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A newspaper and the non-story of a council’s travel expenses

Because some spending details are available as the result of a Freedom of Information Act request does not mean they are scandalous. Take the Evening Star’s latest revelation under the headline “Suffolk: County Council staff takes 175 trips abroad — at a cost of £98,000″.

That is in a period of six years making the cost of foreign travel less than £16,500 a year. The average cost of a trip is £560.

That looks to me like careful control of expenses. I doubt if many organisations of similar size would appear so frugal if their travel expenses were exposed to scrutiny.

The figures suggest budget airlines and far from luxurious hotels.

The newspaper reports a county spokesman saying that one trip to Africa, which cost £16,000 was mainly funded through the children partaking in the trip raising money. He said that the reason was to take eight children in care to visit orphanages in Africa.

That sounds like a commendable project.

And “almost £500 was forked out” to visit an exhibition in Amsterdam to consider the best speed cameras for the county. It lasted three days which hardly suggests an official living the high life.

We need our officials to get out and talk to people, to hear the experiences of others so that they are better able to advise councillors.

One employee had £2,000 to attend a five day course in Boston as a part of a masters degree. This kind of spending is clearly not common and providing development opportunities to staff is important in recruiting and retaining the able people we need working for us.

Wordblog in its earlier incarnation was about the media, and it is the decision that this story was worth running that worries me.

It is the job of the press to hold public bodies to account. Enquiring into all aspects of spending is an important part of this. And the Evening Star has produced some important stories including the revelation of the money spent on photographs of chief executive Andrea Hill.

The chief executive’s spending on hotel stays in Suffolk, now a part of the investigation into her conduct, is another.

But this story about travel expenses undermines the good work. It enables those who should be held to account to turn on the media with valid complaints. “Just another example of the press pursuing a vendetta,” they can say with credibility.

I fear that FoI requests have given regional newspapers, hit by declining sales, reduced advertising revenue, and the resulting loss of reporters, a cheap semblance of investigative reporting.

The in-depth analysis of what the county council is really doing is expensive, demanding staff time which is no longer available. But that is what we need.

The challenge to our regional media is how to respond the the challenges of changes which are much more long-term than the current economic low. The internet has changed everything but I believe print will be with us for a long time.

I will return to this subject to look at ways in which our regional press could operate in a world of hyperlocal web news and social media to better serve its print readers.

East newspaper journalists face job cuts when most needed

At a time when the “localism” drive by central and local government is making high quality reporting and comment vital, the regional press is in a sorry decline, a shadow of its former self.

Today the BBC reports that journalists at Archant Norfolk which publishes the Eastern Daily Press, the Norwich Evening News and a string of weeklies are to ballot on industrial action over plans to cut up to 20 jobs.

In Norfolk a pork pie maker and blogger invited a former Archant journalist to write on what is happening to her local papers. The guest blogger writes:

A few recent examples of the good work regional newspapers can do include the EDP’s campaigns to save RAF Marham, applying pressure for the A11 to be dualled and fighting for better broadband to bring inward investment to the county.

But it’s not just about the big campaigns, it’s also about the little things. If you’re setting up a new business, the chances are you want to advertise it in the papers and you may well benefit from editorial coverage as well.

If public bodies are making cuts (aren’t they all?) who’s going to tell you about it and who’s going to give you a voice to shout about it?

Who’s going to tell you about crime, both major and minor, on your doorstep? Who’s going to tell you about events in your neighbourhood?

Who’s going to highlight the ordinary people who do extraordinary things to help charities and the community?

Who’s going to tell you the quirky little stories that make you smile over your cornflakes?

This reflects what Roy Greenslade, media commentator, former editor and blogger wrote recently about a dispute at another newspaper group in another party of the country. Greenslade, who loves print and has ink in his blood, wrote:

The net is the future, print is not.

I am often described as a doom-monger, a facile criticism. My analysis of the decline of newspapers is based on figures going back 50 years. It is further informed by the accelerating decline since the rise of the internet.

I know there will be printed papers around for a long time. What concerns me is that journalists won’t be.

I want to see the growth of relationships between a skilled professional journalistic cadre and concerned citizens.

Like Roy, I love print. That is where I started my working life, the smell of hot metal in my nose. Now I see online as the future although newspapers will still be around after I have gone.

