Carmel, although she doesn’t know it, is doing things that in years to come with be second nature to community workers. She set-up a Facebook page for one of the community she serves. She’s savvy enough to know that the 83 likes she has on her page isn’t the measure of what she’s doing. What is is that when she posts other neighbourhood Facebook pages pick up on this and share her content which allows her to reach thousands.
At the heart of it is a simple thing. It’s basically the council talks to it’s residents at the place where they’re gathering.
There should be more people like Carmel and in truth there are. But they’re often the people and in places you’d least expect.
Similarly, hyperlocal blogger Pauline Sargent is another glimpse of what things should look like. Her hyperlocal site Drimnagh is Good seeks to better tell people about what is going on in the community and sites like hers should be welcomed as part of the news landscape. They won’t always say great things about the council. But then newspapers don’t either but we think nothing about engaging with them where we can.
Okay, so should we start to think of a world without local newspapers?
Or at any rate a place where local newspapers are no longer the only show in town?
Go to Cannock in Staffordshire and you’re closer than you think.
Gone or retreated in the past four years are the Rugeley Post, Cannock Mercury and the Rugeley Mercury.
Another of them, The Chase Post, closed this week as 45 jobs were cut from Midlands titles.
As a young man I spent some time on work experience on the Post learning the ropes.
Mike Lockley, its editor on closure, was in charge when I was there and recently celebrated 25-years at the helm.
A dynamo of a man powered by his love of a news story he was capable of a generosity of spirit to those looking to find a start in the industry. A generation of staff and work experience people have him to thank. Me included.
So do the school children who saw pink custard back on the menu after some Mike Lockley-fired Chase Post campaigning.
I have him to thank for my first front page by-line. A piece on a Cannock musician whose speculative letter to Reggie Kray resulted in an offer of money from the gangland kingpin and an offer of unspecified ‘help.’
“I was a bit worried when Reggie Kray wrote to me and offered me money,” the musician told me.
“What if he wanted a favour doing? And have you seen his writing?”
He was right. The note handed me looked like it had been written by a left handed 10-year-old and was signed chillingly ‘Your friend, Reggie Kray.’
Of course, Reggie only became ‘gangland kingpin’ in the stumbling copy that Mike re-wrote. My version was far more boring. But the cutting helped get me a job.
In a piece written a few days before closure was announced Mike celebrated 25 years in charge by writing that ‘a town without a newspaper is a town without a heart.’
So what of the future of news?
The excellent Dave Briggs, who does things with the web in local government, once rolled his eyes at me on this subject.
“The thing is Dan,” he said. “There really is nothing in life as boring as the future of news debate.”
In a sense he’s right.
Because out in the real world it’s not really an issue.
Because people are finding their own ways of getting news whether its from across the web, Facebook, Twitter or a hyperlocal blog.
Think of the now dead Football Final. As a kid the paper shop was full of blokes at 5.30pm waiting for the Pink to be delivered because they’d missed James Alexander Gordon read the final scores on Grandstand on BBC1.
If football scores have been sorted then what of news?
I’m not sure there is a golden bullet answer. As Alastair Campbell told the Express & Star which still circulates in Cannock, the news agenda today is far more fractured.
Hyperlocal blogs like Connect Cannock are part of the future, there’s no doubt about that.
So are Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn streams targeted at micro audiences around a library, a piece of open space or a service area.
So, what does this mean for local government comms teams?
Once again, the need to think about what you are doing and how much resource you point at the web.
Ex-journalists have often been hired in local government press offices because they know how to write and package information for newspapers.
Many of them are changing with the changing landscape.
But as the social web grows how long is it before a blogger gets hired by a local government comms team for their ability to communicate using WordPress, Facebook and Cover It Live?
Back in 1997, the first Walsall Council website sported a dancing light bulb.
No, really. It did.
There’s also a notice telling people that the website was under construction (it’s slide number two on the presentation embedded in this post.) If you’re on a mobile device the embed may not be showing. If that’s the case the link is here.
