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A sense of freedom: how FOI has reshaped journalism

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Originally published in the Jul/Aug 14 edition of The Journalist

Putting together a twentieth-anniversary nostalgia feature about the takeover of chocolate manufacturers Rowntree, gave Gavin Aitchison an idea.  The confectioner’s demise still has deep resonances in York, where the paper Aitchison news edits, The Press, is based.  The chocolatier once employed upwards of 10,000 staff in the city.

“I thought that local people would be fascinated to know what actually happened in the run up to the takeover, so I put in a Freedom of Information (FOI)  request to the Cabinet Office for copies of all the original correspondence and minutes relating to Nestle’s successful bid”, he remembers.

That was in 2008.  His request was refused.  Then in 2010, the BBC won and Information Tribunal case that secured release of Cabinet minutes relating to 1986’s ‘Westland helicopters crisis’.  The judgement set out explicit criteria in which Cabinet documents should be published, which Aitchison thought were sufficient to reopen the Rowntree case.

He applied again, and was turned down again.  He appealed and eventually, after two tribunal hearings and five years after his original request, the information was granted.  “We finally got the story last December”, he says.  “It might not have rocked governments, but from our readers’ perspective, many of whom still feel very emotional about the case, our effort was easily justified”.

Aitchison has a national reputation for his FOI reporting, but his story could have come from many UK newsrooms.   In 2013 more than 15,000 stories appeared in British newspapers that mentioned Freedom of Information requests – and that figure, based on a search of a newspaper database, almost certainly understates the overall picture significantly.  In that year – and these examples are plucking at random from the same source, the Daily Telegraph returns 799 stories that mentioned FOI, the Daily Mail 994, and the Yorkshire Post 259 – and this is just the print editions.  At the York Press, Aitchison estimates that he carries around 100 FOI based stories each year.

Katherine Gundersen of the Campaign for Freedom of Information, which campaigned for the legislation and continues to provide training in its use says that the scale of change that FOI has made to journalists, since it became effective in 2005, is evident from the number of requests that they put in.  “Around 40,000 requests a year are made, and we think that about a quarter of them are from journalists – it is a process that has become deeply imbedded in our news culture”, she says.

Aitchison agrees.  “All of York’s Press’ specialist reporters are FOI trained and I would guess that each of them is putting in a least one request each week.”  He is sceptical, however, that ‘FOI stories’ are displacing others from their general news mix.  “In many cases the stories we are covering are the same ones that we would run without FOI, but access to original documentation makes the stories themselves much better.   With access to original email correspondence we can see how a decision was reached and who did or did not fall out over a proposal.  Original material gives us more scope for adding authentic texture.”

For those wishing to emulate Aitchison’s success, he recommends a desktop copy of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 – it covers UK Government matters, a separate Act of 2002 covers Scottish government bodies.  Aitchison also suggests that every request you make mentions Section 16 of the Act, which requires public bodies to ‘provide assistance’ to those seeking information.  “Keeping this section in people’s minds means that we sometimes get a phone call the day after we make an application suggesting, say, that we ask about figures for a financial rather than a callander year.   It is much better that waiting for the 20 days, only to be knocked back”, he says.

Happily since FOI came into effect, many organisations have started routinely publishing information that was previously only available via FOI requests.  Aitchison cites York City Council’s street-by-street parking fine statistics as an example.

Not all journalists are unequivocal fans of the FOI legislation, however.  Chris Wheal, veteran freelance, and, over the years, editor of numerous trade magazines, says that his experience FOI is that it is used to thwart enquiries,  more than facilitating them.  “I have usually been able to find a way to persuade civil servants, or whoever to give the documents or data that I need.  Sometimes persuasion alone does the trick, occasionally I need to ask several people the same question to apply a bit of pressure.  Since FOI, however, the stock response from civil servants has been – ‘if you want that you are going to have to put in an FOI request’.”

This, Wheal suggests is a ruse based on an understanding of the kind of deadlines to which journalists work.  The FOI legislation requires that request recipients must respond within 20 days of application (although the release of actual information may take longer, or they might argue that a request is subject to one of the exemptions that allow information holders to turn down an application).  Calculating that journalists’ work to more pressing deadlines, press officers refer enquires to the FOI is a means to keep information back.

