The Hyperlocal Jeremy Paxmans are out there; we just need to find them

I wrote this article for the Journalism Foundation in March 2012. Searching for it this morning, so I could reference it, I discovered that the Journalism Foundation, and thus its website, is now defunct. So, to make sure it stays out there, I am reproducing it here:

Browsing Twitter a couple of weeks ago, I came across a tweet which, I think, was from one of the many sessions at the South by South West technology conference in Austin, Texas. I’ve lost track of it now, but the gist of it was that politics is an activity which appeals to an ever decreasing proportion of the population, and that its participants seem to have little interest in changing their approaches to appeal to more people.

We can all point to the many ways in which life has changed in recent years which make the traditional ways of doing things less relevant. And it is a story familiar in other walks of life, that the people at the top cling to the old methods, while everyone else finds something else to do which is more interesting and relevant to their lifestyles. Thus, small bands of politics junkies continue their debates in panelled rooms, while the rest of the world gets on with using ever simpler and more effective means of sharing and communicating with each other. It is tempting to see politics as yet another “industry” gradually being killed off by new technology and changing demographics.

But politics is too important for that. It is, after all, however imperfect the systems, the way we do things. It’s the expression of our collective will. Looking over the broad span of history, politicians, or whatever those who hold the reins of power, have been called, have generally been drawn from a small elite. Social progress in the 20th Century went a long way towards changing this. Is it now going too far to suggest that this progress might be reversed as the rest of the population distances itself from the way politicians do things?

One of the big ironies of modern politics is that the politicians who bother to go out on their tried and trusted mission to knock on the nation’s doors are probably dragging people away from their screens and mobile devices. And those people have at their fingertips the means of keeping in touch with political issues in a far more informed way than a rushed doorstep conversation. Whether they choose to use them for that purpose is another issue entirely.

Of course, there are lots of initiatives attempting to address this divide. I’ve been involved with some myself. And there are some politicians who are great at using social media, although all too many see it as just another channel to broadcast their messages to a wider audience. Effective use of social media by politicians is still too much of a minority activity.

Just the other day, I was watching a live video stream of a council meeting, during which some councillors berated their colleagues for tweeting during the meeting, claiming this meant they weren’t paying attention to the debate. Now, those of us who are regular social media users know that it is possible to become quite adept at multi-tasking; listening to debates and translating their key points into tweets, but this can be a difficult skill to master, and it can seem an impossibility to those not versed in it. But this incident is a very good indication of the tension between the old and the new way of doing things; and it further shows how politicians are developing their own channels to communicate with the public, without the mediation of journalists and traditional media.

Live-streaming of council meetings is an interesting case in point. A number of local authorities are now video streaming meetings, thus making their content available on a much wider basis than to those prepared and able to attend in the public gallery or read the minutes. A few councils have tried using free streaming platforms, with mixed results, largely because they haven’t taken account of the in-stream advertising that some free platforms deploy, and these can attract negative reactions. More common, amongst the minority of councils streaming meetings, is a managed system deploying a number of fixed, remotely controlled, cameras in the Council Chamber, which produces a TV-like experience for the viewer.

It is undeniable that using live-streaming to open up democratic processes is a good thing. But I would argue there are some fundamental difficulties with the way it is being approached by most local authorities.

The first issue is the cost. There is a natural element of risk-aversity in a lot of the public sector, for very good reasons. At the recent LocalGovCamp North West event, I ran a session on live-streaming council meetings. One of the key messages which came out of this session was that many councillors are worried about experimental systems which they think might fail to present them in a favourable light. But the reliance on expensive systems is acting as a block on other authorities moving into providing their own live streams. In my opinion, people form their own opinions about their elected representatives based on many other factors than the quality of the internet stream they might view them on. And I have witnessed councillors misbehaving on good quality webstreams. I think risk-aversity, coupled with lack of in-house skills required to make different systems work, is holding back councils which don’t have the budget to buy in expensive systems. And, in the current fiscal climate, that is most of them.

The second issue about live-streaming meetings is the focus on the Council Chamber. This is particularly inevitable when costly video equipment has been installed in the Chamber. But, not every decision is taken there, nor does every debate happen in the Chamber. So, the question is: what exactly is it that we are opening up? Yes, we get to see the Full Council meetings, which, after all, are the ultimate governing body, responsible for signing off the decisions of all sub-committees and other groups. And some councils stream other meetings which take place in the Council Chamber too, including Cabinet meetings. But, a lot of the most lively, and best informed, debates take place away from the main Chamber, and, again, the investment in Council Chamber equipment and lack of preparedness to experiment, mean that other debates don’t get a wider audience. In fact, as many of these meetings take place in venues with minimal facilities for public attendance, a lot of these discussions are unwitnessed by anyone not directly involved. I think this is a democratic deficit, as many of the real issues get proper scrutiny in small rooms.

