Really interesting analysis of the challenges facing today’s media

This is well worth a read – it is an astute analysis of the recent history of the journalism industry, the challenges that face it, and what the future is likely to hold. Click here to read it.

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Lamenting the loss of the Neath Guardian

What a wonderful description of the role of a local news reporter

The trouble with predicting the future

Claire Enders discovered why it’s not easy playing the clairvoyant.

In June 2009 she spoke to the House of Commons about the crisis in the local and regional British press. She predicted half of all titles would close by 2013, leaving many areas with just a single newspaper. You can read the Press Gazette report here.

Just over a year later, in November 2010, her colleague Douglas McCabe of Enders Analysis, was busy backtracking at a Society of Editors conference in Glasgow. He admitted that they had been wrong, and that the prediction had been unduly pessimistic. You can read that Press Gazette report here.

 

Newspaper closures – what are the facts?

Anyone who’s tried to get to the bottom of how the local and regional press are doing, will know that finding reliable data about the number of closures and launches is not easy.

I have found some statistics on launches on the website of the Newspaper Society here, but no equivalent data (perhaps understandably considering the nature of the organisation, which promotes the local and regional press) on title closures.

There is a list on Roy Greenslade’s blog (which covers closures in 2008). There is a page about job losses in 2008 on the Institute of Journalists’ website.

Here, too, is a piece about the impact of closures on local journalism from Online Journalism Blog, which contains some facts and figures.

But I am still struggling to get a good, long-term, robust, audited list of closures and launches in the British newspaper market. I will post again if I find anything, because this would surely be a useful resource.

Fascinating privacy commission by R4’s PM

Radio 4 has recently broadcast interviews with top media players about privacy in the press, including Hugh Grant, Jimmy Wales and Max Clifford. They make for fascinating reading/ listening.

Click here to go the main blog for the series on the BBC website.

Why our press is under threat

 

If you’re interested in matters of freedom and democracy, you could do worse than read this excellent lecture by Martin Shipton, father of the union chapel  at Media Wales, Trinity Mirror’s Welsh news division.

It covers some thought-provoking ground about the job of journalists and the way many work under threat of imprisonment, violence or even death in many countries around the world. However, the lecture also examines how the commercialisation of news in the UK puts the press’s ability to support and enable democracy under strain.

Aha!

Being a complete idiot, I missed the RSS feed for Neath Port Talbot Council’s press releases, which was lurking in a little title bar for news on their homepage rather than on the press release page. The offending, broken Tracker + Feed experiment has now been moved to the bottom of my blog for anyone who’s interested.

Meanwhile, I have set up a proper RSS feed on the right and all is well with the world of NPT RSS feeds.

I’ve learnt much from this escapade so none of it has been in vain. I now plan to use what I’ve discovered about trackers and feeds to try to capture the news on another of Port Talbot’s burgeoning hyperlocal sites, namely Port Talbot News. I have set myself a gargantuan task with this one, I think.

The tracker and the feed

Yesterday I tried to build myself an RSS feed based on a tracker. The result is the Neath Port Talbot Council press releases feed on the right. It’s not working.

I wanted to find a way of presenting the press releases from the Neath Port Talbot Council website on our lnpt.org website, as a shortcut to having to check and update our site manually (which we currently don’t have time to do). The simplest thing, of course, would have been to subscribe to their RSS feed. Unfortunately, they don’t have one.

Here’s what I tried to get around the problem.

1. I found a brilliant blog post which explained trackers and said that they could be used to create RSS feeds. Read it here.

2. I read all the different solutions, and was most attracted to the options offered by Femtoo.com – being a coding newbie, I thought their Tracker Wizard would offer me the simplest way in.

3. I duly signed up with Femtoo with a free account and set up a tracker on the Council web page that lists press releases in order of release.

4. Using the Femtoo Wizard, I was able to select the headline of the first press release, and ask Femtoo to monitor any changes to that text. The simplicity of the Wizard meant that it wasn’t hugely clear whether it would continue to track that individual piece of text (which obviously would not change, and would mean my Tracker wouldn’t work), or whether it would simply check the same location (which would hopefully have a new story on it periodically, and would mean my Tracker would, hopefully, work).

5. Meanwhile, I set up the RSS feed, following the explanation on the Wild Apricot blog, which took me to Feedburner. That was all very simple, and once I had a host for my RSS feed, it was simple to copy and paste it into the widget behind the scenes on WordPress.

6. Then, I waited to see what would happen. With a free Femtoo account, you can only ask Trackers to check your site every 12 hours or every 24 hours (you have to pay EURO 1.20 a month for a Solo account, which gives you a few more features). I picked 12 hours, and waited for a story to change on the Council website.

7. Bingo. This morning, the top story changed. Duly, just a few hours later, I received an email from Femtoo (when the 12 hours was up) to tell me my Tracker had found a change.