Paul Hutcheon, investigations editor at Scotland’s Sunday Herald, has some sympathy with Wheal’s point.  “There is no question for me that press officers use FOI tactically.  They often turn down what they know to be legitimate requests because reference to the Information Commissioner could take twelve to eighteen months, thereby neutering a story”.

While Hutcheon says that more than 90% of his stories are generated by developing contacts and sources, FOI remains, what he calls, a vital golf club.  “FOI is like having a brilliant seven iron – but it is by no means the only club that I use”.

Hutcheon should know – having taken arguably the biggest scalp yet with an FOI-related story.  In 2005 he received a tip off that David McLetchie, then leader of the Conservatives in the Scottish Parliament, was claiming taxi fares for travel between his home and the legal practice where he had a second job.  Hutcheon made a request to see the receipts.  This was turned down on the grounds that it would compromise the politician’s security.  An appeal to the Scottish Information Commissioner, however, went in Hutcheon’s favour.  The resulting scandal forced McLetchie’s resignation.

At that time, Hutcheon was celebrated in FOI circles as the ‘Captain of the trawler men’ – journalists who made numerous, wide-ranging requests, the results of which they devoted hours to combing.  His victory with McLetchie’s receipts led to nearly all Scottish parliamentary expenses being published on the web.  Since then, Hutcheon has become more targeted.

“I don’t want to waste public servant’s time”, he says.  “With rights come responsibilities and I need to feel that there is a good public-interest case for my requests”.  He says that his best questions come when he has been guided by anonymous sources.  “I will often approach a contact in an organisation and get them to help me out with my wording.  They might say, if you ask in this or that way, you will produce better results.”  He keeps a close eye on the Information Commissioner’s judgements too – for fresh ideas for lines of enquiry and to see the precedent’s they create around exemptions.

Despite the enormous use that journalists are making of the Act, there is always a potential threat to its operation.  The Prime Minister who delivered the legislation, Tony Blair, famously rued his decision.  Writing in his autobiography he said: “The truth is that the FOI Act isn’t used, for the most part, by ‘the people’. It’s used by journalists. For political leaders, it’s like saying to someone who is hitting you over the head with a stick, ‘Hey, try this instead’, and handing them a mallet. The information is neither sought because the journalist is curious to know, nor given to bestow knowledge on ‘the people’. It’s used as a weapon.”

It is a paradoxically candid assessment for a man who was famed for his persuasive skills.   Be assured, however, FOI has plenty of opponents in high places who would dearly love to find some means by which to undermine these rights.

“The most obvious way to restrict the Act would be to introduce charges for making requests”, suggests Gundersen.  In the Republic of Ireland, Freedom of Information legislation was enacted in 1997.  In 2003, however, the legislation was amended to introduce changes for information requests.  From that point on, the number of requests fell by 50%, despite the relatively modest Euros 15 charge.

UK governments have continued to make noises about ‘reforming’ the UK Act ever since it started operation.  But, Gundersen says, having handed journalists such an effective tool, ministers are likely to find the opposition to change is vociferous.    “It is no cause for complacency” suggests Gundersen, “but Governments don’t generally enjoy pitting themselves against the entire media.”

Whether Rowntree chocolate workers felt any less bitter about control their destinies transferring from Yorkshire to Switzerland all those years ago is hard to say, of course.  Hopefully the knowledge that they had so doughty a campaigner as Aitchison in their corner was at least a modest sweetener.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

July 31st, 2014 at 9:49 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Seeing is believing: web video now basic news currency

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Last summer, Guardian science correspondent Alok Jha got wind of plans to unveil the world’s first synthetic beef burger.  With $250,000 grand funding from one of Google’s founders, Dr Mark Post of Maastricht University, had grown fibers in a lab that he was now offering to serve to the world in a bread bun.

“I knew that there was going to be a big launch, which in the normal run of things, I would have attended and written a slightly piss-takey colour piece”, Jha remembers.  “But I thought that there was a potentially far more interesting story if I could get into his lab”.  After negotiations with PRs, Jha and a video producer were invited into the labs where the ‘frankenburger’ had been created. To those pictures they added reactions from food writers and a farmer.  “The package that we made was only six minutes long, but took the story to a whole new audience – some of whom might have also read the 2,000 word analysis piece that I also wrote”.

The Guardian is, of course, just one of many papers that are increasingly asking its reporters to contribute video, as well as text.

