Discrimination against online journalists?

Every journalist has their breaking point and today I met mine.

For anyone who may be visiting this blog for the first time, I publish the website birminghambudgetcuts.blogspot.com along with Andy Watt.

It’s a news website that aggregates information about the impact of historic spending cuts in Birmingham but we also write a great deal of original content.   People seem to find it useful and we’re gratified to be approaching 4,000 page views in just five weeks.

Here’s my problem.  I woke up early and spent four hours this morning digesting 39 pages of “budget-speak” in the form of Birmingham City Council’s Business Plan for consultation with the public on how to cut £300 million in spending.  It wasn’t an easy read and it contained bombshells including a plan to axe 7,116 full-time jobs and another 3,000 part-time jobs.

I could have simply linked to one of the local newspapers, but I’ve been living this story for two months, have extensive background knowledge and wanted to write it myself.

It wasn’t until after I posted my own story that I looked at the online coverage by other media outlets and discovered that the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail had excellent quotes from two of the main players, Cabinet Member for Finance Randal Brew and Chief Executive Stephen Hughes.

Mainstream media has better access

It was apparent to me immediately that they had been invited to a news conference yesterday afternoon and we had been excluded, left to fend for ourselves to interpret the release.

There are two things that make this particularly galling.

First, I had telephoned the Birmingham Council press office on Monday to inquire when the budget consultation would begin and officially request that we be notified.

Second, I was at Birmingham Council House all afternoon covering the protest and occupation by students over proposed increases to tuition fees.  I was standing outside talking to the press office on my mobile trying to get into the building.   I asked the press officer why two television crews were being waved in by police, I was told that they were there “for another reason”.

This morning I realized what the reason was and it was the proverbial straw that broke the camel’s back.    My anger was fueled by the fact that the Birmingham Council press office has been ignoring me and our website for seven weeks.

Press office ignoring our site

Several times I have filled out the form at birminghamnewsroom.com requesting information and heard nothing back.  I have sent them personal emails and heard nothing back.  I have telephoned and not heard back.  Once, I called seeking a quote for a story and was told that Birmingham councillors are “important people”  (I don’t know what that implies about “the public’s right to know”) and was told to simply write no comment.  The refusal by the press office to deal with us has made it exceedingly difficult to cover all sides of the story on our website.

I’ve been a journalist for 29 years and have never been treated this way but I suspect it’s because I’m writing online for the first time.  Instead of writing a knee jerk blog post about discrimination against digital media, I telephoned the press office this afternoon and spoke to Deborah Harries, Head of News at Birmingham City Council.

Why we weren’t told about news conference

At first, Harries told me that it wasn’t a news conference but “a small briefing of regional journalists that we know”.  She deflected blame from the staff member who left me literally out in the cold yesterday.  Harries said she handled the briefing personally and thought she had the bases covered with print, radio and television, both public and private.

Harries described them as five people, “local, traditional journalists” who were on her “automatic invite list”.  She said they were journalists that the press office has been talking to about all aspects of the budget cuts and have “an understanding of the threads of these stories”.

She also said they were journalists who have talked to Stephen Hughes before and “know where he is coming from”.

Harries added that she “didn’t want the world and his wife there”.

Harries said they were not purposefully excluding our website from the news conference but suggested “it may be that we don’t know you”.  At that point I filled her in on all of my fruitless attempts to get information from Birmingham Council and explained that her staff definitely knew who I was.  I also gave her the url for our website which she had never seen.

Digital excellence?

The irony in all of this is that birminghamnewsroom.com is an impressive news site that won the “Digital Innovation Award” at this year’s  Midlands Media Awards.  It is also the information arm of a local government trying to establish a reputation as a world leader in digital communication.

Harries told me the website is trying to have a two-way conversation with people instead of just pushing information out one way.  I told her I admire the site for many reasons, including transparency because it links to stories that are negative about Birmingham Council.

I was pleased that Harries said they might need to rethink their policy on how they deal with digital media and bloggers.  I had already suggested that notification of news conferences should be posted on the website instead of being on an “invite-only” basis.

I have smoothed over my relationship with Harries and provided her with all of our website’s contact details.   If the folks at birminghamnewsroom.com read this, I’d like to think that they would consider it fair comment and still be inclusive of digital media, but you never know.

Transparency in government

I’ve written this post because I feel there is a broader point that needs to be made.

I am a guest in the UK and I try not be obnoxious by saying things like “this is the way we do it at home”.

That being said, let me tell you how they do it in Toronto.