8. Bugger. Sadly, my RSS feed did not change.

The good news is that the Tracker looks like it’s doing its job. The problem seems to be the way the change on the source website is being displayed on my RSS feed. I need to find a way of getting it to change the text from the generic title I gave the Tracker in Femtoo, to the headline of the press release. This is the page element I’ve asked the Tracker to monitor, and so it can’t be too difficult to display it in my RSS feed, surely.

Now I just have to figure out HOW. I will play around and report back.

Alternative funding models

There’s been a lot of talk about money since we started Local News Port Talbot – or, more specifically – how to get some.

We’ve knocked on a few doors for more traditional kinds of funding, including grant funding like the Big Lottery Fund. No luck there, so far. We’ve hinted broadly to anybody who’ll listen that we’re open to donations by generous philanthropists. Again, nothing doing. Advertising hasn’t come knocking either. It’s looking increasingly like we’ll have to move the boulder by ourselves.

Martin Moore from the Media Standards Trust has been enthusing about alternative funding models for some time now, and we’ve got to the point where we’re starting to think he might actually have something.

One of the ideas he’s pushed our way is spot.us, an American website that offers a way for journalists to propose a story they’d like to cover, and give a price for carrying out the work – so-called community reporting. Members of the public can donate cash towards the total, and the story is written when the total is reached.

Another idea already popular with bloggers is Addiply, which facilitates all the messy back-end stuff of website advertising, like taking payments and uploading adverts.

There are plenty more, I’m sure – and I’ll no doubt blog them as I find them.

But all that talk has got me thinking. I’ve seen Local Exchange Trading Schemes (LETS) such as Severn LETS, a scheme that allows people to barter for goods and services using a local currency. It seems to me it’s about celebrating the skills of a community while keeping wealth in the local economy.

Those are the kinds of concepts we’ve been bandying about for a while in LNPT, and now I wonder whether a local news service could have a place in such a scheme. If there isn’t one in existence, perhaps we could even establish one.

Journalists reporting on council meetings in return for a basket of vegetables or a fancy haircut. Just imagine.

This may all sound confusing…

A home for research about local news in Port Talbot, yes, you read it right. Not just local news, not just Port Talbot, research about them. It’s altogether specialised, and it sounds more than a little bit confusing, but to me it makes perfect sense.

My name is Rachel Howells. I’m studying a PhD at Cardiff University’s School of Journalism and my topic is local news and democracy. I’m funded by KESS, which is a European grant distributed by the Welsh Assembly Government. I am co-funded by an industry partner – The Media Standards Trust.

I’ve chosen to focus my research on the South Wales town of Port Talbot.

About Port Talbot

The population of Port Talbot is around 35,000 and it is the most polluted town in Wales due to the large concentration of heavy industry – the town is famous for its steelworks. It is also famous for turning out some of Hollywood’s finest: Richard Burton, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Sheen all come from here.

Until 2009, there was a thriving weekly newspaper in Port Talbot. The Port Talbot Guardian had been printing since 1927. It was owned by the Trinity Mirror Group, who took the decision to close the PT Guardian, along with its sister title, the Neath Guardian, which served a neighbouring town.

A third title, the South Wales Evening Post, is based 10 miles away in Swansea. There is a Neath Port Talbot edition of the Evening Post every day, but this is generally limited to two or three pages of news about the area. There is also a weekly pull-out section inside the Evening Post, called The Courier, which is often four pages long. The Port Talbot correspondent at the Evening Post is based in their Swansea offices.

Since the PT Guardian closed down, there have been no working journalists based in the town. The suspicion is that stories about Port Talbot are no longer making it into the other media that ostensibly cover the area, simply because there is no local newspaper picking up on them in the first place. There is also an argument that the diversity of news coverage is impoverished because fewer journalists are covering stories, asking questions and putting politicians, businesses and other public organisations under scrutiny.

About my research

My research will attempt to measure how Port Talbot was served by local news in past times. It will also aim to discover how Port Talbot is served now, since the closure of the Port Talbot Guardian. It will survey local residents to discover how they consume news, and how they would like to consume news if they had a choice. And it will interview current news providers to assess how they see the  coverage of Port Talbot.

All of this, in the end, will go towards forming a picture of one town’s experience of a very modern problem – the crisis in print news – and will, hopefully, shed some light on how that affects the town’s relationship with democracy and civic engagement.

Why the blog?

So, now you know why the research is happening. What about the blog? Well, the reason I’ve started this blog is certainly related to the PhD, but it’s also for a related project I’m working on, Local News Port Talbot, which is a hyperlocal news site for Port Talbot.

I want to complement what’s already being done on this site – http://www.lnpt.org – which has been set up by a group of professional journalists that is trying to tackle the news shortage in Port Talbot (I am one of these journalists).

Essentially I’m looking for a place to host news feeds and Twitter feeds about Port Talbot. So this is a place for me to learn, discuss (and probably break) techie stuff that I can utilise on the public-facing news site. It’s also somewhere for me to store all the good things I find online about hyperlocal news, media trends, blogging and Port Talbot.

This blog, really, is for myself. But if it becomes a useful place for other people as well, then that’s great.

If you’re interested in any of this, and would like to know more, please leave a comment.