That relationship between paid journalists and concerned citizens is developing as was neatly demonstrated by one of Greenslade’s Guardian colleagues today.

Patrick Butler (@patrickjbutler), a writer on social affairs, tweeted:

Struck by quality and consistency of political blogs in Suffolk: @andrewga @IpswichSpy @onlygeek @DeardenPhillips

It is nice to be included and I could add more good Suffolk blogs, some of them overtly party-political and others not.

One reason why Butler is reading the Suffolk blogs is that things of national interest have been happening in the county, most of them related to the county council. He needs information and opinion and he is able to get it from blogs as well as traditional print sources.

A concern that many of us have is that the traditional print media in Suffolk has been cut to the bone and overworked journalists are clearly having difficulty in doing the job they would like to be doing, to meet the demands of the community

To some extent bloggers are starting to fill the gap and answer the thirst for information. One day last week when a big story broke Wordblog (only three months old in its present form) had a thousand visitors.

Whether Archant which also owns most papers in Suffolk, including the East Anglian Daily Times and the Evening Star, will attempt to cut journalists here as well as in Norfolk I don’t know. It is difficult to see how they could as they have already cut to the bone.

In the meantime it is clear that online community journalism is strengthening with extremely local news sites developing and more bloggers coming on the scene.

Guardian to launch web 'edition' for North America

Newspapers have long produced different editions for various parts of their circulation areas. Now the Guardian is extending the idea with the imminent launch of guardianamerica.com (currently it switches back to guardian.co.uk) with a different front page and enhanced news.

Michael Tomasky has been appointed editor of the new site which will also have an expanded Comment is Free for the North American audience. He starts his new job next week.

Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, told the Press Gazette: “We already have a substantial and growing US audience and Michael’s skills and experience will enable us to build on this success.”

Times online already has global and UK editions.

Third Webby in a row for Guardian Unlimited

Winning the Webby award for the best newspaper website for the third consecutive year is a great achievement for Guardian Unlimited. The others on the shortlist were the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, Hollywood Reporter and Variety.

The New York Times won the Webby for the best business blog with its Deal Book, a large-scale group blog. Both the Guardian (Comment is Free) and the NYTimes (The Caucus) were nominated for best political blog but the award went to Truthdig.

Later: I missed out the fact that the Guardian was also nominated in the podcast category which went to National Public Radio.

Web ABCs: Guardian crows but Sun get more page hits

Not surprisingly the Guardian is crowing about the the first ABCe newspaper website figures which show they have nearly as many users as their rivals the Times (what has happened to the relaunch effect?) and the Telegraph (steady progress) have between them.

There is big blurb on the front page of the printed paper headed: “An end to web propaganda: now the first, official audited figures.” Willy waving?

Of course, it isn’t. Jemima Kiss denies the charge in the Organ Grinder blog writing: “… it’s about transparency, credibility and building trust with advertisers.”

While no print reader can be unaware of the figures, there is, oddly, no reference to them on the home page of Guardian Unlimited. But they are the second item on the Media home page.

Three other papers have come into the scheme for monthly publication of figures by ABCe — the Telegraph, Times and Sun (no comment on their sites yet).

The figures for March are:

Page impressions: Guardian Unlimited 146,979,741, Telegraph 69,559,359, Times Online 57,681,199, The Sun 151,438,441.

Users: Guardian Unlimited 15,093,058, Telegraph 7,392,803, Times Online 8,048,029, The Sun 7,797,032.

A table including user figures for February this year and March last year is at the Guardian.

It is not surprising that the Times Online users figure fell back from February when the relaunch of the site created a lot of interest, but 2.8m is a very big fall. There must be concern that the March figure is the lowest since June last year, raising questions about the relaunch.

The Telegraph has shown steady growth over the last year and the new figure is nearly 1.5m monthly users more than a year ago. The Sun must be pleased to be the largest newspaper website in the UK in terms of page impressions — the Page 3 effect.

Ultra-local news and England's biggest selling regional

When it comes to understanding local news you have to listen to what the people at the Express and Star in Wolverhampton have to say. It has built itself into the best selling regional newspaper in England under its independent ownership.