But I think the most dangerous assumption in all this is the idea that simply “putting it out there” is sufficient. I’ve no idea what the average viewing figures are for live streams of council meetings, but I suspect they are not high, and the numbers of people sticking with them all the way through must be significantly lower still. I’m very interested in this stuff, but I don’t find much of it gripping viewing. People are interested in the issues that directly and tangibly affect them. And they are also, whether we like it or not, interested in personalities. Most people don’t know much about the personalities in local government. They probably don’t even know who their local councillor is.

So, what I don’t see happening, which I think it pretty vital, is any move to popularise local political content. The live streams from council meetings are the local equivalent of the BBC Parliament Channel. They’re put out there through some sense of obligation, but not many people really watch them. What we really need are the local equivalents of Question Time, News Night, the Daily Politics, and Election Night Special. These are the programmes that package politics, make it more entertaining, and bring it to a wider audience. But no one is producing local versions at the moment, or ever has. It could be that a solution is riding over the horizon in the shape of the Local TV stations being promoted by the Culture Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. But, the jury is out as to whether Local TV in the form envisaged by Government can be made to work. It feels like a very old model, requiring expensive kit, staff and studio spaces. And its catchment areas are based on TV transmitter footprints, rather than any communities or geographies that make sense to people. On the other hand, there are lots of hyperlocal bloggers, news gatherers, and citizen journalists out there who are only too willing to act as bridges between politicians, institutions, and the public. The internet is where large numbers of people get their information these days, and it offers cost-effective channels for communication between all parties involved in the local political process.

Pits ‘n’ Pots in Stoke-on-Trent has been holding its local elected representatives to account for a number of years now, as is well documented elsewhere on this site. Other hyperlocal websites have been doing the same. There are lots of examples where politicians and officials have felt threatened by these processes. Indeed, a number of local sites and initiatives have emerged as a response to a perceived lack of openness on the part of their local authority. But this relationship need not be antagonistic. In many localities it should be possible for local authorities, politicians, and citizen journalists to find new ways of engaging the public in democratic processes. The hyperlocal Jeremy Paxmans and David Dimblebys are out there. They just need encouragement and a small amount of resource to make local politics sexy.

Statistics versus Stories

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Sometimes when I walk the dog in the mornings I just take in the scenery and listen to the birds singing. I am very fortunate to live in an urban area, but to have some great bits of raw nature close to where I live where the dog can be let off the lead to get his exercise.

And, then, sometimes I put the headphones in and listen to Radio 4’s Today Programme to keep up to date with what people are saying about the world.

This morning I did the latter, and caught Anne Atkins speaking on “Thought for the Day”. She posed the question as to why the death of Robin Williams had dominated the news agenda, while the deaths of thousands in genocide in Iraq and from Ebola in West Africa, are dismissed in a few lines. The latter are statistics, she opined, the former is a story that Western people can empathise with.

It reinforces a point I keep making. People who think that reports full of statistics are going to change the world are deluding themselves. If you really want to affect people’s behaviour, and change things, then tell stories about how what you do impacts on people’s lives. People just like you and me. Stories affect people’s emotions and generate empathy. Statistics are just numbers.

Using Social Media to tell the other side of the story

Reading this post this morning, on the important role that social media has played in social uprisings in Ukraine and Venezuela , made me think once again about the important opportunities which are missed by so many in the UK to tell the stories the mainstream media are not interested in.

When you are in a crisis situation like that faced by people in the Ukraine, and all the big media tools are in the hands of those you are struggling against, you can now turn to social media to get your story out. We have seen this happening during the Arab Spring and in places like Syria.

But, in Britain, this is still not happening to any significant extent. While the mainstream media uses its power to stigmatise and berate communities in programme like Benefits Street, we still see people with leadership roles in disadvantaged communities in the UK (and I am talking mainly about paid professionals here) shying away from using the tools we all have at our disposal to tell the other side of the story. Most of them will have multimedia storytelling devices (otherwise known as smartphones) in their pockets, but they don’t seem to want to use them to unleash the power of that storytelling. Is it that they don’t want to, they don’t know how to, or they are hidebound by health and safety and data protection rules from doing so?

It’s really not that hard, and I am getting increasingly frustrated about how many people are failing to realise this potential.

