Friday, June 19, 2009

Open and transparent? Yeah, right.

I know Wikipedia has all sorts of problems around accuracy and that the dictionary version, Wiktionary, is sometimes not much better.

But, every now and then, crowd sourcing throws up the perfect definition. Here's one of the entries for redaction: The removal of evidence of criminal deception or embarrassing lewd behaviour from a document.


The details of MPs expenses have been so heavily redacted (read censored) that it makes a mockery of any claim for openness or transparency. In a recent Times article, Heather Brooke, the journalist credited with sparking the whole allowances row, said: "When it comes to politicians advocating open government the best advice is to ignore what they say and focus on what they do."

I've talked about politicians paying lip service to open government before, but if you get five minutes, read about Ms Brooke's four year battle against MPs and the Government to see their expenses and compare it with the 'road to Damascus' type statements of almost all MPs today.

Where does redaction fit with those statements?

Ms Brooke's Times article is also worth a read especially if you have a fondness for 'Yes, Minister' and the sort of tangled thinking that leaves us with a secret public consultation ...

Thursday, June 18, 2009

The answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind

I come from a simpler time, a time when wicked meant, well, wicked. It meant the opposite of good. Then my children started to use it to mean the opposite of wicked. Suddenly it meant good. And then today I heard it used in a completely different way on the radio when someone referred to a wicked problem ... which I find defined on Wikipedia as a problem that is difficult or impossible to solve because of incomplete, contradictory, and changing requirements that are often difficult to recognise.

This definition appears to have been around since the 1960s and is usually reserved, apparently, for discussions on social planning but I intend to borrow it to describe the way I feel about the challenges facing newspapers as they consider the digital future. In contrast to the web itself, which changes at an incredible speed, we take time to consider where we should be going and even more time to implement any decisions we take. It's easy to be sucked into a feeling that we should be constantly trying new things, that the creators of great services on the web know exactly what they are doing, but for every Google, or Amazon, or Facebook or Twitter, there are a thousand, no, probably hundred of thousands, of ideas that fell flat on their face with barely more than a handful of people hearing about them.

We don't have the resource - or may be it is luck - to take that many risks.

One issue that I worry about is our place in the conversations that go on in a community. Traditionally, we have played a key role in local conversation. The Leicester Mercury has been the main source for local news for the best part of a century and a massive amount of conversation is based around news. Don't get me wrong - the Mercury still has more than 150,000 readers every day and probably well over 200,000 every week and we can - and do - still put ourselves at the centre of many conversations.

But there is no doubt that social media has enabled a whole new set of conversations and, at the moment, most newspapers are not part of those discussions, or, if they are, it is at the edges. We have a limited amount of social interaction on our sites, usually in the form of comments on news articles, but we are constantly looking for ways to be more involved and you can find examples of newspapers setting up sites which are largely fed by user-generated content and the interaction of users with that content and each other. Perhaps the best example that I have been involved in is Lasting Tribute - a site based around the death announcements from our newspapers, but which relies almost entirely for its success on the content of its users.

However, the more I look at this issue, the more convinced I become that the mistake that we often make is that we attempt to bring our readers to our sites to create this content when we should probably be going to the places where they are already having these conversations, eg Twitter and on blogs. Why would somebody who habitually uses Twitter come to our site to say something that they have already told all their friends elsewhere?

Which is how I came to be sitting in a room in the Institute of Creative Technologies at Leicester's De Montfort University this afternoon surrounded by people who go online under names such as CaffeineBomb, Sleepydog and Solobasssteve. There were about 40 people in the room, gathered for an event run under the NLab badge which was ostensibly looking at how social media could be used to build resilience in small businesses.

In fact, the conversation was much wider and was looking at how social media could be used, for example, to empower individuals to have a better say in government, both locally and nationally.

I am sure that newspapers like the Mercury have a large part to play in these discussions because:
  • Social media is not universal and we are already looking at a digital divide between the haves and have nots
  • Information overload is already an issue - it is easy to be swamped and there is something to be said for somebody helping to filter data and conversation
  • Social media is by its nature fragmented - it is not easy to follow dozens of conversations going on in dozens of different places. Simply because you write online doesn't mean you will be read - there may well be a role for an organisation that can help give visibility
  • There is clearly still a very large number of people who want to read a newspaper
  • We are skilled in activities which are vital whatever the distribution platform, not least of which are journalism and sales.
I've already mentioned that we have 200,000+ newspaper readers every week, but we also have more than 20,000 unique visitors to our news websites every day and many times more than that to our various other sites, such as Jobsite, Findapropery and PrimeLocation.

I don't know where we fit in the equation online, but I am sure we have a role to play.

What do you think?

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Rallying to the aid of the Boston Globe

Crowdsourcing and the wisdom of the crowd are pretty alien concepts to many journalists who see a lack of professional vigour undermining the validity of the results obtained when you ask the general public for an opinion.

Only yesterday, I was reading about the Editor of the Birmingham Post, Marc Reeves, who was crowdsourcing photos for his paper, news that was met with outrage from some journalists - the very first comment saying: 'Great way to fill up a page on restricted resources. 'Let's slash the workforce, keep the managers, and make the papers a scrapbook for sumitted letters, photos and match reports.'

