Payments from local councils to local press

At the recent Revival of Local Journalism conference the Chief Executive of Liverpool City Council, Ged Fitzgerald, reminded the audience of local journalists that he’s obliged to use local newspapers to publish statutory notices for planning, road closures and “all sorts of technical type stuff.”

That costs his council about £150,000 per year and overall costs the public sector £26m (that figure according to Fitgerald but a report by the Local Government Information Unit  puts it at £67m).

Fitzgerald claimed: “nobody ever reads them and nobody ever responds to them,” but the newspaper industry has made it clear to government that they should stay in place, he complained.

Hyperlocal media operations play into this debate for a couple of reasons. Firstly, many of them have significant local online audiences and also, in some areas they serve localities that might no longer have local newspaper representation. and are two hyperlocals that have put in Freedom of Information requests and Talk About Local have voiced their concerns about the practice.

I think the current state of play is that the government isn’t likely to make any changes here. Certainly the summary given in written evidence by The Newspaper Society on the Deregulation Bill in March 2014 would suggest so.

Anyway, I was wondering how much this practice costs Birmingham City Council. The long route to finding out is an FOI request but you can get a global figure on how much the City pays the local newspaper group (Trinity Mirror) by looking through the list of payments that the council publishes. This does give which council department makes the payment but doesn’t say what it is for so the figure below may include other items such as printing costs (if it uses Trinity Mirror’s printing services) or job ads.

However, I suspect this figure is largely for statutory notices:

Birmingham City Council paid Trinity Mirror £198,068 in the last 12 months (June 2013 – June 2014)

July 2013 £32,163 £32,163
August 2013 £551 £864 £1,415
September 2013 £1,614 £2,592 £4,206
October 2013 £14,163 £14,163
November 2013 £25,088 £900 £25,988
December 2013 £918 £3,050 £3,968
January 2014 £27,241 £1,260 £28,501
February 2014 £36,608 £3,428 £40,036
March 2014 £3,723 £1,098 £2,178 £6,999
April 2014 £23,324 £1,510 £24,834
May 2014 £7,429 £900 £8,329
June 2014 £6,564 £903 £7,467
£179,385 £6,354 £12,329 £198,068

(full tortuous working out in this excel spreadsheet which includes breakdowns for each month on the separate tabs)

A new newspaper for Birmingham – one copy only

paper later

I have just launched a new newspaper for Birmingham. It has 24 pages of fantastic original content covering news, arts, politics, sport, satire. and more. What’s more, it’s written by some of the city’s best writers.

The newspaper, printed by Newspaper Club’s new PaperLater service is a single-copy one-off edition. If you want to I can let you have my copy so long as you promise to send it to the next person who wants to read it. Eventually, I think it can make its way across the whole of Birmingham.

Why I did this: Ahead of the BBC’s recent Revival of Local Journalism conference I attempted to crowd source a list of hyperlocal-ish blogs for Birmingham (you can add to the list here). I wanted to make a point that together, these blogs covered the range of topics one might find in the local press and actually do it quite well.

Then at the end of the event I was chatting to someone (can’t recall who) who said that their mother still buys a newspaper but passes it on to neighbours when she’s read it. It often makes its way down the whole street he said.

Quite liking that idea and noticing that PaperLater had launched I thought I would see if I could turn some of Birmingham’s best blogs into a newspaper. If you’re an author of one of the articles then apologies if you’re annoyed that I printed out your article without asking.

I might write a little more at some stage about the rationale for these choices and about how PaperLater formats the newspaper (often with generous white space – which I quite like), but for the meantime, enjoy Issue 1 (of 1) of erm,: ‘Some posts from Birmingham’s blogs, printed out’.

