New Model Journalism

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Archive for the ‘Citizen journalism’ Category

Which way for public policy journalism?

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Photo by Tim Green (Flickr)


The publication of the government’s ‘transparency database’ this week is the latest policy change aimed at creating greater levels of transparency about public services and spending.

But while, from the voter’s point of view, the availability of more data looks like an unqualified good, the state of public service reporting presents a more complicated picture that highlights a wider issue about the future of journalism.

Traditional public policy reporting has been particularly hard hit by the crisis in journalism, with the publications that provide close scrutiny either folding or becoming so cash-strapped that staff devote themselves more to ‘churnalism’ than investigation. Their ad revenues are likely to fall further as the squeeze on public spending and government caps on public sector advertising budgets kick in.

Meanwhile, the new tools that are emerging to reveal the workings of the public sphere bring greater opportunities for the citizen reporter. Innovative approaches such as the Armchair Auditor have been widely welcomed. And, as Laura Oliver points out, the transparency database opens up new channels for professional journalists.

But, without sufficient resources to interpret what’s going on behind the data, will it still be possible to tell a coherent story about public services? All of which raises a key question about the changing state of journalism in Britain – how far can the new models deliver?

Written by Alex

November 10th, 2010 at 7:34 am

Budding local tv scene flowers in Norwich

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Waghorn: Freedom came from the dark fringe

“We are going to build a new eco-system of news, from the bottom up”, Rick Waghorn promised the 100 or so participants at the #1000Flowers event in Norwich this week.  “We are moving away from an imposition of news from the top down to an age of participation”. 

With attendees from Scotland, Cornwall and many points between, Waghorn likened the burgeoning hyper-local television scene to the pockets of radical thought that flowered briefly at the fringes of Britain during the seventeenth century.  “Three hundred and fifty years ago ‘freedoms’ came from the dark corners of the land, and the same is true today”, he said.

That such a gathering could take place, and that it was a buzz of interest and networking, is probably is most significant feature.  There were presentations from MyCornwall.tv, LitchfieldBlog-does-tv and STV as well as interventions from representatives of the BBC, Trinity Mirror and several creative agencies with interests in this area.

Lilley: connect networks to content

In the opening session, Anthony Lilley – one-time News International Professor of Broadcast Media at Oxford university – sketched out the landscape within which these new services are appearing.  “We are now in an attention economy”, he said.  “Media used to be scarce, now it is abundant and almost all of it is irrelevant to all of us, until it becomes something in which we are interested.” 

He suggested regulation continued to be “an analogue approach to digital problems”.  And worried about new media’s tendency to draw us all into ghettos of people with similar interests and prejudices to ourselves.  His most interesting suggestion, though, was that high speed broadband might be licensed as ITV franchises once were, with an obligation to fund local news.

Lilley’s adage that it is the content genres that matured a decade ago that are today making the money – such as tech blogs – was certainly borne out by those participants who described their experiences of making hyper local tv.  Dorian Sprackman from MyCornwall.tv, for example, represented most when he said: “We are helping to give local communities a voice and to allow them to represent themselves”, but admitted that when it came to finances they had to “beg, borrow and steal”.

 The elephant that remained unremarked upon at the conference was the essentially opposing interests of some of the participants.  Most there appeared to be from largely voluntary, determinedly local, start ups – precisely the 1000 Flowers of the event’s title.  A few – STV and Trinity Mirror – however, represented public companies whose interest in hyper local content is significantly less anarchic that those with whom they were willing to share platforms yesterday.

Waghorn did not draw his seventeenth-century simile to conclusion.  Those who have high hopes for the burgeoning hyper local tv scene of today should perhaps give a moments thought to fate of those seventeenth century radicals to whom he likened them.  After a relatively short-lived burst of enthusiasm, most met decidedly sticky ends.

Written by Tim Dawson

November 5th, 2010 at 9:04 am

Multilingual hyperlocal sets new standards of participation

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A new twist on community-focused media comes with the launch of
the Alhambra Source, a multilingual hyperlocal east of Los Angeles.