Here’s me talking about how I this can be done. Get in touch if you want to know more

Mobile phones as reporting tools

On Tuesday this week (6th September) I was on the panel at SMC_MCR (formerly known as Manchester Social Media Cafe) for a discussion about Social Media and the Riots. I’m not going to go into the discussion here, you can catch the whole thing in the video below, courtesy of Littlestar.

[vimeo http://vimeo.com/28762281]

The debate, and something which I saw subsequently, made me think. Paul Gallagher, of the Manchester Evening News, a fellow panel member, mentioned that the newspaper had equipped its journalists with Nokia N8 phones, because they have good cameras. Later, after I got home, I picked up from Twitter, Christian Payne‘s audio piece about the his use of the iPhone as a work tool.  I found the juxtaposition particularly interesting, because I own one of each of these devices, and I would say, as useful tools, there is just no comparison.

Paul said that the MEN had given Nokia N8’s to staff as a blogging tool “because of their good cameras”. I acquired an N8 some time ago for a similar reason. I was attracted by the combination of a 12 Megapixel camera and a wifi connection. I was hoping that, as well as being able to upload high quality content from the phone straight to the internet, I would be able to stream HD quality video over wifi connections.  Unfortunately, most of my ambitions for the N8 have been frustrated. One of the reasons may have been that wifi connections that could sustain an HD video stream are few and far between, and my attempts to stream with it at high quality just resulted in excessive buffering. But, an even more irritating problem with the phone has been the sound quality on the video recordings. I have to agree with Paul, it’s a phone with a great camera, and it takes pretty good 12MP still photographs, along with good quality 720p HD video. BUT, I have found the sound quality on the video recordings always to be poor, in comparison with any other device I have. And, not only that, but, over time, the sound quality has deteriorated, to the point when it has become unusable.  Below is an example of a video I took with the N8 at a time when I had not had it for very long.

It’s a pretty good representation of what I mean by poor quality sound, but, as I said earlier, it got worse than that over time. I am fully prepared to accept it may be something I did to the phone, and it also became apparent that it didn’t take kindly to being carried constantly in my trouser pocket, as it increasingly froze up and crashed when I tried to use it. But, the sound started fairly poor, and just got worse. And surely, mobile phones are supposed to be able to stand up to being carried in a pocket, aren’t they?  As far as the N8 is concerned, a lot of care and attention to detail has obviously gone into the camera lens, but the microphones really let it down. And, I understand there are actually 3 microphones on the device, two on the lens side, for stereo sound, and one on the other side, for “narration”. Whatever the intentions of this arrangement, they don’t work, as far as I’m concerned. I wonder if there is some sort of cross feed between the different mics that causes a problem?  Just for comparison purposes, here is a video taken in the same room with an iPhone 4, which I think offers much better sound quality.

But, quality of the camera aside, what of Paul Gallagher’s assertion that MEN journalists are using the N8s as blogging tools? Well, good luck to them, I say. I have almost exclusively used the N8 as a camera, because, even as someone fairly tech-savvy, I find the menus and programme access on the N8 to be seriously challenging and frustrating. Owning an iPhone 4 alongside my N8, I have to say that there is no comparison at all. I agree with Christian Payne that the iPhone is a versatile, multi-talented tool, while the N8 is, at best, a pretty good compact stills camera with a useful ability to upload material straight to the web.

On BBC Radio Leeds talking about Social Media, privacy and policing

Sorry, it’s taken me a while to post this, but, for the sake of trying to keep most of my content in one place, I am posting here the interview I did on the BBC Radio Leeds Breakfast Show on 9th February. I was asked to go in (at 7am!) to talk about Twitter and privacy issues in the wake of the PPC ruling against Sarah Baskerville (@baskers). Then, while I was waiting to go into the studio, the producer asked me if I would mind answering questions about the issue of whether the police were being outwitted by demonstrators using social media to organise protests. I was happy to oblige.

Explaining the Big Society

People are still saying they don’t understand what the Big Society is about, despite attempts to explain it from the likes of David Cameron, in his conference speech yesterday, and Lord Nat Wei in his blog. Julian Dobson has been raising the level of debate, and there has been some high quality to and fro on the Big Society in the North Forum.

Still people are saying they don’t understand it. I really don’t think the mainstream media are helping on this. I was struck by this quote from an article in the “Evening Standard”:

….ours is a nation that pokes fun at those who do try to make a difference. From Dad’s Army to Citizen Smith to the Vicar of Dibley, we mock those who attempt things for the common good.

http://www.thisislondon.co.uk/standard/article-23885680-enough-talk-about-the-big-society—its-time-for-action.do

There was also an item on “Newsnight” a few months ago which just set out to ridicule the whole thing.