(See more pics of the paper)

The full list of articles are:

The Sewers In Kings Heath Are Full Of Fat

Planning permission granted for Longbridge Marks & Spencers

Joseph Chamberlain and the Birmingham Improvement Scheme

101 Things Brum Gave The World. No. 49: England’s 1966 World Cup Triumph

Tributes to Bob Jones, Police and Crime Commissioner for West Midlands

MI5 accused of complicity in torture of Birmingham resident Ahmed Diini

[Petition] Future of Northfield bowling club under t…

Sutton Coldfield Tweeters mobilised in hunt for town…

Dexys @ Kasbah, Coventry, Wednesday 25th June 2014

Paul Best: Batting for Birmingham’s coffee shops – C…

The Beginings of a New Age: Curzon Street Station

“No-one should choose between heating and eating” – …

The Logic to Roy Keane Joining Aston Villa – My Old …

What I said at Hello Culture 2014

I went to the morning session of Hello Culture, a one-day conference discussing ‘big data’ in the context of arts and culture. I was on a panel called ‘Data – Is the Tail Wagging the Dog?’

I was given a few minutes to talk to the theme and so I put some slides together and wrote a few notes to accompany. This is almost as I delivered it but this version has an extra slide:




I thought I would say something about making use of big data and social media.

Obviously ‘listening’, to big data implies collecting, analysing and creating new knowledge from that analysis. What you do with that knowledge is up to you but I used this picture, from the german film The Lives of Others, to just put a note of caution in. A report from June 2013 by ComRes found that 68% of UK respondents were concerned about their personal privacy online. And here I am about to go through how to scrape personal data and create value from it. You should remember that people aren’t on social media so that you can harvest information about them. Just like in the film they might have an awareness that they could be listened to, but they don’t actually know you’re doing it.

But anyway, onward. There are the questions that I thought relevant to how we might think about the data that comes about as a result of people using social media.

  • Where’s the big data that tells me what people say about their everyday cultural engagement?
  • How do I capture it and make sense of it?
  • How do I create value from it?

You have to realise that the way in which we use social media creates an immense amount of data. The internet is full of scary infographics telling you that there’s a million tweets a second or some such nonsense. None of this is helpful to you. Please look away from the infographic. Your audience is not the entire world. Better instead to think about big data in small places. Maybe the small places in which your cultural organisation operates.

By way of example here’s some recent research I did amount the level of social media activity use, in one month, on the B31 Voices community news service. There’s still a lot of data here but it’s on a level that’s a bit more manageable. So really I want to make the point that ‘Big’ social data is overwhelming but ‘biggish’ social data, relevant to your interests, is manageable.

I’ll come back to this B31 data in a moment but first wanted to say that I think there’s two ways to deal with social media data. The first is about listening for what people say about you because you want to immediately react to it. So a custom search, as in this example, in tweetdeck, let’s you create a narrow search that you can monitor on an ongoing basis. You do this because you want to react to the data as it happens.

Another example, like this is using an app like Loci which finds geo-located tweets, facebook or instgram updates. I like this one as it includes pictures. Big data isn’t just words, it’s pictures too. In fact making sense of image-based big data is something that researchers are only just focusing on.

The second way is perhaps a more reflective, analytic way. That is, to scrape data, using the Google or Twitter API. Having a sense of what APIs let you do is really important. You should have a play with the facebook graph api. It really is not rocket science although this screen of JSON code may suggest otherwise.

What you really want is data in a spreadsheet. Then you can do some analysis and start to reflect on what it tells you. For this, pivot tables are your friend. So for the B31 Voices website everyone wants to talk about Pets. Missing pets, found pets, cute pets, dead pets. Obviously I’m not specifically researching the arts conversation but it’s there.

And what are people saying about the arts in B31? Well it’s not always what you want to hear but it may be that your organisation needs to be aware of it and hear it.

Finally I just want to highlight one of the ways in which to create value from this data. No doubt we’ll hear today about profiling and targeting audiences through data but don’t forget that the data is qualitative and has value in and of itself. B31 Voices turn their data into an attempt to tell positive stories about the people and places of B31. Sometimes it’s worth taking big data off the spreadsheet and making it work for you. ‘Big Data’ is really small qualitative data in disguise.