The founders of the Alhambra Source hope that publishing in English, Chinese and Spanish will increase civil participation in the Californian town, which has a big Asian and Latin American population. The project, which is funded by a grant of $10 million, is run collaboratively by professional journalists, students and local residents.

Written by Alex

October 21st, 2010 at 3:37 am

Armchair auditors make life less comfy for councils

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Photo by Katey Nicosia (Flickr)


As part of a series examining what the digital revolution means for public policy, NMJ talks to the man behind Armchair Auditor

With the spotlight increasingly on public spending, websites like Armchair Auditor and Spotlight on Spend are coming into their own.

The sites aim to make the spending data published by councils accessible to the public in a way that has, in the past, required specialised journalists to dig around and extrapolate the information for a meaningful story.

Adrian Short started Armchair Auditor after the general election, motivated by frustration at the way councils present the public with huge, undigestable tranches of raw data. His site, by contrast, breaks down information from his local council Windsor and Maidenhead into details of specific services and suppliers. ‘Most people are not so interested in the data as a whole, but a particular council service or supplier,’ he says. ‘They not looking at the big picture; they’re looking at the small picture.’

Fired by the idea of making such data nationally available, he also put a piece of opensource software up on the site, which is downloadable and customisable for use in other boroughs. And, while not making any money from this, he has found that as a pioneer in the field, his services have been in demand by those wanting training to install and use the software.

Short had been quietly beavering away with his open data campaign for years, pestering councils to make details of their spending more accessible to the public. And now, with the government’s request that councils put details of all expenditure over £500 online by January 2011 looming, councils have a good reason to jump on the open data bandwagon.

But the trend towards greater transparency brings new problems. Short warns against councils ‘doing it on a tick-box basis because Pickles said they should’. Making data accessible can be a costly process, especially as publication may generate more requests for information. So, he argues, councils need to complement greater transparency with a public engagement process so that the benefits are widely felt: ‘It’s not just about the tools; it is about the whole political process.’

Otherwise, as pursestrings tighten, there’s a risk that the open data culture could go into reverse. ‘In two or three years’ time, you could look back at open data and say, “people promised a lot of stuff, and it never happened.” It’s quite possible.’

Written by Alex

October 15th, 2010 at 6:00 am

Can armchair auditors scrutinise public spending?

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Photo by Marit & Toomas Hinnosaar (Flickr)

It looks like the government’s cost-cutting agenda is dovetailing nicely with the rise of citizen journalism.

Abolishing the Audit Commission in August, Communities minister Eric Pickles called for an army of ‘armchair auditors’ to help scrutinise public spending in future.

The minister may have in mind the likes of Adrian Short, who runs Armchair Auditor, a site offering downloadable opensource software to make local authority data accessible to the public.

Short started the site after the general election showcasing data from his own council, Windsor and Maidenhead. A software developer by trade and open data activist by passion, he hopes that the software – customisable for each local authority – will become widely used.

It does not, he told NMJ, attempt to do the journalist’s job: ‘It’s a research tool – the tool itself does not tell stories. There are stories embedded in the data. If you’ve got a particular interest, you can follow it up.’

Meanwhile, audit experts are taking a measured view of what armchair auditors can achieve. In a recent interview for Elected magazine, Audit Commission chair Michael Higgins said: ‘They’re not auditors in any technical or qualified sense of the word – they’re simply informed citizens who by virtue of greater transparency and the web will be able to investigate.’

He added that armchair auditors might better be called ‘armchair comparators’, complementing formal audit by providing the public with the data to compare performance across particular sectors.

Upcoming policy developments will create more opportunities for the scrutiny of public spending. In January, all local authorities are ‘requested’ by government to put details of all spending over £500 online. Councils dragging their feet may find that legislation to enforce this follows.

