for places at grammar schools. That’s the story which generated most interest.
“As you’ve said on your blog, the hardest part was making the data uniform, and the making it relevant to readers.
“In print, it ran across three days. Day one was grammar schools, day two was all schools and day three revealed how catchment areas for oversubscribed schools which use distance from school to fill their last few places.
“Online, Google Fusion was used to create maps, Tableau for the interactive chart which lets people choose based on town or school, and Tableizer for the quick tables which appear in the section too. We also had a play with Scribble Maps, which we think has real potential for print/online newsrooms.”
It seems education reporter Kat Keogh deserves the credit for spotting the stories in the data, “with the usual support you’d expect in the newsroom – newsdesk etc.”
David and Anna Jeys experimented with the online presentation and others laid out the data for print.
This story was originally published at Poynter. Republished here for archiving purposes.
Newspapers take a lot of flak when they or mis-attribute or fail to acknowledge the work of bloggers and members of the public in reporting a story, so it was refreshing to see my two local newspapers quickly respond to amend online reports following a number of corrective comments. But more interesting was to see how they reaped the benefits of that responsiveness. Continue reading