Journalism without having to leave the house

IT’S taken me just an hour or so, but through the plethora of social media I’ve delved a little deeper into my journalism patch, and surfaced with some potentially fascinating stories to investigate further.

I should explain. I’ve been assigned Fairwater – a district west of Cardiff city centre, and, as it was for a young Roald Dahl, it will be my playground for the next eight months.

Still enthused after a whistle-stop-tour of social media by Dr Claire Wardle (formerly a lecturer at Cardiff University and now a freelance trainer at the BBC) last week, I decided to set up RSS feeds, search aggregators, and bookmark – the results took me by surprise.

I had a catalogue of videos, blogs, maps, newspaper stories, and links to social networking sites of anything related to “Fairwater, Cardiff” pooled, and accessible at the touch of a button.

I’m a skeptic when it comes to social media. But as the last few hours of online research attest it has benefits, and has shown me I need to keep in touch if I’m to build a better picture of my patch over the coming months.

Let me say a little about the YouTube results as an example. I’ve discovered Fairwater’s youngsters – those the media and politicians would probably deem to be the youths and street culture which contributes to a ‘broken Britain’ – are engaged in new media.

They upload videos and comment about each other. And so as a journalist for this area I need to keep on top of it. I don’t suggest this content does anything to question this stereotype. Indeed, I found mobile phone clips of happy slapping, and pranks. There are also numerous of clips of teenagers making rap music, which far outnumbered anything else.

A quick YouTube search offered a perspective of life for one section of the community in Fairwater I would not be likely to see from research on the ground – and gave me angles to investigate further.

Social media offers the journalist another tool in the armoury. It is not a substitute for traditional skills. I would still need to test the videos for exact location, author and subject. But if we can aggregate sources from online with other leads before leaving the house, we’ll be better prepared when we get on the ground.

…no longer such a skeptic.

Seminal moment as social media trumps super injunction – victory for freedom of press, or a problem for the judicial system?

WHEN the history of social media is written, its authors will look back on the battle last week of Trafigura v The Guardian as seminal in its development.

But, before I consider why I suggest this, here is a recap of the key events as they unfolded.

Carter-Ruck goes to the high court on September 11 on behalf of their clients Trafigura (a British oil trading firm) to obtain a ‘super injunction’ to prevent the media from publishing the contents of the Minton report which related to the dumping of toxic waste in the Ivory Coast.

On Monday 12 October, Labour MP Paul Farrelly tables a question in Parliament, questioning the implications on press freedom of such a gagging order.

Carter-Ruck insists the injunction prevents the Guardian from reporting the name of the MP, the nature of the question, the company which had sought the gagging order, and the type of order preventing them from publishing. (David Leigh, head of investigations at the Guardian, reveals this in an article posted online in the evening).

But, overnight, hashtags #trafigura and #gagcarterruck had become popular topics on Twitter, and speculation about the Guardian’s reports was rife. The Spectator and bloggers including Guido Fawkes had published Farrelly’s question in full.

Tuesday, 13 October…Alan Rusbridger, editor of the Guardian, tweeted at 9.49 the Guardian, backed by other national newspapers, was due to attend a high court hearing to challenge the injunction reporting on Parliament….at 12.40 he says the hearing is fixed for 2pm, but hints there “may be devs” [developments]…just 13 minutes later he declares “Victory” for the Guardian

…at 13.08, David Leigh wrote Carter-Ruck had dropped its challenge, and the Guardian could now report proceedings in Parliament…

So, thanks to the frenzy of speculation on Twitter and the blogosphere, Trafigura concluded they could not suppress the Guardian from publishing parliamentary proceedings. Twitter had contributed to a “great victory for free speech“, declared Rusbridger.

It’s a story with drama, fast-paced events, and victory achieved against a powerful company when individuals work together – enough to warm the heart. The Erin Brockovich for the Noughties. Who to play Alan Rusbridger? Clooney? Pitt? Damon?

But, wait. This tale doesn’t really have a leading man. We will need to draw on the CGI talents of those at Pixar to reproduce an army of individuals from across the UK and beyond; fingers poised at their keyboards, ready to take on the enemy.

This was without doubt a series of remarkable events. Twitter and its tweeters have demonstrated to those who deride it as another social media fad, soon to pass into the history books, it can be used for good – in this case, to uphold the freedom of the press.