City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham.  Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch.  Council meetings are broadcast live and journalists who can’t attend can watch the proceedings on television along with the general public.

It is acceptable behaviour to walk up to a politician with your camera rolling and start asking questions which the politician will then answer.  If politicians are reluctant to answer questions they are often “scrummed” and wind up answering anyway.

When major budget announcements are made by the federal government, politicians at every other level of government, as well as interest groups, hold news conferences to provide reaction.  Quite often, they go to the legislative chamber where the announcement is being made to make themselves more readily available to journalists (and, of course, to spin).

In Toronto, the departing mayor David Miller is an inveterate tweeter ( formerly @mayormiller, now @iamdavidmiller) who tweets interesting, useful information and doesn’t wind up getting arrested.

Toronto had a municipal election in October and the voter turnout was 53%.

I’m just saying.

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This entry was posted in Birmingham Budget Cuts, Blogging, Online journalism and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Discrimination against online journalists?

  1. FionaC says:

    Sorry to hear your story. I suspect this is probably a case of not knowing any better – so I hope the BCC press office read this and learn something from it.

  2. Sam says:

    I’m studying Law with Journalism at Staffordshire Uni, and although it’s not in Birmingham – your story worries me massively. I really hope the council embraces online journalism in the very near future – because online media is exactly what all of us students are being trained to use!

    Thanks for the blog, great read!

  3. rob says:

    “Harries might rethink dig media and blogger policy…” current policy being to ignore them, then?

  4. bad luck but your story is familiar to anyone who has run an independent local website, whether they are a ‘trained journalist’ or not. local press offices across the country are uncomfortable with independent media over which they have no leverage (via advertising or relations with the owner). we also observe that many senior press officers have weak modern media skills and understanding and just don’t know how to engage with online media.

    they are happiest sticking with a set of hacks they know and think they can manage. in some places there has been a shift to accomodate online media after epic hard work and persistence – eg in stoke-on-trent with http://www.pitsnpots.co.uk but simon and sally (NUJ members) in Isle of Wight still have difficulty with the various public bodies there on the superb http://ventnorblog.com

    essentially it’s a microcosm of the problems with the Lobby in that London

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  6. Pingback: Online journalists left out in the cold by local government | Online Journalism Blog

  7. Neil says:

    Keep it up. You’re doing the right thing. Report their lack of cooperation, don’t just take it on the chin. But go a step further: when you get a “no comment” or lack of cooperation from a PR, name them. It’s the only way to make the accountable.

    You might want to read this:
    http://heatherbrooke.org/2010/when-brooke-met-brooker-2/

  8. hedykorbee says:

    Thanks for your comments folks. You may be interested in further discussion of this issue which can be found here: http://onlinejournalismblog.com/

  9. simon gray says:

    As a result of one session at the HyperLocalGovCamp event in Walsall recently, I wrote on how both sides of the Press Office vs Independent Online Media divide need to work together and respect each other much better than they currently do, with my advice on how they might take steps to achieve such a state – HyperLocalGovCampWM 2 – Local Bloggers vs The Council – but of course it appears you have made your efforts.

    Just to pick up on one thing, though:

    City Council meetings are considered a valuable source of news and attended by most of the local media and not just two print reporters, as they are in Birmingham. Interested citizens show up in the gallery to watch.

    Council meetings in Birmingham – as in the rest of the country – are all open to the public to attend, without having to make an appointment in advance; the weekly list of meetings is posted on the newsroom site.

    • hedykorbee says:

      I found your post on this issue to be very enlightening Simon and I look forward to reading more of your blog. I was unaware until I started hearing from other bloggers that access is a universal sore spot. You are, of course, right that there are two sides to every story and I’m glad I called the press office to try and find out what was going on. I’ve also learned since that call that there have been cutbacks at BCC, which isn’t an excuse but does provide some context. I think that part of the give and take that you’re advocating has to include common courtesy. It doesn’t take much to quickly return a phone call or flip someone an email to say we’re unable to fulfill your request at this time but we’ll put you on our list of people to notify when we do have something to say.

  10. Paul Hadley says:

    I completely agree with Will and Neil, above, in all examples cited.

    For me, one ironic fact that ties in nicely with this is the route that ‘traditional’ media appeal to members of the public for images and supporting information when pulling together their reports for broadcast or print.

    Take for instance the recent student demonstrations across the UK, or today the Top Shop/ Philip Green protests- I’m dipping in and out of Twitter today just so I can get news updates that the mainstream media are either slow to report, or not report at all. Similar recent examples have also occurred with requests for snow landscapes, football ‘riots’ and community celebrations.