This marks a profound change that is underway in the media, according to Pat Younge – until a few months ago the BBC’s chief creative officer, and before that President of Travel Channel Media in the USA.  “All the emerging money is around web video, which is what all of the papers want now – so if you are going to cover a story, why wouldn’t you film it as well?  And with an interview, the very least you can do is audio record it and make that available – audio is underused”.

Younge’s proudest boast, as a digital storytelling pioneer, comes not from the BBC, where he was in charge of 3,000 program makers, but in his previous role.  “We needed video content for the Travel Channel website, but could not afford the kind of budgets that we had for network programs.”  His solution was to set up the Travel Channel Academy – a video production ‘boot camp’ on which participants paid $3,000 for a four-day course.  “We taught the basics of storytelling and clearances and at the end of the course, we would offer the best students paid commissions.  Those who did not make the grade, we gave exercises to do at home to get their work up to our standard.”

Over a couple of years, the academy built up a small army of videographers – many of whom went on to significant industry jobs, others remained on the fringes of the Travel Channel, picking up freelance work.

The Travel Channel approach has been replicated all over the world – with much of the teaching provided by Michael Rosenblum, the author of iPhone Millionaire (a guide to low-tech video production that is far better that its get-rich-quick title suggests).   Rosenblaum’s message is that anyone with a smart phone, editing software and a little imagination can make the kind of short packages that Jha and Younge are enthusing about.

It is a move that has seen many media outlets using video in place of still photography.

At New Jersey’s Star-Ledger (nj.com), whose journalists were nominated for a clutch of Emmy’s for their video content recently, for example, much of their coverage of college sporting contests is now presented in short clips.  Shot with a single camera – it works better with basketball that outdoor sports – and then edited to the most dramatic two minutes of play – they provide a respectable overview of matches that could only otherwise be seen live.

Traditional broadcasters have also got in on this low tech approach.  RTE News has recently used packages in its news programs shot entirely on smart phones.

The Wall Street Journal has applied a similar model to its international correspondents.  Two years ago, the paper trained more than 400 reporters to create short clips entirely on their iPhones.   “Our video viewership has more than doubled in the past six months to over 20 million streams, and the creation of this video blog is a milestone in the expansion of video at the Journal,” said Alan Murray, deputy managing editor of The Wall Street Journal. “Our reporters are demonstrating the opportunity that technology has given them to capture powerful images that enhance their great journalism. We now have the opportunity to deliver that video more quickly and efficiently for use in our rapidly growing video operation.”

The result is not in itself a lush, multi-textural approach to storytelling, but a huge collection of short bursts of footage – a little like Twitter, but comprising only video news footage.  Since its launch, the WSJ has boasted that it is now attracting ‘premium’ advertising rates around its video footage, and the technology that underlies the WSJ’s initiative – tout.com – has been taken up by CBS, Fox, NBC Universal, WWE, New Corp and Conde Nast among others.

The prospect that this kind of material will become the main fibre of the web, rather than text-based ‘pages’ is one that is now common currency – at least among crystal-ball gazers.

Yale University computer scientist David Gelernter’s essay  “The End of the Web, Search, and Computer as We Know It” – argues that the web’s old metaphors ‘pages’, ‘desktops’, and ‘bookmarks’ are all destined for history’s ‘recycle bin’ or ‘trash’  .

“The space-based web we currently have will gradually be replaced by a time-based worldstream,” he writes. “This lifestream – a heterogeneous, content-searchable, real-time messaging stream – arrived in the form of blog posts and RSS feeds, Twitter and other chatstreams and Facebook walls and timelines. Its structure represented a shift beyond the ‘flatland known as the desktop’ (where our interfaces ignored the temporal dimension) towards streams, which flow and can therefore serve as a representation of time”.

Geletnter envisages a seamless web of information and images that flow before us until we actively request that they stop.  The contribution of journalism to this seems likely, as least in its front-page form, to be in short videos.

Jha for one, is optimistic about the way in which these forces will shape journalism in the years to come.  He sees boundaries between different types of media and the outlets though which they are consumed blurring.   “Ten years ago, when I was getting started, all I thought that I would do was write, today, if you try  to tell stories without video and graphics, it would be like doing it with one hand tied behind your back”.  He also notes that the young journalists alongside whom he is now working are enthusiasts for technologies that are every bit as alien to him, as the web was to his editors when he first joined the newsroom.