We need to evolve, learn and innovate. Nothing demonstrates that better than the late 90s webpage frozen in time showing Billy the Bulb and one giant leap for a council website. Time has moved on and we need to too.
At the Socitm Learning from Better Connected event at Manchester there was plenty of examples of innovation.
Not least the forward-thinking webteam who ripped up the rule book and re-designed the liverpool.gov.uk website based on what people want rather than what officers think people want.
Here’s my preasentation that I’ve posted to Slideshare.
Included on it are:
Some stats on internet use.
Some stats on the mobile web.
A quick map of the Walsall media landscape 2011 and 2005.
A quick case study on engaging with the community through Flickr.
As one wag said: “A Prime Minister addressing a room full of geeks about open data? I’ve waited years for this.”
At the Wellcome Trust in London more than 200 people gathered for the International Open Data conference.
David Cameron delivered a recorded message and Minister Francis Maude was there in person. So was uber-geek Tim Berners-Lee.
Arranged by the Open Knowledge Foundation This was a chance to launch the UK Government’s data set of its department’s spend over £25,000.
That’s 194,000 lines of text and £80 billion of spending. The link to it is here.
What’s the point in that? The aim is to open the Government’s books to allow residents, journalists and business a chance to have a look.
Pithily one newspaper commentator posed the question: ‘A great leap forward or masochistic folly?’
It is madness isn’t it?
Actually, no. It’s a movement supported by left and right alike which has the aim of cutting waste, allowing entrepreneurs to flourish and a fairer society.
The event may have been Whitehall focussed but there are powerful golden strands that run through all government. Local and national.
Local government has already been asked to publish items of spend over £500 under the label ‘spending transparency.’
They have until January 1 to do it and as Cameron and Maude 100 of more than 300 odd councils had published.
There is a feeling within Whitehall that some will quietly choose not to publish calculating the flak they get for not completing a slightly arcane process is less than the grief a particular financial skeleton may pose.
It’s unlikely Whitehall will allow this to pass without prompting closer inspection.
It’s also unlikely local government will not be asked to publish more as open data. There is more to come. Much more.
Here are some broad messages from the day for local government:
SO, WHAT’S THE BIG PICTURE?
Open data won’t be an easy ride for people in authority. As Francis Maude said: “It’s going to be very uncomfortable for government and local government. Media outlets will find things that will cause embarrassment.”
It’s not going to go away. It’s easy to like open data in opposition, says Maude. You can shine a light at others’ decisions. However, he pledged there were two key advocates – him and the Prime Minister.
The aim is to move influence away from the traditional centres – “information is power. This is a power shift,” says Maude, “to move the decision making away from Westminister.
Expect better decision making on spending – “Once you know you are being scrutinised you’ll be more careful. MP knows this all to well,” Maude says.
It’s FOI turbo charged – It would have taken journalists years of submitting FOI requests to build up the picture revealed in the £25k data sets, the Guardian say.
HOW DOES THIS AFFECT THE PRIVATE SECTOR?
Contracts should allow for open data to be released – The presumption for contracts is transparency, says Maude.
It’ll create wealth – Open government data will create a £6 billion industry, says the Minister.
A website to point the spotlight on the private sector too – Chris Taggart has built opencorporates to shine the light at which big companies are doing well from public sector contracts.
HOW WILL ALL THIS BENEFIT GOVERNMENT – CENTRAL AND LOCAL?
Waste detection – By spotting where the waste is money will be spent better, Francis Maude says.
Procurement needs to get its act together – know what is in the contract before you sign a deal since the detail what it will purchase will be closely monitored, the Minister says.
WHAT IS NEXT?
Historical data will be released – There will be open data from previous administrations. This will help to compare and contrast with the current era.
More public agencies will follow – There are 100,000 public bodies. There’s no timescale for these just yet.
There will be a right to data – David Cameron has pledged that people will ask and receive data for a personal and business use. This is massive for local democracy.
Open data will move from spending into crime – Expect interactive crime maps in the New Year, Maude says.
SO, WHO WILL BE LOOKING THROUGH THIS DATA?