There was some support for the Editor:
'I read these comments and feel quite sad. For too long, journalists have behaved as though they are the only ones with a right to appear in a newspaper. If the Post chooses to pick pictures to print, and people are happy for their pictures to be used, then surely there's not a problem. Newspapers need to be part of a community online to survive, and you can't be part of a community if you believe that you are better than everyone else.'
Meanwhile, over in the States, the New York Times company has threatened to close the Boston Globe because between them they are making such big losses ... and one of the most interesting responses has come from the blogoshpere where a number of local bloggers have launched a blog rally.

The instigator appears to be Paul Levy, the president and CEO of the local Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Centre. Here, in his own words is what is going on:
'We have all read recently about the threat of possible closure faced by the Boston Globe. A number of Boston-based bloggers who care about the continued existence of the Globe have banded together in conducting a blog rally. We are simultaneously posting this paragraph to solicit your ideas of steps the Globe could take to improve its financial picture:

We view the Globe as an important community resource, and we think that lots of people in the region agree and might have creative ideas that might help in this situation. So, here's your chance. Please don't write with nasty comments and sarcasm: Use this forum for thoughtful and interesting steps you would recommend to the management that would improve readership, enhance the Globe's community presence, and make money. Who knows, someone here might come up with an idea that will work, or at least help. Thank you.'
Well, the people of Boston have certainly come up with lots of ideas - there are currently 62 on Paul Levy's blog alone - and they make for very interesting reading. Although one poster asks who is co-ordinating all the responses and is told: 'Co-ordination is not part of social media', I've decided to try to pull them all together ...

My co-ordination is not scientific. I haven't managed to find all the comments as they are spread across many different blogs (most of which, like my blog, have no form of search), but I have captured a few hundred points. I have tried to split them into three different sorts of comments: those that have suggestions for how to improve the print edition; those which primarily suggest going digital; and those that cover other areas such as ownership.

There are a few points that need to be born in mind while reading the comments: Leicester is not America, the Mercury is not the Globe (two very big differences are that the Mercury makes a profit and it is almost entirely devoted to local news), and, of course, those commenting are part of a self-selecting technorati who almost certainly don't represent everyone in Boston (let alone Leicester).

Having said that, UK newspapers face many of the same issues as those in the States and the future of news and our papers is often the main topic of conversation whenever senior media people get together. It's not that often that we get the opportunity to hear what so many readers think ... and they do come up with a lot of very interesting ideas.

To see all the comments that I managed to collate click here, published via Google docs. I apologise that the document doesn't look that pretty, but I haven't found any time to format it yet.

To be honest, I started collating the comments out of personal interest, but thought others might find them useful, given that so many people that I speak to want to discuss the future of newspapers and where our digital offerings fit in our thinking. My own feeling about the comments is that I feel optimistic and doomed in equal proportions as I read through them.

I'd love to hear your views on the future of newspapers in general, and the Mercury in particular and, if that's too big a topic, just let me know of any ways you think we can improve the service we offer in print or online now.


By the way, the image at the top of this page was produced at Wordle and is a graphical illustration of the words found in the all the comments on my Google doc. It's a sort of tag cloud except it's not as good as it is only an image and doesn't link to the words!

Monday, June 15, 2009

Update on our new Leicester City writer

Since I asked the question about whether or not the Leicester Mercury's next football writer should be a Leicester City fan, I've had a decent mix of replies from readers with pretty much a 50:50 split for and against.

The answers have ranged from the definite: 'Yes, if the Mercury is to have a future'; to the more common: 'It doesn't really matter providing they are a good writer'.

The former came from AJC who helpfully suggested on his own blog how I might improve my chances of survival:
'So what's a struggling editor supposed to do? Well, the first thing is to employ a couple of undergraduates over the summer to show them how to produce a Kindle edition, then in the autumn, roll out trials of downloads and hyperlocal print-on-demand terminals. And of course, the most important thing of all is to get serious about the website and change it from a low rent car boot sale to a conduit that the local community cares about.'
But more of that later.

Returning to the question of the football writer, about 10 years ago I set up a website aimed at regional journalists: (HtFP). It is very widely read by said journalists and is now jointly owned by the UK's four big regional newspaper publishers - Northcliffe, Trinity Mirror, Newsquest and Johnston Press. Today, HtFP picked up on my question about the football writer and re-phrased it:
'What do you think? Should football writers' jobs always go to fans of the local side - especially in one-club cities - or do writers who are more dispassionate about the game generally do a better job?'
To be honest, I wasn't that bothered about what the journalists thought - my guess was that they would all, predictably, think the same as me: it doesn't matter, all that is important is that we get a great writer. And, surprise, surprise, that's pretty much what they all say on HtFP. Equally predictably the conversation collapses into a discussion around the use - or misuse - of apostrophes by a recent graduate looking for a break into the profession:
'If newspaper's only employed football writer's who support the club they cover on their back pages, then how are the journalist's who have taken sport journalism degree's meant to break into the industry?'
Quite. (Although, I'm not sure that isn't a fake post aimed at riling journalists!)

Anyway, as I said, I was more interested in what the readers of the Mercury thought and I'm grateful for those who expressed a point of view even though there was no consensus. As is the way of my blog, most of those who replied did so either via Twitter (@tipexxed) or email. There's still time to add your thoughts.