Jha anticipates that boundaries between print, television and the internet will continue blur until it is no longer clear to the consumer which channels started out on which legacy platform.  It will never deflect him from the medium that he calls his first love, though.  “Funnily enough, the challenges of working in video have made me a much better writer”, he says.  “I now think much more visually, and particularly in longer pieces, think of how one scene leads to another.  Writing will always be what I enjoy doing most.”

 

Written by Tim Dawson

May 20th, 2014 at 6:50 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Subs rising: the NUJ at Eastbourne

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“Welcome to the NUJ – this part of the world’s most successful private-sector trades union”, said union president Barry McCall, welcoming journalists’ representatives to their biennial conference in Eastbourne.  Extravagant as the claim might seem – it appeared to encapsulate a new confidence and bonhomie among the trade union’s activists.

The four-day conference, which ended on Sunday 13 April, was entirely lacking in the bitterness that marred the union’s get together two years ago, and delegates seemed generally willing to back their national executive and general secretary Michelle Stanistreet.

For many members the most significant motion passed was probably the one that will see their subscriptions rising – to £15, £18 and £25 a month – depending on a member’s grade.  A new minimum rate of £10 a month was also voted in.  A majority of delegates also approved a proposal to start a transition to subs levels based on each member’s income.  The motion failed to receive the required two-thirds majority, but given the closeness of the vote, the idea is likely to remain on the union’s agenda.

Delegates to the meeting also decided to scrap the elective post of Deputy General Secretary.  In perhaps the most voluble debate of the entire conference, veteran Northern Irish Trotskyite Eamonn McCann delivered an explosive denunciation of the Executive’s plans, to enthusiastic applause.  With defeat for the proposal apparently certain, however, Coventry’s Chris Youett was next up on at the ‘opposition’ rostrum.  “This proposal is intended to do just one thing – to prevent me from becoming the union’s DGS”, he said.  This argument, from the candidate who has generally polled bottom in the many NUJ elections in which he stood, convinced sufficient doubters for the reform to be voted through.

In another surprisingly heated session, NUJ representatives from the BBC successfully called for the rejection of any pay and grading structure for the Corporation that allows managers to be paid over £150,000.  Whether the NUJ will be successful in pushing director general Tony Hall’s salary down from its current £450,000 level remains to be seen, but agitating for a wage cut will doubtless be a novel experience for the union’s negotiators.

Much of the rest of the conference was spent adopting entirely worthy ‘motherhood-and-apple-pie’ positions, in favour of pay increases, against job cuts and for a more pluralist media.  The leadership will also take heart from the decent sprinkling of young delegates in attendance who are new to union activism.

Tempers nearly frayed in the conference’s closing moments, however, when delegates considered a call for the union to campaign for a Boycott of Israel.  Stanistreet was first to the rostrum to argue that the motion should be rejected, where she was joined by a queue of more than 20 speakers.  After a lively exchange, the motion was overwhelmingly rejected.

Adam Christie and Andy Smith, the union’s outgoing job-share vice presidents were elected to the union’s presidency.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

April 15th, 2014 at 12:22 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

The story of the blues: how a football calamity spawned an underground bestseller

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Case study by Tim Dawson

Three weeks after it was published, Phil Mac Giolla Bhain’s ‘Downfall’ was the eighth best selling general paperback in the UK, according to The Sunday Times.  Tracking the financial crisis and subsequent insolvency of Glasgow Rangers FC, the book has nearly sold 9,700 copies, to date and less than two months after first publication, the book is into its third reprint.

These sales,  and hits on Mac Giolla Bhain’s website – the monthly tally of which has frequently exceeded half a million – have been achieved without a single review in the Scottish press and with some book shops declining to stock the book.  Indeed, hostility to Mac Giolla Bhain and others associated with the book has included multiple threats of violence.

Mac Giolla Bhain’s interest in Rangers came about accidentally.  Although brought up in Glasgow, he relocated to Donegal, in the Republic of Ireland, fifteen years ago.  Since then has worked as a staff journalist for Sinn Féin’s newspaper, An Phoblacht and has written freelance for publications in Britain and Ireland on social and political issues.  In 2008 he wrote about some Rangers’ fans singing racist songs.  That story sparked diplomatic contact between Scotland and Ireland, and Mac Giolla Bhain’s interest in the Ibrox club grew.