Journalists – the media needs to be data savvy. Data journalism will become more and more important, says Tim Berners-Lee.
“Chatting people up in pubs was one part of your job,” he told journalists in the room. “Poring over data and equiping yourself with the tools to look for the juicy bits will be important.
“Data journalism will be part of the future.”
Right now, local newspapers haven’t grasped what data journalism is. Don’t hold your breath just yet either.
Traditional news is emergency services calls, court and council agendas. It’s not data mining with csv files.
What may put it on the agenda are national stories re-written with a local.
Hyperlocal bloggers – many bloggers have geek tendancies that will happily work with online tools. Stories from all this will be broken by an 18-year-old rather than a laptop. That’s quite exciting. Tools such as timetric.com where graphs can be built using data and embedded in blogs can help with this.
Geeks – an inexhaustable army of geeks will pore over the data – “what happens when the flashflood of geeks go away?” mused Tim Berners-Lee. “It’s perennial.”
Industry – Data company Spikes Cavell have released spotlightonspend.org to interpret local government data. This hasn’t been without criticism from the opendata community who argue against councils dealing solely with the company and not releasing open data too.
Social entrepreneurs – Chris Taggart has built openlylocal.com as a platform for local government data and has been a pioneer in the field.
Real people – Fascinatingly, The Guardian had a team of four working for four days on the data before it was published. They didn’t think they could glean everything themselves. What they did do was make it possible for the public to use the tools to search for stories. This is the wisdom of the crowd as an extra pair of hands in the newsroom. You can download their app here.
BUT IT’S NOT ALL GOOD NEWS….
There’s no funding for people to cross check the data – As one questioner pointed out the tools that held government to account – journalists – have historically been cross subsidised by other sources such as small ads.
There’s no funding for these resources. There’s a question mark against the sustainability and effectiveness of tools.
Creative commons credits:
Tim Berners-Lee: Paul Clarke via wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee
He’s also dead right in calling on both sides to cut the other some slack.
Paul Bradshaw writing a guest post for Podnosh made some excellent points in how local government should make information easier to access.
Mike Rawlins, of Talk About Local, who also contributes to Pits N Pots in Stoke-on-Trent has written an excellent post from his perspective on this and dead badgers and does, as Simon suggests, cut some slack.
Sasha Taylor has also blogged from the session from a police perspective.
Twelve months ago I wrote a blog post on how the blogger – press office relationship was a source of conflict.
The 10 points I wrote then I still stand by. The full post is here. The edited highlights are boiled down to this
FIVE THINGS A PRESS OFFICE CAN DO:
Treat them as journalists.
Put them on press release mailing lists.
Use blog comment boxes as a press officer.
Accept not everything bloggers write is going to be favourable. Complain politely – and constructively – if things are wrong.
Respect what bloggers do.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR BLOGGERS:
If you have courage of your conviction put your name to what you do you’ll find your voice getting heard far better.
Don’t be afraid to check stories.
Respect press officers. They have a job to do too.
Be accurate. The same rules for newspapers apply to blogs.
Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists to save your life and potentially your house.
But listening to the both sides talk at the session, there’s also a few things a bright press officer can do.
1. Create blog friendly content – A conventional press release is tailored for the print media. That’s not necessarily blog-friendly. A short film posted to YouTube or Vimeo is. A two minute film to explain with an interview the points made in the release would work.
2. Add pics as a matter of course – Even if it’s a stock pic. Mike Rawlins of Talk About Local made the point that there is a demand for images. They’re going to source a pic from Google images anyway. Why not provide a good one?
3. Judge when to respond – the excellent Michael Grimes of the Citizenship Foundation re-purposed the US military’s flowchart of engagement with bloggers. It’s good advice when to engage and when to ignore the internet troll.
4. Build relationships – In print media you know you’ll get a better story about countryside placing it with a reporter who is passionate about green issues. So why not do it online too?
6. Learn about open data. It’s not a geek topic anymore. It’s come into the mainstream and bloggers are at the forefront. Local data advisor and hyperlocal blogger Will Perrin has pointed out that press officers will need excel skills. Why? Because you’ll need to interrogate data sets just as you’ll need to leaf through council minutes.