So the thinking there about online and citizen journalism which is explored in an interview with the deputy editor, Keith Harrison, at journalism.co.uk is a must read.

Micro-local news, he says, is what is going to survive. To do that the paper will need 500 citizen journalists. The picture which Harrison paints suggests an online version of what a multitude of small weekly newspapers did until not all that long ago.

Harrison says ultra-local is definitely the way to go and continues:

If you promise ultra-local, you’ve got to be able to deliver it. The number of journalists we have [60] is huge compared with many other regional papers – but, even with that many, we can’t deliver ultra-local news all the time. To do it, we’re going to need another 500 reporters – we can’t take them on, they’re going to need to be citizen journalists. They want to get this information out there; we need to say “yes, we’ll be your electronic parish noticeboard, come give it to us and it will be in the Express & Star” – whereas, if you just set it up on your own, you’re only going to have a limited audience.

The only way we can do it is not by paying our full-time staff to do it but by giving our readers outside the opportunity to do it and for them to contribute and feel part of the newspaper.

I am increasingly convinced that he is right. It is not only about providing content it is about connecting with the community, maintaining a sense that it is their newspaper.

Harrison says that one man still sends the Express and Star the pigeon club report on postcards. That takes me back to my second job, on the Buxton Advertiser, and collecting various scraps of paper with reports of flower shows, the service at the Methodist Church, funeral reports and accounts of the most interesting object in a matchbox competition at the Women’s Institute meeting.

From there I went to the Western Daily Press which, under editor Eric Price, was the fasted growing regional newspaper at the time. He combined innovative design with a fairly brash approach to world and national news and intensely local, but lively, coverage. We wrote features on villages, found stories in dahlia shows and recorded golden weddings.

Some of the skills of that era of newspapers and a whole lot of new ones are needed to make a success of online ultra-local news. That raises a whole lot of questions about recruitment and training.

Why don't printed papers get promoted on websites?

Journalism students at Bournemouth University are asking a very relevant question: Why do newspaper website in the UK so so little to promote the printed version on their websites?

The students examined newspapers and web sites for encouragement to use the other version. In a Times Saturday edition they found 101 directions to timesonline but on the website not a single exhortation to buy the paper.

The picture was similar at the Guardian, the Telegraph, the Sun and orther papers they compared. Peter Jackson, the students’ lecturer writes about their investigation in the Independent.

If you visit any US newspaper you are likely to find encouragement to take out a subscription for the paper at the top of it’s website’s home page. So why not something similar here? OK, the distribution systems are different but there should be a way round that problem.

UK online publishing revenue heading towards £1bn mark

Online publishing now accounts for an average 12% of revenues according to a survey of some of the biggest newspaper and magazine groups. They believe this is set to rise substantially in the coming year.

The Association of Online Publishers say turnover from members’ digital operations reached £575m in 2006, up from £344m the previous year. And they are forecasting a 72% increase this year. That would take the figure to close on £1bn.

Simon Waldman, director of digital strategy at Guardian Media Group and chairman of AOP, said:

This is a remarkable set of figures. 2006 was a year of spectacular digital growth, innovation and investment by the UK’s media industry – and our forecasts show there is no sign of this letting up.

Three-quarters of the turnover comes from advertising with display contributing four times more than classified. The numbers of sites charging for content is increasing, from 37% to 47% over the year, and contributing 12% of revenues.

Members of AOP include: AN Digital, BBC, BSkyB, Channel 4, CMPi, CNET Networks, Condé Nast Interactive, Dennis Interactive, The Economist Group, Emap, FT.com, Future Publishing, GCAP Media, Guardian Unlimited, Haymarket Publishing, Hearst Digital Network, Incisive Media, Independent Digital, IPC Media, ITV Online, News International, Reed Business Information, Reuters Group, Telegraph Group Limited, Trinity Mirror Group and Which?.

The view from Independent House is rosier

Sometimes subs do not serve authors well. The tone of the standfirst on Peter Cole’s On The Press column in the Sindy today suggests a tone that is not reflected in the copy. It reads: “Rumours of the death of print media are not only grossly exaggerated, they’re irresponsible and wrong.”

None of the words “grossly, exaggerated, irresponsible or wrong” are among those Cole uses.

