Any replacement for the Press Complaints Commission must go beyond newspapers

If you needed reminding why journalists are ranked in polls as less trustworthy even than MPs, look no further than the case of murder victim Milly Dowler.

Firstly, the intense coverage of Levi Bellfield’s conviction for her murder led to an attempted kidnap charge being dropped due to the impossibility of a fair trial. This denied the alleged victim, and the police and legal team that had carefully put together the case against Bellfield, the opportunity to see justice done.

Then came The Guardian’s shocking revelations yesterday that the News Of The World intercepted Milly’s mobile phone to listen to answerphone messages left for her. Some were allegedly deleted to free up space, potentially hampering the police investigation into her disappearance.

These two instances reinforce the common assertion that journalism is ‘broken’, that it prefers to rake muck than hold the powerful to account, and that it needs a tough new watchdog to replace the self-regulatory Press Complaints Commission.

I’m not about to defend the PCC too vigorously. It seems to have had difficulty tackling complex modern issues like phone hacking and privacy. Even so, in my (thankfully very limited) experience it is pretty good at resolving the more minor disputes which it has to deal with on a daily basis. Moreover, the overwhelming majority of journalists aren’t sewer rats but people who just want to be a force for public good. We’re usually nosey but not particularly nasty.

But, if the PCC is to be replace, we must recognise the media landscape has completely changed in the last decade. Any new regulator should deal with all news organisations, whether they publish their news in newspapers, in magazines, on the radio, on TV or just online.

Ofcom is the body which regulates TV and radio content but, as media converges, should it or the PCC look at complaints about a newspaper website’s podcast or video footage? How about news stories on a radio station’s website? And then there’s user-generated content: who on earth would deal with a complaint about a video clip posted by a reader on Twitter using a hashtag to make it automatically appear on a newspaper’s website?

Newspapers pay the PCC to regulate their printed products, websites and now even tweets posted by its journalists. But news organisations which are unconnected to a printed product are not subject to the same code. The content of online-only news providers like Yahoo, MSN, AOL or the Huffington Post, which attract more readers than many national and all local newspaper websites, is not regulated by the PCC.

What’s more, the regulation needs to be compulsory, not voluntary. The Daily Express opted out of the PCC last year, while only newspapers and magazines are allowed in the club.

But if you want to be a news provider, whether a newspaper, a hyperlocal start-up, a monthly magazine or even a local authority website, you should want to stick by the same rules of fair play as the established players.

People who are aggrieved by a story, and get no satisfaction from approaching the news provider directly with their concerns, should have a proper complaints procedure to follow without needing to worrying about lawyers fees.

Ofcom came about through the merger of several TV and radio regulatory bodies. For the digital age, we need one unified body to oversee all of the media and restore the public’s trust in our journalism.

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Time to end our reliance on unique users

Working out the circulation of a newspaper is straightforward – find out how many copies have been printed, then take away the number returned unsold by newsagents.

From there, newspapers sometimes complicate matters by referring to readership, reasoning that more than one person usually reads a copy – for instance, family members or work colleagues would generally share rather than each buy their own copies. But there can be little arguing with newspaper sales figures.

On the other hand, nothing is straightforward about the way in which we measure website traffic.

The industry standard measurement is ‘unique users’ – simply put, the number of different people who have accessed a website at least once in a month. It’s the only figure which the newspaper circulation body, Audit Bureau of Circulation, compiles.

That makes a certain amount of sense – after all, it’s as close as any measure gets to newspaper readership figures. But in fact unique users are even less practical than the measure they replaced – ‘page impressions’, the total number of individual web pages that have been read.

Here are three reasons why unique users are a worse way of counting web traffic:

1. The total of unique users is more volatile

Every now and then, a story on a local newspaper website will go global; typically a quirky story which a big aggregator like Digg has highlighted. Suppose 100,000 people around the world visit the newspaper’s site, read the funny story and then leave. That skews the total of unique users much more than it does page impressions. For a site that usually attracts 100,000 unique users and 1m page impressions, for instance, the visits to that story would double the monthly unique user total but only add 10% to page impressions.

2. Someone who reads 1 story in a month is regarded as equal to someone who reads 100

A reader clicking on a link to one of your stories, realising it’s not what they were expecting, and leaving within a few seconds = 1 unique user. A reader visiting your website several times a day, reading dozens of stories each time = 1 unique user.

That’s absurd. Under the current system, if a newspaper website wants to increase its ABC traffic figure, it is being encouraged to appeal to the one-off visitor from anywhere in the world. Once someone has visited the website once, they cease to be of any value for the rest of the month so there is no point in trying to cultivate a loyal community of local readers.

That has an effect on the type of stories you are being encouraged to publish. Instead of the important functions of a newspaper – holding the powerful to account, reporting events in the local courts and council chambers – concentrating on frothy link-bait would deliver much better results.

Again, page impressions are a better measure here. If someone just reads 1 page in a month, they count as 1. Someone who reads 100 pages counts as 100. So the incentive would be to provide a much richer, deeper website to keep readers on the site for longer.