    Regarding the Top Shop/ Philip Green instances, already today I have seen 5 requests from TV and newspaper journalists and organisations, asking for their network followers to send them images, which they will select certain examples, to be included in their own news pieces. I doubt that attribution or credits will be given, but I’d love to be proved wrong when the broadcasts/ print and duplicate web copies go out.

    So, if mainstream media use the public ‘citizen reporters’ as valuable sources and content providers (possibly because of lack of resources, budget and coverage), include their material into their own broadcasts or print, then I’d like to think that the organisations as you describe above, when releasing press information would feel the same way.

    However, that hope is somewhat naive in outlook, with me fully realising that in practical terms, exactly the opposite is true in the majority of cases I come across.

    Like you. I’ve had instances where my own individual attendance or accreditation requests have been declined or refused for particular coverage or interviews I try to capture for my own blog. Yet when I (an NUJ member & TV/radio commentator) make exactly the same request for a ‘recognised’ media outlet, the doors open and the canapes and cucumber sandwiches are made available. There’s a few examples of this on my blog, and without wishing to ‘sell’ the link, please go see for yourself if you wish at http://justblogging.co.uk . Some additional context is also available at http://eventwith.me/recastingthenet/ and there’s plenty more examples easily found [disclaimer/statement: I’m professionally involved].

    Although I’m not focusing on the area of cutbacks, not all of my experiences with council representatives have been negative- I have held interviews with key figures successfully, where the questions asked did not have to be submitted in advance, and the answers given were published (video) in their entirety, allowing the viewer to draw their own opinions and conclusions from the answers given. I have also had instances where the council themselves have used my material for their own publications, in full, with my full permission given (not that it’s needed- all my own ‘stuff’ is creative commons licensed anyway). I can only deduce from this that the decision to grant access to the reporter is up to the interviewee involved, which in turn gives rise to me questioning the openness, integrity and honesty of the characters involved.

    Just like my own research findings during my social media studies, the underlying challenge presented was the one revolving around cultural change, both in the way the organisation operates and communicates, and whether the individual answering the request for information is adhering to a chain of command and ‘corporate guidelines’ (horrible term), if any are in place at the time. The other phrases that appeared regularly in my research were ‘power’, ‘authority’, ‘gatekeeper’ and ‘employment security’.

    Footnote: Hedy, please feel free to edit out the links above if you wish.

  11. hedykorbee says:

    Call me naive, but I have trouble wrapping my head around the idea that someone would be denied accreditation or the right to attend an event on the basis of platform. It certainly shouldn’t be happening in this age and certainly not in Birmingham which, as you point out in your link, has such a strong digital media community. When I have a little more time I’ll watch the video because its bang on topic and I’m particularly interested to hear what Cllr. Tilsey had to say. Not all of my experiences with Council have been negative either. I had an excellent interview with Labour group leader Albert Bore about ten days ago and we discussed city finances for over an hour. Interestingly enough, he was calling for more transparency in the budget process.

  12. oldish hack says:

    When looking at who to invite/ offer interviews to, I would imagine it is a question of audience. While the new media types don’t like it, they currently cannot offer the same seize audience as traditional media.
    Organisations and the officers that you complain about have a finite time to share their information and conduct interviews. They need to get that out to the widest audience possible. Sadly you website, however noble and legitimate (4,000 page impressions in six weeks), doesn’t offer that audience yet.
    If the leaders of public sector organisations were to make themselves available to everyone who claimed to be a journalist for a website/blog then they would spend most of their time communicating with small numbers of people and not enough time actually running the organisation. And that would be to the detriment of the public they serve.
    The internet has given all of us a platform to publish but it doesn’t automatically make us a journalist or a valued news outlet.
    Outside of my day job, I write a scuba diving blog/news site, but I accept that while the audience is small (but growing), I do not have the same credibility as those more established websites/ magazines. Or the audience.
    All of that takes time to build. And that is by hard work, enterprise and the ability to build relationships. In this industry, relationships are everything as that is how you will get information before others.
    Unfortunately, it seems some in the new media have a chip on their shoulder about access and right to be treated the same as traditional media. They really need to take an objective look at what they are and what they can offer in terms of audience. A handful of readers does not put such people on par with a local newspaper so they cannot expect to be treated equally.
    Having a temper tantrum and seeking to use the web to embarrass those they feel have offended them (as I have seen some do in the past) will do them no good in the long run.

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