Creative commons credits:
No papers today – Katmere http://www.flickr.com/photos/katmere/51065495/sizes/m/in/photostream/
Antique clippings – D Sharon Pruitt http://www.flickr.com/photos/pinksherbet/4799271086/
Business people are busy people. They’re at their desk early planning their day. A targeted email with 15 relevant news headlines is sent before 9am. The email links back to the website.
MORAL: They’d looked into their audience. Who it was and how they could best be communicated with. Then they tailored it. They DIDN’T build it Field of Dreams style and hope they’d come.
How do they know what stories are popular?
Google analytics help tell the journalist what stories are popular and which are not. Extra time and effort is then spent on ones which are popular.
MORAL: Don’t work blind. Listen to see what is popular.
Where does content come from?
Refreshingly, it’s fresh copy. Stories emerge from networking, talking to contacts as well as through standard press releases and announcements. They started as a two man team and have increased to six in the West Midlands. With similar sites in Yorkshire and the North West as well as the West Midlands they have a turn-over of around £1 milion. That’s a serious figure.
MORAL: Well written content updated daily can work. Traditional journalism CAN work.
What about paywalls?
What are paywalls? They are barriers to content you need a subscription to get past. They won’t work, Marc says. But they’ll work beautifully to push traffic towards sites like The Business Desk. They won’t work for hyperlocals.
MORAL: Information is free on the web. Think of other ways to be self-sustaining.
So how does the thing pay for itself?
Site advertising pays but increasingly events do too. Niche events that 40 people will pay money for insights on work, for example. They also become ways to built the online community offline too.
MORAL: Don’t look at one way to generate funds.
What about the site traffic?
Unlike newspapers, Marc was hugely free with insights into his site traffic. There’s about 1,200 visitors every day with 2.5 to three page impressions per visit.
This is from a base of 4,282 and 2,400 email subscribers. Small numbers? Maybe. But this is a start-up. And remember, the Birmingham Post used to sell around 10,000 a week.
MORAL: Build a community around a niche.
Email? Isn’t that boring?
It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s big figures. I’ll say that again. It generates 90 per cent of site traffic. That’s not boring. It’s brilliant. It’s not something unique to thebusinessdesk.com. The IDeA Communities of Practice site does something with a daily email update.
MORAL: E-mail is the overlooked communication tool of web 2.0. As late 90s as it is you can reach big numbers through it. It also acts as a tap on the shoulder to remind you that site you signed up to is there.
So, what’s to learn?
I’m convinced there are lessons here, not just for news websites but for web users in general and yes, that does mean the public sector.
1. Think basic. Email may not be sexy. But people use it. In large numbers. Get an email subscription going. Don’t be afraid to be web1.0.
2. Think sustainable (content). Think about how the site will last. Make sure there’s a team not one overworked individual.
3. Think sustainable (finance). Think through how it can last and if not be a not-for-profit at least be a not-for-loss.
4. Research. Put some thought into your audience. Think who you are writing for. Think how and when they’d like content delivered. Be niche.
5. Wear different hats. Be a journalist. Be a marketeer. Be an advertising sales person.
“Citizen journalists,” the sneer goes, “Whatever next? Citizen surgeons?”
It’s a glib, throwaway, catch-all comment designed to dismiss social media sites which spread news without the aid of shorthand, a spiralbound notepad and an NUJ card.
The argument goes that like a surgeon’s scalpel only someone trained can handle news properly.
But with the quiet opening up of the BBC College of Journalism website another brick in the ever shaky argument comes toppling down.
The website http://www.bbc.co.uk/journalism/ has been run internally for the corporation for three years. It is a treasure trove of skills refined from more than 60 years of award winning peerless journalism.
To survive a 21st century journalist must blog, podcast, film, edit and interview and write.
In the era of multi-skilling the press officer will also do well to take a look at the array of skills the site offers coaching in. There is plenty there for them.