Gazing at Media for Social Change

pic by Siobhan Stevenson

pic by Siobhan Stevenson

If the Syrian conflict is so heavily covered by Social Media, and therefore presumably front and centre in the public gaze, why is it also seemingly the least resolvable? Why has social media not changed anything there? That was the thrust of a question asked at the end of a great morning panel at the Media for Social Change Unconference at Birmingham City University (on Saturday 3rd May 2014).

The response was a sightly defensive one from the panel, along the lines of: the conflict is still too young to ‘prove’ that social media hasn’t worked. The better answer I think was given earlier in the day when Dr Michele Aaron argued that all this youtube footage, all this social media stuff, was ultimately little more than a kind of conflict ‘porn’. Aaron was making the point that it is well established that film and documentary of conflict often serves to do little more than make us better at looking at it. At gazing. We’re moved to tears of pity or anger but are we moved to action? How is the viewer made to feel ‘at risk’ by watching this material? It was a really strong point although not one fully explored by the panel.

My own interest was in how the citizen reporter is situated in the supply chain of journalism. How does the money flow? Are we content to effectively exploit the people who risk their lives to gather this on-the-ground compelling content. Ed Bice from Meedan and Raja Al-Thaibani from both agreed that this was a problem. That in some way these citizens are a form of slave labour right now. Ed has a useful optimistic take in identifying the potential for micro-payment systems to ensure money flows back the other way. Raja pointed out that many citizen journalists go on to work for mainstream organisations but the result is often a softening of the hard edge they had before as they fit that organisation’s style and news values.

Dr Dima Saber, in the chair, asked the question early on: how do we research this? This actually never got answered directly. But some interesting anecdotes about journalistic practices (including one about a journalist ‘friending’ a jihadist on Facebook) made me think about the need to go back to what Journalism Studies has done well for so long: newsroom ethnographies. Of course nowadays the newsroom is dispersed: it’s the local café, the bedroom, the train, the street corner. How do we study the practices of journalism in the 21st Century in order to reveal the “invisible structures of power and recognition” (Willig 2013: 384). In doing so we might have something to say about the increasing media festishisation of the conflict in the MENA region and perhaps start to make use of citizen media in a way that make us, the audience, better at doing than at watching. .

Ref: Willig, I. (2013) Newsroom ethnography in a field perspective. Journalism, Vol 14, No 3, pp. 372-387.

That Littlest Pet Shop version of The Hunger Games that I mentioned at #rethinkmedia

At the #rethinkmedia conference last week (March 25 2014 to be precise) I made the claim that my daughter had filmed a version of The Hunger Games using her Littlest Pet Shop toys. On arriving home I was put right on this and it turns out that despite making over 70 short films involving her Little Pet Shop figures (check out her ever-expanding Youtube channel), my 11 year old has never made  a version of the Hunger Games.

However, plenty of people have. Here’s one of them. No fancy animation here, just hands moving the heads of the LPS figures. Oh, and it has nearly 200k views.

What I said at the ‘Birmingham, Second City or Second Best’ debate

My colleagues Professor Diane Kemp and Bob Calver have started a series of monthly debates at Birmingham City University’s Parkside building with the first focusing on Birmingham and its status, or rather lack of status, as Second City.

My co-panellists were Pauline Geoghegan (political blogger), new CEO of Birmingham City Council Mark Rogers and Beverley Nielsen (runs the Birmingham Made Me Expo)

This isn’t a write-up to summarise the whole debate (which was robust, lively, fun) but rather just a place to dump my opening position statement. This wasn’t as delivered (neither is it properly proofed) but was more or less the angle I went for:

“So I’m a resident of the city, having been brought up about two miles that way in Alum Rock and now living in Bournville, with stop offs in Perry Barr, Stechford, Kings Heath and Stirchley in between. Briefly I even lived in Moseley. I am currently doing some research in South Birmingham and in the Castle Vale area in East Birmingham and I guess I sometimes commentate about the city on my blog. I also edit a website about the wonderfully boring suburb of Bournville in South Birmingham.