While he is not saying everything in the garden is blooming for print he does look for the bright side and takes a swipe at the “prophets of doom”. He believes what is happening to print sales is neither terminal nor catastrophic. He bases his argument on the latest ABC figures for the broadsheets that have moved to more compact formats. He writes:

It [the Berliner Guardian] is selling 3.4 per cent more than its broadsheet counterpart of July 2005. Next to downsize was The Independent on Sunday, selling last month 12.3 per cent more copies than in its last days as a broadsheet. And finally, The Observer is selling 4.3 per cent more copies than it did as a broadsheet in November 2005. The Telegraph titles, which have remained broadsheet, have lost sales over the period since The Independent launched as a compact – the daily 4.1 per cent down, the Sunday 10.5 per cent down.

That is a rather selective list and over at the Observer, Peter Preston takes a rather different view concluding: “There now. Everybody sitting uncomfortably and feeling pretty miserable? Because that, in short, is the story.”

If only sales figures were the only indicators there might be room for optimism that the figures could be turned around. But they are not. The advertising landscape is moving and newspapers, even with the aid their online versions, cannot hope to retain their share of the past.

Printed newspapers are not going to disappear suddenly. Some will survive for a very long time while those that go first will be probably those that would have been vulnerable if the internet had never been invented.

Cole draws encouragement from last month’s publication of a survey by the World’s Editors’ Forum. It found that 85 per cent were “very” or “somewhat” optimistic about the future of newspapers.

When I looked at this survey my first caveat was that it was international and included Asia and Africa where much of the print media is booming.

I have another worry. It is whether the term newspapers is being used for the print versions or or is the term extended to include the online offerings. I tend to use the wider definition of “newspaper” and put “printed” in front of it if I mean the paper version only. But in various statements and reports it is not always clear.

And for the benefit of Cole and others in their grey bastion of Independent House which daily grows to more closely resemble the battleships which are often parked outside, cutting editorial staff is not what anyone else sees as a solution. It is worth repeating the words of Bertrand Pecquerie, director of WEF, commenting on the survey:

Eighty-five percent of senior news executives see a rosy future for their newspaper, and it’s quite a surprise.
Editors recognize competition from online sources and free papers, and in turn are making efforts to adapt to 21st century readership. They know how to effectively make the transition to online journalism without reducing editorial quality. Editors-in-chief realise that content matters more than ever and cutting newsroom resources is not at all an effective solution: the reshaping of news will take place with journalists, rather than at their expense.

Putting the focus on 'news you can use'

Media executives have been beating a path to Tampa, Florida, for several years to see the future: the converged newsroom that brings together the Tampa Tribune, WFLA TV and tbo.com. This week the Tribune announced that it was cutting 70 jobs of which “fewer than 10″ will be from the 280-strong newsroom.

Lucas Grindley who works not that far away in Sarasota and is an advocate of convergence, says, “Not even convergence was a strong enough tactic to overcome the continuing drop in revenues felt across the industry.”

We need to be very careful about drawing any conclusions for the UK from what is happening in Florida where there are 42 daily newspapers serving a rapidly growing population of around 18 million.

The Tribune faces fierce competition from the St Petersburg Times across the bay and smaller newspapers in the region. Its plan is to withdraw from some fringe areas, focus on “hyper-local news” and trim half-an-inch from its page width.

President and Publisher Denise Palmer is quoted in Editor and Publisher saying:

Our newspaper is experiencing the challenges of changing reader needs and fundamental shifts in spending by our traditional advertisers. We are reducing resources in areas that are in decline and investing in areas of growth, including local news and the Internet.

Some neighbourhood editions are to be merged with weekly papers owned by the group. Palmer told her own paper:

We know from research that our readers want news that is hyperlocal and useful to their daily lives. We plan to provide more focused products to better serve changing reader and advertiser needs. At the same time, we will accelerate efforts to operate more efficiently.

While news markets are very different in the US even there the Tampa operation is unusual in owning both the paper and the TV station. But the emphasis on practical local “news you can use” is relevant to the UK.

A couple of weeks ago one of my oldest friends in journalism visited us in Suffolk, picked up a copy of the East Anglian Daily Times and said: “This is what all newspapers will be like in a few years.”

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