“Journalism abhors a vacuum”, he says.  “The mainstream, serious media in Scotland was simply not touching stories about Rangers, so although I had no real journalistic interest in football and had never written about sport, I was drawn in”.  Writing on his own website, from January 2009 he started tracking the financial turmoil that was to engulf the club.  As the story grew, Mac Giolla Bhain managed to steal a march on the newspapers – at times by several months.   Hits to his website peaked at over 650,000 a month, and he attracted more than 17,000 followers on Twitter.

He did not have the beat entirely to himself.  Rangers Tax Case Blog took a slightly different slant on the story – the quality of which was recognized with an Orwell Prize.  It is Mac Giolla Bhain, however, who has a bestseller in the bookshops.

“I never really had a plan and I never set out to make money.  It simply seemed like an important story that was not being reported because of Rangers cultural power in Scotland”, he says.  He did place Google ads on his site, but says that revenue  from those has not even covered a third of his mobile phone bill.

In June, Mac Giolla Bhain was contacted by publishers Frontline Noir with a view to him writing for them on another topic.  Declining the offer, he mentioned his work on Rangers and almost immediately agreed terms.  Nine frantic weeks later, the book appeared.  It gained some publicity when the Scottish Sun first announced in a double-page splash that it would serialise the book and then a day later decided against the idea. The Sun said that as a result of having read a post on Mac Giolla Bhain’s site, the paper felt that it no longer wished to publish his work.  Alex Thomson, the Channel 4 journalist who wrote the introduction to Downfall, believes that the true reason was a fire-storm of complaints and threats from Rangers fans.

Despite the lack of publicity, the book is believed to be the biggest seller in Scotland since its publication.  But although pleased with the impact that his book has had, however, Mac Giolla Bhain says that his project is a long way short of paying for itself.

Publisher Bob Smith, says that the book has sold nearly double what he expected, and anticipates that it might yet shift 15,000 copies.  “When I initially looked at Phil’s Twitter following – all of whom were interested in one issue – I estimated that we might sell 7,000 copies.  We have printed 10,500 copies so far, though, and are close to ordering another print run”.

Not all are persuaded by Mac Giolla Bhain’s account of the Scottish media’s track record.  “Many Scots sports journalists are not afraid to critically analyse both the game and individual clubs, including Rangers”, says one former Scottish football writer of many years experience.  “They have done it for years and will continue to do so.”  Explaining the book’s success, he said:  “There will be at least three likely audiences for the book: Rangers fans with a genuine interest in their club, Rangers fans with a genuine interest in their club but suspecting the motives behind this book and Celtic fans.”

Whatever you attribute the level of sales, and website hits, however, there is no denying that this represents the kind of hit for which many publishers would kill.  And surely the most obvious lessons from Mac Giolla Bhain’s success is that there is a market for detailed reporting, where readers really care about a subject, and getting to the book stands while an issue is still hot is vital if you want to reach the widest audience.

 

 

Written by Tim Dawson

October 31st, 2012 at 8:59 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Digital revolution only just begun, report predicts

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Review by Alex Klaushofer.

For those hoping that the dust will soon settle on the digital revolution and that we can get back to quality journalism as usual, here is the bad news.

The transformations brought about by the digital revolution have only just begun, according to a report published by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism earlier this month. In Ten Years that Shook the Media World, report author Dr Rasmus Kleis Nielson dismisses any idea that the current period of change is nearing its end. He puts it into historical context, arguing that ‘we are today about as far into the internet revolution as Europe was into the printing revolution in the late fifteenth century.’ It was over a century before the new media became dominant, he points out.

But the real interest of the report comes out of the main trends emerging out of the turmoil. The foremost of these – the expansion of options to audiences and concomitant dispersal of opportunities for advertisers – will have far-reaching implications for democracy as it continues to play out in future.

Here the news is decidedly mixed, nuancing the claims for the democratizing power of the digital revolution. In emerging economies such as Brazil and India, Nielson predicts, the expansion of popular media will bring news to tens of millions of new consumers, representing a ‘profound democratisation’ of information.

But in affluent democracies, the same trend towards a growing plurality of niche providers erodes the audience for and financing of well-researched journalism. The result is a widening of the gulf between a minority who will be more informed than ever before, and the many who will find less and less news targeted at them.

Well-funded public service media make powerful counterweights to a trend which has particularly affected the Anglophone world, Nielson points out. But it’s an observation that is particularly worrying in the British context where, apart from the BBC, there is little political appetite for public subsidy for journalism aimed at a general audience.

Will we have a growing inequality of information to add to the woes of our widening poverty gap? For those concerned about the future of media in Britain, that’s the most pertinent question raised by this timely and authoritative report.

