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Regional papers ‘not good enough to keep readers’

British regional and local newspapers are just not good enough to retain readers let alone win new readers, says Roy Greenslade, commenting of the latest readership figures in his Guadian blog. I agree with everything he says about the figures which show every title losing sales and can do no better than suggest you read him.

But before you go, I would add one thing. Centralisation of power in Britain has torn the heart out the serious part of local reporting. It has left local authorities as little more than agents delivering Whitehall policies. Privatisation has removed the utilities from local scrutiny too. This year we narrowly missed the creation of regional police forces which would have taken them away from the control of individual counties.

In Suffolk we have the scandal of a hospital being penalised for beating the targets for treating patients because the Primary Care Trust had only been allowed to budget for the hospital meeting its target. The regional papers rightly have given the story extensive coverage but ultimately the control rested in London.

Regional and local newspapers have been left with the ever-important human interest stories, the road crashes and the amateur dramatics but struggle to find local political stories which affect the lives of their readers. In a real sense local and regional reporting is less important to people than it once was. So they don’t turn out to vote and they don’t buy the newspapers.

All that is no excuse and Greenslade is right: owners needed to improve the quality of their journalism not cut back on reporting.

Regional papers 'not good enough to keep readers'

British regional and local newspapers are just not good enough to retain readers let alone win new readers, says Roy Greenslade, commenting of the latest readership figures in his Guadian blog. I agree with everything he says about the figures which show every title losing sales and can do no better than suggest you read him.

But before you go, I would add one thing. Centralisation of power in Britain has torn the heart out the serious part of local reporting. It has left local authorities as little more than agents delivering Whitehall policies. Privatisation has removed the utilities from local scrutiny too. This year we narrowly missed the creation of regional police forces which would have taken them away from the control of individual counties.

In Suffolk we have the scandal of a hospital being penalised for beating the targets for treating patients because the Primary Care Trust had only been allowed to budget for the hospital meeting its target. The regional papers rightly have given the story extensive coverage but ultimately the control rested in London.

Regional and local newspapers have been left with the ever-important human interest stories, the road crashes and the amateur dramatics but struggle to find local political stories which affect the lives of their readers. In a real sense local and regional reporting is less important to people than it once was. So they don’t turn out to vote and they don’t buy the newspapers.

All that is no excuse and Greenslade is right: owners needed to improve the quality of their journalism not cut back on reporting.

10 weeks of blogging

It is ten weeks since I revived Wordblog. In that time I have learned a lot about blogging and its relationship to journalism: vital when later this month I meet the new intake of journalism students who will have to work in the new world of journalism. It has also forced me to look in much more detail at the changes in media which are taking place but I am still not sure whether it is a revolution or rather fast evolution.

Wordblog has also renewed contact with old acquaintances and made new ones.

The numbers of visitors and page hits has steadily increased throughout the weeks, with some spikes. The Technorati rank has gone from something over 1,600,000 to 143,471 this morning. I feel satisfied with that but my regard for web statistics has lessened seeing the different figures I can get for Wordblog. According to those from my hosting company, One and One, I have had 11,223 visitors and 26,056 page hits this month, but I have no idea if this is accurate.

I am now sure I will continue. A pattern of work has been established — getting up early to blog — and I think that can survive the start of the new term.

10 ways to improve news websites

The Bivings Report which has been looking at American newspaper web sites has come up with ten ways to improve news web sites. Some are debatable but they are all worth considering. This is the list:

  1. Start using tags (sometimes called categories) in stories to improve searching.
  2. Provide full text RSS feeds.
  3. Work with external “social” websites (eg del.icio.us and Digg).
  4. Link to relevant blog entries (some like the Washington Post and the Press Gazette in the UK already do this).
  5. Get rid of all registration.
  6. Partner with local bloggers (see the recent Wordblog post on the BBC Manchester blog).
  7. Offer alternative views of your content.
  8. Modernise your site’s graphic design.
  9. Learn from Craigslist.
  10. Make your content work on cell phones and PDAs.

NY Times self-censorship sets worrying predecent

The decision of the New York Times to self-censor its online content by preventing British users downloading a story about the evidence against the men accused in the “liquid bomb plot” seems to set some sort of precedent.

It is using technology designed to target advertising to identify computers with British IP addresses and redirect those asking for a story headed “Details Emerge in British Terrorism Case” to a page which says access is denied.

The notice says: “On advice of legal counsel, this article is unavailable to readers of nytimes.com in Britain. This arises from the requirement in British law that prohibits publication of prejudicial information about the defendants prior to trial.”

If the approach of conforming to the law of the country in which a story is accessed became normal it would put a huge burden on editors and media lawyers. And with imperfect knowledge of hundreds of jurisdictions the decisions would inevitably become cautious. It is a worrying development.

The NYT seems to be conscious of problems ahead. In their own story on the blocking there is this key paragraph: “I think we have to take every case on its own facts,” said George Freeman, vice president and assistant general counsel of The New York Times Company. “But we’re dealing with a country that, while it doesn’t have a First Amendment, it does have a free press, and it’s our position that we ought to respect that country’s laws.”

So it is an editorial judgement not only on the laws of the country but on the freedom of our press. Try applying that across the world.

Given the quantity of information released by the Metropolitan Police in this case already the decisions on what can or cannot be published have been made more difficult.

The NYT story contains nothing that is surprising. It puts more flesh and detail on what the police have already said. It also looks at the criticism that John Reid, the home secretary, over-reacted in the statement he made after the arrests and the action he took. He is unlikely to be happy with the use of the word “hyperventilating” in this context.