So, I’ve had an idea. “The Apprentice” has just returned to our TV screens, with teams of obnoxious, self-obsessed, self-promoters, scratching each other’s eyes out in an effort to avoid the fatal finger of the blessed Lord Sugar. Why not adapt this format, so we have teams of people wanting to do good for their communities competing to implement the best (Big Society) community initiatives? And, to make it more effective, I think the activities of each weekly programme should take place in the same community, so it is possible to measure the impact of the actions, and demonstrate how one community can grow a series of projects which engage local people and grow community capacity.

I am not sure if the “you’re fired” element would be appropriate in this variant of the format. But, then again, perhaps it would. If you’re not effectively doing good for the community, then you’re out. Step aside and leave it to those who CAN do it.

The main benefit of this is that other communities would be able to see the Big Society in action and transfer the lessons to their own neighbourhoods.

Any TV producers up for this?

Why am I not excited by F.A. Cup Third Round Day?

Oh, it’s the magic of the cup, the most exciting day of the sporting calendar, the first weekend in January, has brought F.A. Cup Third Round Day again. But, why does it not excite me like the media thinks it should?

Now, I count myself as a football fan, although my allegiance to Notts County, the club I was first taken to see as a six year-old, makes some people doubt it, and severely causes me to wonder at times. To be honest, I am pretty much of an armchair fan these days, I moved away from Nottingham some 16 years ago, and now live around 80 miles away. There are so many other things to do in life these days, that a 160 mile round trip and two hours on a cold terrace do not figure that high on my list of priorities these days. I used to live walking distance from the ground, and attended nearly every home game. But that was easy. And another factor is that, during my lifetime, my team have played four seasons at the highest level of English football; I have seen them beat some of the top teams in the country (although my Arsenal supporting son still does not believe that Notts County have ever beaten his team – they have, I was there). Having watched them play at what is now Premiership level, I find it very hard to motivate myself to watch a bunch of hard working, but basically talent free, journeymen whacking the leather off the ball for 90 minutes, even though I spent years watching this sort of stuff before they got to the old First Division. The joys of modern technology (albeit via a 16kbps Windows Media stream) mean that I can listen to commentaries of all the games via the Internet, and that does for me most of the time. And I am one of those people who just could not bring myself to take any sort of interest in a club closer to where I live.

My point about the hype of the FA Cup Third Round is that I think it is just that, hype. It is all part of the promotional process that media outlets go through to create interest in events they broadcast. They would never get the viewing or listening figures they need if only the fans of the clubs involved tuned in, so they have to sell the game to neutrals. And it occurred to me this morning, when I was listening to one of the pieces of FA Cup Third Round hype on the radio, is that this is how I used to think about it as a small boy. Is it just me, or has anyone else gone through the development process I have? When I first discovered football, it was all exciting stuff, I devoured the footy magazines, followed the latest news on all the teams, read all the match reports in the Sunday newspaper, got one of those cardboard league tables with slot-in tags in the colours of the teams and re-arranged them into accurate positions after every game. It was football in general which was the exciting thing, and it took me some time, after first being taken to a Notts County game, to focus on “my” team above all others. But that did happen, gradually, over a number of years, until I found that I was only interested in Notts County, and everything else that happened in the game became more and more peripheral. And, then it moved from being peripheral to being annoying; particularly the media assumption that everybody is interested in the Premiership, and we would all be fans of the “big four” if only we could get tickets for the games. As I write this, I am listening to a BBC journalist saying that attendances at lower division clubs are increasing because fans are being priced out of the Premiership games. It could never be that the fans might WANT to support the lower league clubs, could it.

So, my contention is that many football journalists are little boys who never grew up. But, is that genuine, or is it an attitude they are required to develop as part of their jobs? Are they really as excited by football in general as they profess to be? Of course, those who work in the national media are required to have a wide focus, national outlets obviously could not concentrate on one or two clubs (although it sometimes feels like they do). I believe that you support a football club from an early age and then it is impossible to change it. Apart form a natural interest in the underdog, which finds me always wanting the least fancied team to win, when watching a neutral game, I am not interested in what any other football clubs are doing except my own.

And that brings me to the last point. Could it be that FA Cup Third Round day leaves me cold because my team is not in it? This year, for the second season running, they have been knocked out at the Second Round stage by a non-league team. I will be on the Internet, listening to them playing away at Aldershot, in what used to be known as the Fourth Division, I’ve lost track of what they call it now. So, if that has coloured my view on this, and the FA Cup Third Round is really still as exciting as they say it is, please ignore me, go ahead and enjoy it!