In just a matter of hours, speculation in hundreds, possibly thousands, of tweets and blogs about who was suppressing the Guardian from publishing details of the MP and the question forced Trafigura into a corner, from where they instructed their lawyers to retreat and withdraw their gagging order.

It was a victory for free speech. But to do so the injunction, obtained legally through the courts in this country, was broken. There is no separate law for news organisations and social media. Law passed in this country relating to privacy, defamation, etc. is equally applicable to both. The Guardian, however much they wanted to publish, had observed the injunction. The social networkers did not.

The Guardian wanted to publish information they considered to be in the public interest (Something only Trafigura would probably not agree with). Twitter and the blogosphere helped them achieve this.

But, the ease with which information, rightly or wrongly kept secret, can be made public online – with no regard to injunctions imposed by the courts, and with no apparent legal ramifications for those who tweet or blog about it – could potentially be problematic, even dangerous.

Mainstream news organisations would not likely publish information when it could damage national security, and neither would many bloggers. But the sizeable audience online communities like Twitter present to those who would not follow injunctions on such occasions is worrying.

It is why historians of this period may come to reflect on the Trafigura v The Guardian episode as a seminal moment – and not just in the development of social media, but in the wider history of our time.

As social media continues to grow, the government and the judicial system needs to review how media law is applied to the online world, before this case sets a precedent for the future.

Response to the Internet Manifesto and Five Phrases to Outlaw in the News Room

I WOULD agree with Alison Gow’s Five Phrases to Outlaw in Newsrooms – there is nothing here which anyone could really contest was not occurring, at least to some degree, in every newsroom across the country.

But with anything, change is not instantaneous. Anyone who is pioneering in their field, will be impatient with the stragglers who initially rebuff the changes; then they accept reluctantly they must change; and then begin to embrace the new ideas and methods.

Before this becomes a little too saccurine, however, and I proclaim, “Hang on now you eager beavers, let’s wait for the others to catch up”, let me throw something that seems to have been neglected into the arena.

One of the biggest topics of debate in journalism at the moment is how newspapers are going to move from a free-to-read to pay-to-read online content. Newspaper sales are declining and advertising revenues have suffered because of the economic crisis, and editors and newspaper owners have been forced to consider how to charge for the content they currently upload for the reader’s pleasure. ‘Don’t go out and buy our newspaper, because you can read it online for free!’

An announcement is widely expected from Mr Murdoch as to how News International will go about charging readers for the online content. I accept not all newspapers across the country are preoccupied with this issue, but it seems wrong to suggest that the “higher up the editorial food chain the internet might not be on their radar because the focus is on the money-making print product”. Surely, these words can be rearranged to suggest the focus of the high command is indeed on the internet because they have come to the conclusion (belatedly one might argue) they need to start making money from the internet, and not the print product.

Let’s begin…the state of affairs

CIRCULATION of Welsh regional publications is down – all between 6% and 12%. And what is the response? Paper closures and redundancies.

It’s farewell to the Neath and Port Talbot Guardians. Reducing costs is one way of alleviating the problem, but will this stop the rot? No, of course it wont. It’s plastering over a wound which will open once again – be it in a few months, or a year or so. And the next casualty of declining newspaper sales could be a bigger player.

There has been much debate recently about moving from free to pay-to-read online newspaper content. And no doubt I will return to discuss this in another blog. But are the readers who have stopped purchasing newspapers all doing so because the journalism is freely available online? And can it be assumed they will be prepared to stump up the cash and subscribe (or in whatever way charges emerge) for this online content?

Duncan Higgitt, former news editor of The Western Mail, told the BBC’s The Politics Show recently people tell him they are not filled with any great desire to go out and buy these newspapers.

“Sometimes they are perceived to be too London-centric, to be chasing a story that’s been done elsewhere and often done first and better.

“It’s also to do with what’s not being done – like there’s not a huge focus on Welsh affairs.”

Perhaps therefore it is wrong to characterise newspapers as casualties. Instead, shouldn’t they be considered the architects of their own downfall?

I hope to use this blog to consider where the focus is in Welsh newspaper journalism. Are new desks in Wales hives of original and investigative journalism? Or are they recycling news from the other end of the M4?