3. Readers access websites from many devices

1 in 4 people now access the internet on their smartphones. Sales of laptops and iPads are rocketing, often as a second computer alongside an existing desktop PC. In my opinion, every website should be increasing its unique user figures each month without doing anything extra, just through the new ways in which readers are accessing it.

And, of course, it’s skewing unique users. Take an example of someone who reads ten stories on your website on their work PC, a home PC, a mobile phone and a laptop within the month. That reader counts as four unique users. But if they were to read those ten stories just on their home PC, they are one unique user. Counting page impressions instead would mean both readers are treated the same.

The solution

I am not advocating a return to page impressions, as they have their own set of problems. Instead I propose ABCe should count two measures: both the total of unique users, as now, AND the average length of time those users spend on the site.

That way, websites would need to encourage people to keep coming back and stay online for longer. Meanwhile, a website which has 120,000 monthly unique users who only stick around for 1 minute would not necessarily be seen as superior to one with 100,000 unique users spending 7 minutes on the site.

I’d be interested in hearing any other proposals.

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Join the press gang at Buerk! The Newsical

Buerk The Newsical banner

I’m a sucker for journalism fiction. Wait! Don’t go yet, this isn’t yet another post about the Johann Hari plagiarism row. Instead it’s about those dramatised tales of journalism. If you’re new to the genre, I’d recommend starting with Citizen Kane and Scoop, before moving on The Paper, Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell, Psmith Journalist and Towards The End Of The Morning.

Everyone thrills at seeing their trade represented on screen, in a theatre or in a book, I suspect, and I find representations of life in a newsroom addictive even where it bears little resemblance to my experiences. I’ve yet to hear anyone shout ‘stop the presses!’ for instance, nor have I seen a newspaper spinning in the way so beloved of Hollywood effects editors.

Given my tastes, I was intrigued to hear of a new comedy musical on TV journalist Michael Buerk, about to be performed in Leeds. I have no idea about the quality of Buerk! The Newsical, but from the title and the blurb on their website it sounds like a winner:

Buerk! The Newsical is a new comedy musical from the minds of Tom Bailey and Greg Jameson. The show whisks us back to the 1980s, a time of hope and innocence when beer was cheap, red braces were in and ska was all the rage. Follow our hero Buerk as he starts his career at BBC News, falls in love with Moira Stuart and becomes the nation’s most beloved newsreader. But it isn’t all jollity and endless refills of Martini Rosso at News Towers. Buerk’s new friend Ian McCaskill appears to be a feckless weather boob, but he has a secret life. What evil plan will he conjure up to get Buerk out of the picture so that he can swoop on Moira?

Of course it would be preferable if it was set in a newspaper newsroom rather than a TV studio. How about a sequel – Robert Fisk The Opera?

Buerk! The Newsical is at the Seven Arts in Leeds on Friday, July 8 and Saturday, July 9. 8pm. £8. Stick it in your news diary. More information from http://www.buerkthenewsical.com

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More than news in a newspaper

The Manchester Evening News has unveiled a new masthead slogan. The previous strapline, ‘The voice of Greater Manchester’, has been replaced by ‘A friend dropping in’.

I thought I’d be the only person not employed by Trinity Mirror who’d give this switch a second glance, but when I mentioned it on Twitter yesterday other newspaper geeks stepped forward with their opinions. Reaction was broadly negative (‘makes me cringe’ and ‘strange’ were two comments) but I confess I am more enthusiastic.

Assuming the new slogan emerged from focus groups, I imagine participants would have indicated the MEN is seen as a paper of record, strong on politics, crime and business. The old slogan fits that image well. However, there are plenty of readers and potential readers uninterested in ‘high’ issues.

So I see the change of slogan as recognition, perhaps, that other elements of a newspaper are just as important to some readers as the front page scandals and back page action. For the start there are the ‘softer’ subjects, like community news, features, entertainment or columnists.

And, while journalists don’t like to admit this, many readers turn straight to the parts of the newspaper that have nothing at all to do with ‘editorial’. That could be the family announcements to see who’s been ‘hatched, matched or despatched’, or the letters page(s), dating page, classified ads, homes or cars for sale or jobs listings.

I have experienced what happens at newspapers when there’s a printing or subbing error on a crossword or the TV listings – a constant stream of phone calls from dozens of angry readers. The reaction is way above what you experience when something’s wrong with a news page.

A local newspaper is a sum of all these diverse elements. You will find them in isolation elsewhere, principally online, but you can’t get the whole package unless you buy a newspaper. So I rate the slogan ‘A friend dropping in’ as a good way to emphasise a newspaper is a unique mix of hard and soft news, essential information and entertainment.

Or maybe I’ve just put *way* too much thought into it.

UPDATE: I should add, having been told on Twitter three times, that the MEN slogan isn’t new as such but a revival of one from the 1980s.

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Over 2000 firearms taken off Cumbria’s streets

Police in Cumbria, the county where Derrick Bird went on a gun rampage killing 12 people, removed over 2,000 firearms from the streets in just four years.