‘Ten Years that Shook the Media World: Big Questions and Big Trends in International Media Development’ is available to download free here.

Written by Alex

October 18th, 2012 at 5:11 am

Martin Lewis claims journalism’s greatest reward

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Analysis by Tim Dawson

Martin Lewis’ sale of moneysavingexpert.com for £87m is possibly the UK’s most astonishing piece of journalism as entrepreneurialism ever.

The site, was born out of a persona created for slot on a little viewed, and even less remembered satellite television channel. Its growth and subsequent success are an object lesson in how journalism can be transformed by the internet and how spectacular can be the resulting rewards.

The simplicity of Lewis’ idea is expressed in his site’s name: it provides expert advice on saving money – mainly through a geekishly detailed understanding of consumer financial products as well as ‘deal finding’. The site’s free weekly email goes to seven million subscribers, filled with a mixture of editorial articles and tips combed from the site’s forums. The main site features numerous ‘best buy’ analysis articles.

There are also price comparison tools and the forums, where readers can share their own ideas. The site contains no advertisements, as such. Revenue comes from affiliate links.

MoneySavingExpert’s main focus is consumer financial products, some of these are reputed to generate click-through fees for customers who go on to buy of as much as £100 per click. Nevertheless, a strong ethical, consumer-focussed ethos runs through the site, and a sizeable chunk of revenue is donated to charities nominated by the site’s users.

There is reported to be a strong ‘Chinese wall’ between the journalistic side of the site, and the affiliate sales side. Today the site employs around 40 staff, around half of whom are journalists. Annual income is reported to be around £16m.

The site has also been a vociferous campaigner, launching a national campaign to claim overpaid Council Tax in 2007 and encouraging consumers to reclaim payment protection premiums.

Lewis has worked in as a broadcast journalist before founding the site, and had been a financial pr before that. Both experiences clearly gave him an ideal skillset to promote himself and thereby promote his site. He writes several newspaper columns and appears regularly both as a television presenter and as a pundit.

How much the sale of the site to rival moneysupermarket.com remains to be seen – although Lewis will be retained as site editor, so at least for the time being the successful formula seems unlikely to be changed much? Whether it would be possible to emulate Lewis’ success today is hard to say. He entered a much quieter market than exists today, before price comparison websites’ filled nearly every tv advertising slot. However, his formula of identifying a need, and then fulfilling it in a visibly journalistic way is surely one that will spawn more successful sites in the future?

There is a fascinating explanation of a systematic way to do this on Paul Wolfe’s site. For any others, at least in the UK, looking for inspiration.

There is another useful resource can be found at Federated Media’s list of member sites. Federated Media sells ads on around 85 independent US sites. For anyone looking for inspiration for their own online journalistic efforts there is much there from which one can learn.

Written by Tim Dawson

June 4th, 2012 at 3:57 am

Posted in Uncategorized

Student newspaper iPad edition blazes a trail

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As many publications struggle to adapt their offer for the download era, students in Yorkshire have provided an object lesson in creating digital product.  Leeds Student, the award-winning weekly tabloid serving Leeds University, has become the first student newspaper with an iPad edition.

The weekly download comes out a couple of days after each Friday’s edition and contains around half of the usual 48-pages of content.  Available in Apple’s Newsstand, it is free, as is the paper’s printed edition.

Lizzie Edmonds is the editor.  “When we upgraded the version of Quark that we use we noticed that it included a lot of iPad tools, so we thought that we would give it a try”, she explains.  The package – Quark 9 – made their work very easy, says Jack Dearlove, the paper’s digital editor, who did much of the work on app.  “The package is very design-focussed.  Putting the iPad edition together is a ‘drag-and-drop’ exercise”.

The current edition, and well as the news and features one might expect, includes a live blog, audio interviews the candidates standing for election to be the next editor of Leeds Student, and impressive galleries of sports photography.

There have been iPad versions of the past five weekly papers, and editions have now been downloaded by around 1,000 users, more than 600 of whom are in the UK.  The paper variant of the title has a print run of 5,000 and is thought to be read by around 15,000 of Leeds university’s 35,000 students and 8,000 staff.

“It is the more well-off students who tend to have iPads, at the moment”, concedes Dearlove.  “You do see the devices around campus, but they are not as common say, as mobile phones”.