So the first thing I’d like to say something I’m sure we can all agree on, that Birmingham is not the second best city in the UK. I have it around 8th – that feels about right? London first obviously, and then the nations’ capitals (Edinburgh, Cardiff, Belfast), then there are some places that just feel so liveble and cool that surely they would come ahead of us. Bristol, Brighton. Leeds maybe? Where does that leave us? 8th, 9th? I actually know nothing about Manchester and have  been there no more than a handful of times in my life. Maybe that’s ahead of us as well.

But actually I’m not sure what the problem is. I live in one of the UK’s top ten cities – that’s fine by me. Maybe that’s a new slogan for Birmingham. ‘one of the UK’s top ten cities – kind of, just about’.

But don’t be mistaken for thinking I’m bad-mouthing Birmingham, because what we have here is one of most joyfully messy, complicated, refreshingly grumpy cities in the UK. I think we’re a city whose citizens never quite believe the corporate spin that we’re somehow a must-see destination for the international jet-set. I think most Brummies don’t care about Manchester getting the plaudits ahead of us.

In what way would being the second city change the lived experience of living in Birmingham. In no tangible way whatsoever. I predict that the economic impact of being officially the second city of the UK would amount to one extra cool-looking coffee shop and an almost imperceptible increase in trendy young men with beards. In short, if you’re from Alum Rock, Castle Vale, the three estates, it wouldn’t matter a jot.

But here’s what I think Birmingham is perhaps a leader in. Something the world could learn from us. We’re world-class at our continued resistance of gentrification. Despite Big City Plans, regeneration schemes, upmarket shopping centres, the city still feels kind of gritty. Even those places that seem to want a bit of gentrification never quite make it happen. I’m looking at you Stirchley.

Perhaps the best example of this is Digbeth. A few years back the then City head of planning, Clive Dutton, said that the likely scenario for Digbeth is ‘do nothing’. The money to regenerate the area just wasn’t there he said; so therefore we won’t interfere. That turned out to be a piece of planning genius. Development in that area has been incremental. Where flats have gone up there’s been an effective vocal pro-noise, pro-pub, pro-music lobby arguing that such developments should be stopped. The conversion of former industrial properties to workshops for digital/creative companies has been at a pace that reflected the modest growth that the city has seen in that sector.

The fabric of Digbeth as a place of industry hasn’t changed. I suspect those cool creatives we’d like to see more of kind of like it like that. It’s not Shoreditch, never will be. It’s really quite down to earth and welcoming. A middle-aged suburban dad of two can feel at home there. That’s how painfully uncool the place is. At the weekend Birmingham City Fans can swell its pubs. Some of those pubs still feel scary to go into. That’s good, Birmingham should be a city of slightly scary pubs. Birmingham is a city where we never quite seem to be at a tipping point where popularity results in a huge spike in house prices or business rents and therefore makes the place unaffordable for citizens or businesses.

So my message is not quite ‘do nothing’, more ‘do it in at a human scale that makes the city continue to be a liveable place’. In short, do it in a less garishly glitzy corporate manner. We know the city has to play at being a ‘global city’ because investment is important. That’s linked to jobs which is absolutely the thing we need more of here. But don’t get upset if we sound a bit ungrateful about it. We’re just not that kind of people – we’re scared if we universally declare the place to be amazing then they’ll be a rush of red-trousered hipsters eager to pay inflated property prices just to work next to a scrap yard on Fazeley street.

So those people who say our problem is ‘we don’t shout loud enough’ are quite right. We know that we have to pretend to care about being the second city but to be honest, we just don’t. Top ten? That’s fine – I’m happy with that, you should be too.”