A total of 2,054 – including 746 shotguns, 618 rifles and air rifles and 444 handguns – were taken off the streets between January 2007 and January 2011. Of these, 568 were seized by Cumbria Police and the rest handed in.

The totals for more urban areas the West Midlands and Nottinghamshire were only marginally larger at 2,596 and 2,464 respectively, according to a report in the Sunday Mercury covering a similar time span.

The figures, released through a Freedom of Information Act request, emphasise that guns are a major problem for all police forces, not just in inner cities.

I obtained the information ahead of the recent inquest into Bird’s killing spree as part of a training session presentation on data journalism I was putting together.

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Musical navel-gazing

Nostalgia really ain’t what it used to be. Nowadays all those childhood passions can’t just stay as fond recollections: it’s hard to resist revisiting them online. And then when you do, you’ll no doubt find they’re terrible.

So it was with trepidation that I fired up YouTube to see what I now thought of my musical firsts.

First single I owned

Roland Rat’s electro chart smash, a-hand-me-down from my older sister when she’d progressed onto Wham!, was the first record I owned. As quick cash-ins of TV fads go, this stands the test of time far better than I expected. The ‘rapping’ is undeniably ropey, but the lyrics are cheeky enough to look beyond that. Kudos for the pastiche of graffiti and body bopping – an under-rated early UK hip hop gem.

First single I bought

The first seven-inch single I actually shelled out for, it seems, was this joyless cover, where Kirsty Macoll hovers slightly closer to the right notes than Billy Bragg had managed. I was clearly a rather earnest seven-year-old when I plucked this from the display of chart hits on the wall of WH Smith in Skipton. followed closely in later months by other purchases of fun-free records from bands like Tears For Fears, Danny Wilson and Deacon Blue. Like the stereotypical middle-aged salesman trapped in a wimpy kid’s body.

First album I bought

I progressed to the technological wonder of cassettes aged 10 and loved Neneh Cherry’s album Raw Like Sushi so much I was still wearing it out during my first years at secondary school. Buffalo Stance still sounds undeniably ace, though the rest of the album seems very dated. At this time I shared my bedroom with a troubled older foster kid called Chris who was into David Bowie, Dead Kennedys and various 70s punk hangovers. I hated the aggressive noise coming from his record player; in turn he despised the hooks and the synths bleeding out of my Walkman’s foam headphones on the bottom bunk. If only someone could have been made to swap albums until we understood each other’s tastes.

First gig I went to

Despite the threat of detention for sneaking out of school at lunch time, I saved my dinner money as often as I could for more pressing concerns – buying CDs from Mix Music. But my maiden gig was not until I was 14, when I hopped on a coach to see L7 and Faith No More in Sheffield Arena. Once my gig-going cherry had been taken, and my ears stopped ringing a few weeks on, I was heading off to see ropey indie, hip hop, punk and metal bands in Leeds and Bradford most weeks. I don’t recall rating L7 particularly highly at the time but their big single at the time is still a riot of snottiness.

First gig I reviewed

The highlight of my school week as a geeky, music-obsessed teenager was undoubtedly Thursday, when the weekly music newspapers came out and I read them from cover to cover until most of the ink had rubbed off onto my hands and face. So it seems fitting that the first proper article I ever had published was in Melody Maker: a very short, fawning review of the then much-hyped Lo Fidelity Allstars. 15 years on, I like the crescendo of this single but the voice of the singer really grates.

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Northern Art Prize 2010

Lubaine Himid artwork

Lubaine Himid artwork

Leeds City Art Gallery has an impressive collection of modern and contemporary art – plenty of Walter Sickert, Francis Bacon, Sir Stanley Spencer and Wyndham Lewis up the staircase – so it’s the perfect host venue for the Northern Art Prize exhibition.

Last weekend I braved the snow to cross the Pennines and have a gawp at this, the fourth year of the prize.

Here’s how it works: curators at museums and galleries nominate up to 24 visual artists from across the north, who are then whittled down to 4 by a panel of judges. The shortlisted artists’ work is then exhibited across several rooms in Leeds City Art Gallery and one winner receives £16,000.

In fact the Northern Art Prize exhibition hits you before you even enter the first room as Haroon Mirza’s installations can be heard throughout much of the building. He’s piled together a buzzing TV set, a fuzzy, foreign radio broadcast, a looping record player and some chunky furniture to create a dislocating sound that’s intended to play on the boundary between hearing and listening.

It’s clever and well executed, but like much sound and video art it’s intrusive on the rest of the exhibition. Haroon’s soundscape can’t be easily blocked out as you try to concentrate on the other three finalists’ work.

Coincidentally, a few weeks later I was at the impressive Nottingham Contemporary gallery and immediately recognised the piled-up furniture and electronic contraptions as Mirza’s work. It seems his distinctive installations are hot right now, a state of affairs presumably not harmed by the Turner Art Prize being awarded to sound artist Susan Philipz this year.

The pick of the show for me, however, was Lubaina Himid’s dainty miniature figures exhibited next to, and being dwarfed by, ceramic cups and bowls. Make your own mind up as the Northern Art Prize continues until February.

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