Mar 12

Courts, news and the record: a shocking information gap

Occasionally, you are woken up by a collection of facts which you ought to have known but which reveal that you’ve been asleep. So it was this week when I dropped into a seminar on the transparency of the British court system.

Justice isn’t as open and visible as we might think. In fact the extent to which we don’t know what is happening in courts – particularly magistrates courts – up and down the country is shocking. The reason that this has got as bad as it has isn’t exactly down to the secretiveness or obstruction of the people who run the courts, although they aren’t going to win any awards for openess any time soon.

The problem lies in the decline of local papers. Some local papers have closed and any websites trying to replace them are not likely to have the resources to report courts day in, day out. But most local papers have survived by endlessly slimming down their newsrooms and the amount of news they print.

In the early 1970s, when I worked as a local reporter in the city of York, the evening paper there sent one (and often two) reporters to the magistrates court every working day to the end of the session. I remember writing up, sometimes in a single paragraph for the dullest, every case that was heard. Most of this material, parochial as it can seem, made it into the paper. That paper, the Evening Press, carried enough news every day for it truly to claim that it was the “paper of record” for that city of around 100,000 people.

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May 11

Things to be optimistic about

So many discussions about journalism in the past few years have featured journalists from established media crying into their beer, I often forget how refreshing it is to have a different kind of conversation. One where people are working out for themselves how to rebuild the business model for journalism.

It is hard to convey the happiness you can feel when you hear people describing how they are taking a simple, empirical route to discovering and delivering what people need to know – and then finding ways to keep doing it.

I had one of these moments at City University a few days ago when a conference gathered to look at new ways of sustaining local journalism, arguably in much more immediate economic danger than the national and international varieties. An energetic group of our students, Wannabehacks, used Storify, as well as a liveblog, to record the day.

The point wasn’t agreement – there was very little on what works and what doesn’t – and speakers varied from Will Perrin of talkaboutlocal and the King’s Cross blog to Jeff Jarvis, of City University New York’ entrepreneurial journalism programme and the buzzmachine blog. Perrin illustrated what might be called the “pure, simple need” origin of a local blog: a local community identifies a problem and gathers to try to solve it, puts pressure on various local authorities and eventually ends up with what Will called a “community information burden”.

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Nov 10

Local TV: setting Jeremy Hunt straight

A lot of the gloom-laden chat about the “crisis in journalism” (which is, naturally, a massive problem for democracy) tends to focus on newspapers. And rather less on television, which outside London is in no better shape than papers. Possibly worse.

Coming into office, the Conservative-Liberal coalition government dumped a series of pilot schemes under which coalitions of news organisations in locality could combine to compete for (probably modest) subsidies for local broadcasting, suspending rules prohibiting newspapers cooperating with local TV. By way of replacement the government has commissioned work (interim report so far) on what conditions are needed to revive local TV and talked about licensing some 15-20 experiments under new rules, as yet unwritten. One thing is clear: subsidies are very unlikely.

We gathered 70 or so experts at City University yesterday to discuss these embryonic plans. General conclusion: almost no one thinks that the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary Jeremy Hunt is yet making sense (example here). Here’s a quick summary of the takeouts:
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