And how do I know what the NYT story says. It took me less than a minute to get around the ban. I am no hacker: any reasonably web-savvy surfer can do the same. But if this kind of censorship became general the banning technology would become a lot more effective.

Silicon Valley Watcher looks at the issue of the media abiding by the rules of jurisdictions other than the one where the story is served.

Journalists need remedial maths

Huge factual errors occur every day in newspapers, broadcasting and on the web because journalists just don’t do maths. The abysmal level of achievement in maths in schools can be blamed, but that is not an excuse.

Those of us involved in training young journalists must take part of the blame. We spend a lot of time on writing, accuracy in quotes, balance and so on but little to ensure out students can handle numbers.

I am guilty. I make some references when teaching news writing but not enough. One of the examples I give is from a shopping guide which described a table mat as being 20 sq cm (most coasters are going to be 50 sq cm or more) intending to say that it was 20cm by 20cm (400 sq cm).

That is an example of the way in which so many fail to visualise numbers, to have any feeling for what they should be. The problem in journalism training is that we have too little time and so many things to do but somehow we need to find time for basic maths.

An example of the mistakes which make the media look silly comes in the Guardian’s corrections and clarifications column today. It reads:

Typographical confusion during the editing process resulted in an assertion that a rock needs to have “a mass of about 5,1020kg for gravity to give it the nice round planet-y sort of shape the IAU says a planet ought to have” (When a rock turns out to be a planet, G2 page 36, August 24). The figure given by the International Astronomical Union is 5 x 1020.

Perhaps it was a typographical error, but whoever proof read the page, passed it for press or otherwise scanned it should have spotted the mistake. Even with the comma in the right place we would have been looking at a planet about the size of a container lorry.

Last week Craig Silverman at his Regret the Error blog reached number 4,637 in his Fuzzy numbers series. It was an article in the American Prospect which put the cost of the war in Iraq at between $100 million and $200 million. It should have been $100 billion to $200 billion.

A good journalist should have know instinctively that those numbers were wrong, in the way in which we recognise that we have got our tenses mixed-up.

Many of the young people who want to become journalists say they have always loved writing and want to use that skill to communicate with people. How I long to hear one substitute “maths” for “writing”.

I am going to add a complete session on maths for journalists to the news writing module I am preparing at the moment. I know it is not enough but it should serve to increase awareness of the pitfalls among the students.

The American journalism site, Investigative Reporters and Editors, has a maths test for journalists. I am seriously thinking that something like it should be given to all applicants for journalism courses.

Comments on this post and suggestions are very welcome. It is something we need to debate.

The media and social fragmentation

Sonny Hundal, editor of Asians in Media, gives mainstream media a wake-up call in his pickledpolitics blog. He writes: “…with news people generally like to gravitate towards outlets that tally with their own world view. So as the media fragments, its views and the audiences themselves become more polarised.”

His argument is that a migration to niche ethnic media is taking place because the mainstream is failing in its coverage. He says: “Events such as a national mela, the opening of a big mandir or the Asian rich list are covered, but what about ordinary stories? When will the Evening Standard bother covering people other than middle-class rich kids in London?”

It is one of those must reads: either his blog or his piece on why minorities feel marginalised in today’s Media Guardian.

Further link: AIM (Asians in Media).

Newspaper editions a ‘pre-internet idea’ editor says

I believe readers still want the latest news when they pay for a newspaper and even when they pick one up for free. That, it seems, is not the view of Stefano Hatfield, the man chosen to edit News International’s new freebie, thelondonpaper.

He is quoted in Media Guardian today saying their model is the internet rather than a “19th century newspaper model”. That means a single edition each day as multiple editions are a “pre-internet idea”.

This may simply be part of the phoney war of words as Associated Newspapers London Lite dummy run on Friday had two editions. Clearly there are two views on this issue.

And the idea that serving up old news like dishes of cold potatoes does not matter, because readers are getting their breaking news from the internet, radio and TV, is gaining ground. It is behind the rush of regional evenings to morning publication which I commented on earlier this month.

Radio and TV, long before the internet, started the move towards more comment, background and analysis in newspapers. That is entirely right but, for the moment, newspapers still have a role in giving readers the latest news.

The divergence of approach between the London evening freesheets which is emerging may let us see how the readers see this issue when the papers go head-to-head. If you really want the lastest news the best bet may be to print-out The Guardian’s G24 before leaving work, although that will seem like a nasty case of transferring the costs to the reader (or employers who are likely to put a ban on it, if everyone starts doing it).

Newspaper editions a 'pre-internet idea' editor says

I believe readers still want the latest news when they pay for a newspaper and even when they pick one up for free. That, it seems, is not the view of Stefano Hatfield, the man chosen to edit News International’s new freebie, thelondonpaper.

He is quoted in Media Guardian today saying their model is the internet rather than a “19th century newspaper model”. That means a single edition each day as multiple editions are a “pre-internet idea”.

This may simply be part of the phoney war of words as Associated Newspapers London Lite dummy run on Friday had two editions. Clearly there are two views on this issue.

And the idea that serving up old news like dishes of cold potatoes does not matter, because readers are getting their breaking news from the internet, radio and TV, is gaining ground. It is behind the rush of regional evenings to morning publication which I commented on earlier this month.

Radio and TV, long before the internet, started the move towards more comment, background and analysis in newspapers. That is entirely right but, for the moment, newspapers still have a role in giving readers the latest news.

The divergence of approach between the London evening freesheets which is emerging may let us see how the readers see this issue when the papers go head-to-head. If you really want the lastest news the best bet may be to print-out The Guardian’s G24 before leaving work, although that will seem like a nasty case of transferring the costs to the reader (or employers who are likely to put a ban on it, if everyone starts doing it).