The aspiration for the iPad edition was partially to create something that is still about in five or ten years time, and part to make their content accessible to ‘older students and staff’ who are more likely to use Apple tablets.  Edmonds and Dearlove both cite The Times digital edition as an inspiration and would like to include more multi-media content, if they were able.  They are dismissive of publications that offer readers ‘a pdf version’ of their print edition. “They totally miss the potential of the iPad”, says Dearlove.

“I don’t see us abandoning print anytime soon, though”, says Edmonds, who receives a salary to edit the newspaper for a sabbatical year.  “Students still enjoy the paper edition and most are able to come into the Union to pick up a copy.  A time might come, though, when we go entirely digital.”  They also say that the potential to raise advertising revenue from the iPad edition has not yet been realised – but as the paper relies on such revenue, that will be a focus in the future.

Around 40 students work on producing each week’s edition of the paper.  Dearlove and Edmonds alone adapt it for the iPad, a job which takes them six or seven hours a week.  With an ‘educational’ licence for their version of their software, they pay Quark a £25 fee for each iPad edition they create.  A commercial venture would pay around £250 per edition.  It was with this software that they created their ‘app’, which had to be submitted for approval to Apple, who took something over a month to give the students the thumbs up.  Each week, the upload a single file of content to a server, from which it is distributed.

Edmonds, 23, who has now graduated in English and Classics and Dearlove, 21, who is in his third year of a degree in broadcast journalism, would, with more resources, like to see the iPad edition come out simultaneously with the print edition.  Android, Kindle and other platforms are also aspirations, albeit ones dependent on software making the creation of multiple editions less time-consuming. For the time being, both are content to bask in the glow of their memorable first – and hope that it provides a useful springboard for the careers to which they aspire in the professional media.

 

Written by Tim Dawson

April 23rd, 2012 at 3:38 am

Brave New Digital World – review of Turing’s Cathedral

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Review by Alex Klaushofer.

Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe by George Dyson

As other reviewers have pointed out, Turing’s Cathedral, the book which documents the fulfillment of Alan Turing’s vision of a ‘universal machine’ capable of thought, is a sprawling entity, full of detail and digression that frequently threaten its coherence.

Part history of the building of one of the first computers in Princeton in the 1940s, part biography of the key figures involved, the real interest of the book is perhaps the way it bridges the esoteric mathematical world which spawned digital life and the implications for humankind. In this respect, it presents an educational remedy for the fact that, despite their ubiquity, few lay people have a grasp of the principles underlying computers.

And while the initial sections contain paragraphs whose mathematical content gave your arts-graduate correspondent a strong urge to weep, in the third part of the book, this is done with admirable clarity. Recounting Turing’s attempts to put mathematical logic into the service of everyday tasks, Dyson writes: ‘After Turing, numbers began doing things.’ (p 250) He goes on to explain how an internet search unites deterministic replication with human choices to realise Turing’s conception of an ‘oracle machine’ capable of achieving more than was ever possible previously.

At this point, things get really interesting. ‘Are we searching the search engines, or are search engines searching us?’ asks Dyson. (p 264) He suggests that we are now on the brink of a computer-led future, which, depending on depending on your point of view, is either visionary or dystopic: ‘Sixty-some years ago, biochemical organisms began to assemble digital computers. Now digital computers are beginning to assemble biochemical organisms.Viewed from a distance, this looks like part of a life cycle. But which part? Are biochemical organisms the larval phase of digital computers? Or are digital computers the larval phase of biochemical organisms?’ (p 291)

In his subsequent commentary, Dyson argues that the prospect of computers taking over from humans the tasks we are manifestly so bad at – running countries, etc – could only be welcomed by any sensible person. A visit to the best example of digital utopia so far – Google’s headquarters in California, where everyone was ‘youthful, healthy, happy, and exceptionally well-fed’, impresses him hugely.

If that strikes you as eerily Brave New Worldish, it also occurs to Dyson that the age of computers may have a dark side. What, he asks, if the price of machines that think is people who don’t? Or, to put it in a way that he doesn’t, can computers really live our lives for us?

It’s all more complicated than the simple opposition of utopia/dystopia allows. Thanks to the developments detailed by Dyson, an era of unprecedented change may well be underway, but we’re only just beginning to understand it.

A later blog will examine developments that evoke the possibility of computers replacing the human writer.

Written by Alex

April 16th, 2012 at 4:30 am

Posted in Uncategorized