While publications covering the public sector increasingly retrenching, the combination of a politically-driven transparency agenda and the rise of the citizen auditor are likely to make for interesting times over the next couple of years.

NMJ will publish a case study of the Armchair Auditor at a future date.

Written by Alex

October 4th, 2010 at 3:59 am

Hyperlocals influence housing policy

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Photo by Calotype46 (Flickr)

There are signs that the new wave of hyperlocals springing up across the country are having an impact on the decisions and services that affect people’s homes and local areas.

Research for a recent article on Inside Housing turned up plenty of examples of influencing policy at a ‘granular’ level.

Residents of one particular street in Bournville, Birmingham, were disgruntled that Birmingham City Council were no longer planting trees outside their homes due to the higher costs of planting in a paved area. But online publicity on hyperlocal website Bournville Village and a discussion with the local councillor brought about a change of heart.

Site editor and social media lecturer David Harte said: ‘We might have had an impact on changing council’s policy on planting trees in the pavement,’ he says. ‘In some ways it’s trivial, but it’s the kind of thing that gets residents uptight.’

He added that traditional local media would not have covered the issue: ‘The newspaper might be interested in it at the point at which it becomes a row between two councillors, but not at the point of influencing policy.’

For some of NMJ’s case studies of hyperlocals, click here and here.

Written by Alex

September 26th, 2010 at 11:14 am

What Cognitive Surplus means for journalism

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Photo by Poptech (Flickr)

Clay Shirky’s second book is replete with examples of how community and citizen-produced media are making the world a better place.

This kind of optimism is attractive, and goes some way to explain why Cognitive Surplus has been hailed as The Book about the e-revolution. In it, Shirky amplifies his thesis – first made in Here Comes Everybody – that ‘the wiring of humanity lets us treat free time as a shared global resource’. (p 27) To put it another way, using a favourite word of his, the ‘aggregate’ of time made possible by digital technology leads to more altruism.

The problem with this argument is not that Shirky is wrong. Many online developments from Ushahidi, a multi-media platform enabling ordinary people to pool information about fast-moving crises, to the tiniest hyperlocal, are manifestly a force for the good. The difficulty lies with what he doesn’t acknowledge – the darker side of the digital revolution which, if unchecked, undermines the quality of any journalism worth having.

When he does deal with the less palatable sides of this e-volution, Shirky does so only cursorily. For example, he acknowledges the possibility that what’s been dubbed ‘digital sharecropping’ – the profiting by commercial platform owners from the free labour of the amateur contributors that create their product – might be exploitative, but goes on to put such a view down to the ‘professional jealousy’ of journalists. (p 57)

The book relies heavily on this distinction between professionals and amateurs. Shirky argues that the motivation between those who create content for money and those who do so for love is fundamentally different, implying the latter group to be motivated by a purity that their professional counterparts can’t rival. Huh? When was the last time you met a journalist who was in it for the security and good pay? Has he never heard of vocation – that mix of conviction and temperament that propels journos, along with nurses, artists and hosts of others – into careers that are perilous, badly paid, or both, largely because they can’t bear to do anything else?

Of course, journalists, like everyone else, have interests to defend. But they know about the dark side of the digital revolution because they’re up against it all the time, and see first hand the cost-cutting and short termism that it sometimes fosters. In jeopardising accuracy, independence and scrutiny of the powerful, these are trends that are destructive of the good.

But perhaps the best review of Cognitive Surplus would be a short one: It’s not the technology, stupid. It’s the economics.

Clay Shirky’s Cognitive Surplus: Creativity and Generosity in a Connected Age is published by Penguin, 2010

Written by Alex

September 7th, 2010 at 11:09 am

American innovations fill news gap

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A round of awards for journalistic innovation from the US highlight some of the emerging solutions to the crisis in news reporting.

This year’s Knight-Batten Innovation Awards run by J-Lab, which promote the use of digital technology to get people involved in public life, rewards some path-breaking initiatives.