But where the BBC training site’s hidden strength really lies is in the trasure trove of skills it offers to the hyperlocal blogger.
Recently, there has been a fierce debate in the UK digital community about defamation and media law. The Talk About Local project to encourage hyperlocals has started to debate it. Bloggers such as The Lichfield Blog’s Philip John have come up with some hyperlocal friendly resources.
But what the BBC site offers is a more extensive, professional insight into what will and won’t get you into trouble.
I’m tempted to call the opening up of the BBC training site as their greatest contribution to digital since the BBC Acorn computer pushed home computing out of the science fiction pages into the spare room in 1981.
This website starts to put quality journalism within the grasp of anyone who can operate both a WordPress site and the BBC’s training pages.
For a qualified journalist looking to embrace change this is a welcome resource.
To the press officer it is a reference point. But also another signal that the 21st century landscape is changing.
To a blogger it should be bookmarked and memorised.
SEVEN TOP TIPS FROM THE BBC THAT COULD PROVE USEFUL IN SOCIAL MEDIA….
1. A guide to defamation These tips will be especially useful to bloggers. But also with the ever changing media landscape handy for press officers and journalists a long time out of NCTJ college.
2. Contempt of court You don’t have to be in the dock to get on the wrong side of a court of law. The rights and restrictions that govern news – and yes, blogs – are complex and can be devastating if you get it wrong.
3. Using submitted content A great insight into how the BBC uses it. For hyperlocals where photography may rely heavily on submitted pics this could be of use.
4. Original journalism There are news rooms across the country drained of experience and talent that could benefit from this. High standards are never a bad thing.
5. Bloggers and the law A contribution from Birmingham City University leacturer Paul Bradshaw – @paulbradshaw on Twitter. Nice to know the BBC are listening to someone like Paul who has a foot in the blogosphere as well as journalism.
6. Making short news films With YouTube in the driving seat high production values are not needed. But a few tips that could transfer into making something watchable can’t be a bad idea.
7. Filming interviews A few minutes with a Flip video and you’ll know it’s a tricky business balancing the questioning with the filming.
There is an amazing vibrancy, vibrancy and passion about hyperlocal blogs.
With the bottom falling out of newspapers self-motivated people are filling the news gap themselves.
No town, housing estate or tower block is too small or disconnected to support these grassroots newsgatherers.
But to a qualified journalist turned press officer like myself the potential for danger in the ice field of libel law is terrifying.
Chatting to the excellent Philip John of the Lichfield Blog at a recent Black Country Social Media Cafe it’s clear this hasn’t escaped attention.
The idea of registering a company for a blog is an excellent way of getting yourself some protection.
Why? Because British libel laws are amongst the most draconian in the world.
At some point I’m convinced someone will lose their house in the not too distant future over an internet blog post. It’s potentially that serious.
This isn’t a shot across the bows for local bloggers from an old hack who doesn’t ‘get’ social media. Far from it.
In the words of former Sunday Times editor Harold Evans “I love newspapers. But I’m intoxicated by the speed and possibility of the internet.”
This is more a call to action for the blogging community to be as legally aware as they are SEO-savvy.
Of course, not everyone should have to take a law exam before they are allowed onto WordPress. That defeats the object of Web 2.0.
What I am arguing for is as the blogging community slowly self-organises legal advice, or a place where a blogger could find it, is an overdue must.
It’s excellent that Talk About Local have further enhanced their reputation by spotting this need and they now have a place to go.
They have also drafted a nine point manifesto themselves to help. Maybe a tenth should be “Be legal.”?
This would be self-preservation. It could also help construct foundations for a bridge of trust between bloggers and local councils and other organisations.
With the advent of no win no fee legal firms sniffing around blog comments it’s also increasingly important.
SIX things every hyperlocal needs to know about media law:
1. Libel law covers the web – legal action is rare but you need to know what you blog about could become actionable in every jurisdiction on the planet. Technically.
2. It is big money – Living Marxism magazine folded in 2000 after two television reporters and ITN won £375,000 after being accused of sensationalising images of an emaciated Muslim in a Serb run detention camp in Bosnia.