The winner of the top prize Sunlight Live, is typical of an emerging new breed of hybrid organisations with a journalistic mission. A think-tank which campaigns for greater transparency of government, its reporting arm brings journalistic techniques and new technologies to bear on government data.

It’s not rocket science, but it’s the sort of thing that doesn’t get done by desperate, pared-down news rooms. The Obameter – a project tracking how many promises made by Barack Obama during his presidential campaign are coming to fruition – also got an award.

Kenyan-based project haiti.ushahidi.com was lauded for developing a citizen-reporting tool which was used to produce crisis mapping during the Haiti earthquake in January this year.

For a fuller list of the awards, see here.

Written by Alex

July 21st, 2010 at 6:06 am

Citizen journalism fails to fill news gap

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Blogs and community websites may complement news from traditional providers, but they aren’t filling the ‘information shortfall’ created by the crisis in the media, research from the US shows.

This conclusion, drawn by researchers at the Missouri School of Journalism, is likely to apply equally here in the UK.

But just as the British crisis in journalism lags behind that in the American media, so too does research into its effects. Given that evidence and well-grounded arguments may be what is needed to ensure quality journalism in future, even on points we already ‘know’, this is one area where Britain might do well to emulate the people over the pond.

For more details of the report, see here.

Written by Alex

July 15th, 2010 at 6:49 am

National media feed off hyperlocals, claims start-up

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In the second of a series of case studies of hyperlocals, NMJ looks at Pits n Pots, the site with a reputation for hard-hitting political coverage of Stoke- on-Trent

If the experience of Pits n Pots is anything to go by, the path to successful hyperlocalism never runs smooth.

The site was born of a drunken night in September 2008 when founder Tony Wallely, frustrated at the lack of local political news in Stoke on Trent, decided to start a blog to plug some of the gaps.

Now, with the help of more technically-minded partner Mike Rawlins, the site has migrated to an independently-hosted url and won itself a reputation for tough coverage of the city’s political scene.

It gets 500 000 page views a month, and has 7,200 subscribers to its weekly email. In January 2009 its live coverage of an English Defence League march through Stoke on Trent attracted 10,000 unique users in one day.

But Pits n Pots’ scrutiny of council affairs, such as the disclosure that a council-run scheme to help businesses through the credit crunch benefited just one firm, or the highlighting of an Audit Commission report that council communications do not represent good value for money, have led to accusations that the site is ‘anti-Stoke on Trent’.

‘We’re not,’ says Walley. ‘We love the city. We’re absolutely passionate about Stoke on Trent, but we can’t help reporting some of the calamitous cock-ups.’

He is pleased that the relationship with the council – at once point so bad that he was forcibly ejected from a council meeting – has now improved, and Pits n Pots reporters are routinely invited to press briefings.

Getting recognition from within the profession has also been a challenge. While some journalists in the established media have been very supportive, others have told Pits N Pots plainly they are ‘not proper journalists’, according to Walley.

He and Rawlins are also disappointed that the mainstream media sometimes run stories broken on the site without attributing them to Pits n Pots. One story about the EDL using a Polish spitfire was widely picked up by papers such as The Daily Mail and Guardian without any reference to the source, they say.

Nonetheless, with a team of five regular volunteers providing content in a range of formats including video, editorially the site is going from strength to strength.

Both founders have jobs with sufficient flexibility to enable them to keep up the coverage – Walley is the managing director of an aluminium company, while Rawlins works for the hyperlocal training organisation talkaboutlocal.

But neither has the time to invest in the business side, such as selling advertising or developing other revenue streams to fund the things they’d like to do next – pay a dedicated team of journalists and buy better recording equipment.

‘We want to push the boundaries, but we’re also really frustrated that we haven’t got the time to make it as good as it could be,’ says Wallely. ‘Pits n Pots is at the crossroads. It can stay the way it is, or it needs to generate some income.’

With more and more hyperlocal sites getting established around the country, his difficulty is likely to be an increasingly common one.

Written by Alex

July 12th, 2010 at 6:10 am