3. It’s useful to know what libel is – there are defences against libel. Here is a link with British Libel laws explained
4. Don’t touch court reports – The rules around court reporting in the UK are so strict, so complex and carry unlimited penalties that all but the foolish would look at it. Take freelance reporters’ copy direct if you like. Don’t lift it from newspapers. And don’t try it at home. Contempt of court is about as much fun as serious illness.
5. Have a copy of McNae’s Essential Law for Journalists by your side. It’s the media industry standard. It can save lives. It could save yours.
6. Use the Talk About Local site designed as a signpost for finding legal advice.
Philip John: Getting serious about #hyperlocal blogs. Great piece about media law http://bit.ly/VCf1D
It was set up by two residents who wanted to make a difference and get a voice heard. Six weeks from launch they had 600 friends on Facebook.
All of a sudden the figures are stacking up.
It could be a town, a borough, a housing estate or even a tower block or two streets. Hyperlocal blogs are beginning to fill a gap. Too small for newspapers to compete with they are their worst nightmares.
Armed with a wordpress site and enthusiasm people can now have their say.
So where’s the friction?
Experienced press officers are used to dealing with trained reporters who know where the law is drawn.
They are often staffed by ex-reporters who earned their spurs the hard way.
Who are these bloggers, they say? Where’ve they come from? Why give them oxygen of publicity by dealing with them in an already busy day?
In Stoke, the Pits n Pots blog say they are not allowed near the press bench despite strong council coverage. It is said that the authority’s communications unit won’t speak to bloggers. At Talk About Local there was at times searing resentment at some press offices’ disregard of bloggers. At best it’s seen as unhelpful. At worst it’s deliberate.
Like them or not, many local government press officers do care passionately about their job and get very irritated when mis-truths and opinion get promoted as hard fact.
On the other side are bloggers, many who don’t have journalistic experience whose ignorance of media law could cost them their house. They care passionately about the place they live or work. That’s why they blog.
Let’s be quite clear here.
Bloggers and press officers are here to stay.
Does it have to lead to friction? Not necessarily. But while each side views the other with suspicion and at times hostility it’s hard to see a way through.
SO WHY SHOULD COUNCILS DEAL WITH BLOGGERS?
If a council’s reputation is being debated in a newspaper a good press officer is there.
If its being done through the letters page the press officer can take issue there.
Go where the debate is.
If that’s Facebook, Twitter or the comment boxes of a newspaper website or yes, a blog, go there.
An organisation’s reputation is increasingly what is being said about it online. So it makes no sense to bury heads in sand and pretend blogs will go away. They won’t.
FIVE THINGS A PRESS OFFICE CAN DO:
1. Treat them as journalists. Give them access to the same information. Coca Cola launched energy drink Relentless in part by explaining the product to bloggers first.
2. Put them on press release mailing lists. It’s not the Crown jewels. Its public information. Who knows? You may even correct misinformation at source.
3. Use blog comment boxes as a press officer. Say who you are and where you are from. Put the council’s position politely and link to further info where you can.
4. Accept not everything bloggers write is going to be favourable. And complain politely – and constructively – if things are wrong.
5. Respect what they do. More often than not they are residents who are articulating issues. Years ago, this was through letters pages. Now its online.
But it’s not all one way traffic. Like the best local newspaper Diamond wedding caption reveals, any relationship is a question of give and take.
FIVE SUGGESTIONS FOR BLOGGERS:
1. Don’t be anonymous. If you have courage of your conviction put your name to what you do. You’ll find your voice getting heard far better.
2. Don’t be afraid to check stories. You’ve heard a new housing estate is being built on playing fields. Isn’t it better to confirm that first – if you can?
3. Respect press officers. They have a job to do too.
4. Be accurate. The same rules for newspapers apply to blogs.
5. Buy a copy of McNae’s Essential Law For Journalists. The best, most readable book on media law there is. If you are even halfway serious about blogging on issues that could be controversial buy it and put it next to your computer. It tells you what’s legal and what is not. It. Will. Save. Your. Life.