UKGC10 session four: The future of journalism

Eve Shuttleworth proposed this session in response to a question that arose earlier in the day: Where is journalism heading, and how do press offices need to change in response?

The web professionals session I went to earlier touched on the same issue – how do we develop the skills we need within our web and communications teams to respond to changing media demands?

Journalism has changed enormously over the past decade or so. News organisations large and small have woken up to the web, and are developing a wider range of rich media content. Local papers as well as national ones are using audio, video and interactive graphics to enhance their stories.

This has led to a huge cultural shift in news, with print and web journalists being located together and badged as content producers. The overwhelming feeling in this session was that communicators need to adapt in a similar way.

Press officers can’t focus solely on writing and selling-in written press releases; we need to take a broader approach to content, producing material for the corporate website as well as complete asset packages for the media to use.

Several of the group gave examples of journalists accepting their video content, although there’s a clear divide between the specialist and local press and the big boys on the nationals.

Major national news organisations are reluctant to take video material from the government (and rightly so in my view). But local and regional press are poorly resourced and more inclined to accept PR material.

Someone asked: the budget-slashing job cuts and subsequent culture of ‘churnalism’ that one sees in much of the regional press is beginning to creep into the national press too, in response to the poor advertising market and declining sales. Does that mean even major news organisations will start accepting complete packages from us too?

There was deep unease about this from much of the group; while an under-resourced press makes PRs life easier, it’s not exactly indicative of a free press performing its fourth estate function of holding government to account.

Many of us said we’re troubled by the lack of critical analysis press releases get. All too often, journalists will take a press release, find any contrary opinion, and present this as reasoned analysis. This over-simplification of debate does neither communciator nor journalist credit; it’s rare that there are two sides to every story. Usually there are at least three or four, and sometimes there really is just one.

This isn’t the fault of journalists, but of proprietors who have cut editorial teams, merged titles and slashed budgets so there simply isn’t enough journalistic resources to get out and report the news. One press officer said “make life easier for journalists and they’ll bite your hand off”.

Sarah Lay gave a great example of how they did this during the local elections in Derbyshire. Making a wide range of material available to journalists online meant that they recieved more coverage than they’d normally expect, yet had to take fewer calls from journalists. That’s a win-win for everyone (especially Sarah and her team, who took home a PR Pride award for this).

89% of journalists are using blogs and social media to research their stories, and it follows that the public sector need to engage with these too. Communciations teams need to keep an eye on blogs, Facebook, etc so problems can be identified and dealt with early before they become more reputationally damaging.

Alastair Smith explainined how Newcastle City Council managed a story which sprung up on Facebook. By responding to the group and offering to meet and talk about their concerns, they managed to turn what was a negative story into a positive one that helped the campaign group get what they wanted.

Communications teams just aren’t set up to respond to social media. Reporting lines for press releases usually require signoff from senior staff and politicans, a process which can take days – a timescale incompatable with the demands of social media.

Neil Franklin told us how he used to manage the Twitter feed at Downing Street, arguing that communicators need to be realistic about responding in a timely manner.

I suggested we borrow the concept of ‘presumed competence’ used by the Foreign Office. Back when an ambassador was sent to Ouagadougou and not heard from for months at a time, their masters back home had to assume they were capable of getting on with it. Social media has the same disconnect between local demands and ability to get sign-off from the centre. We may find it easier to respond to social media if we have a set of agreed ‘lines to take’ that we trust our teams to deliver, and refer upwards only by exception.

Whatever you chosen approach, organisations need to develop a policy for dealing with social media comment. Michael Grimes adapted the well-known US army model into this very useful process model for dealing with social media comment.

Others said it was difficult and unhelpful to have two different approaches to responding: It’s just media, and media is social. We need to have a vision for content generally, and plan our resources accordingly.

Someone added that we need to think about tone, and “don’t treat citizens as journalists”. While it’s true we speak differently to journalists as customers, the rise of the citizen journalist – and initiatives like Talk About Local – mean the distinction between the two is blurring.

Someone talked about this Clay Shirky article, which argues “we will always need journalism, but we won’t have journalists”. The fourth estate is vital in a democratic system, so if we’re seeing less meaningful analysis of our work by the traditional media, then we should welcome it from non-traditional sources.

Online journalists, of the traditional as well as citizen variety, are becoming as much curators of content as creators, aggregating content from the wider web and bringing it to the attention of their networks. Communications teams should try and emulate this in what they produce, for instance by linking to related articles or useful background information.

Eve Shuttleworth said the Ministry of Justice is starting to monitor blogs and social media to get a feel for what the issues are, but has not yet made the decision to respond. One of the issues they’re grappling with is whether press officers should respond as the organisation, or as themselves.

Identifying individuals could have security implications, especially where issues are controversial.

All of this points to an urgent need to reassess the service we provide. We need to develop a vision for how we provide content, and ensure we can resource this in a way that meets the media’s diverse and changing needs, the needs of the audience and those of the organisation.

UKGC10 session one: Web Professionals

The first session I went to at UKGov Barcamp 2010 was led by Vicky Sargent from SOCITM, who is looking at how we can develop a framework for professionalising web careers.

Vicky began by explaing that historically SOCITM have been the industry body for senior IT managers in local government. But they’ve begun looking at how we can better support people working in and with web technology – that is, not just the guys providing the infrastructure, but the content too. And not just in local government, but in the public sector more widely.

People in digital roles come from a variety of backgrounds, which is a reflection of the broad spectrum of work that falls under the umbrella of ‘digital’. These include:

  • Communications: people from PR, marketing or publishing backgrounds with a focus on producing content for the web
  • IT backgrounds
  • Web developers
  • People who’ve fallen into it as they happened to be there when this whole internet lark took off.

As the digital sector grows, there’s a real need for a recognised skills and competencies framework. There’s also a call for greater recognition of the profession, so those working in it get the training, recognition and support they deserve. 

This debate is timely for me. My background is in communications, and as such I am a member of the Chartered Institute of Public Relations, and their sectoral group for Internal Communicators, CIPR Inside. But I recently moved into an intranet role, and as my CIPR membership expires I am wondering if there’s any point in me renewing it.  CIPR is – as the name suggests – focussed on public relations. But while my new role is certainly internal communications, I am not a PR practitioner and I’m struggling to see what CIPR can offer me.

The extent to which CIPR supports and understands Internal Communications is the subject of much debate within the internal comms trade of late, with Communicators in Business voting to become the Institute of Internal Communications in order to focus on internal communications as a discrete profession in its own right. CIPR have responded by beefing up its offering for internal communicators.

But neither seems to offer a great deal for those with a focus on digital. And that’s why an  industry body dedicated to raising the status and skills of the web profession would be really valuable for me personally, and no doubt for many others.

There was universal agreement in the room about the need for professionalisation. All too often, noted Alastair Smith, the task of managing web content is given to the most junior member of the team, who recieves little training in how to do it. Job descriptions can often be poorly written or out of date, which has meant many web officers have lost out in the job evaluations required as part of Single Status initatives.

Another common problem seems to be a lack of recognition web professionals get within their own communications teams. Web officers are generally given lower pay grades than junior press officers, even though their jobs are arguably more skilled. Heads of Communications almost always come from Press Officer or Marketing Manager roles, and see digital communications as something of a poor relation.

Senior managers often say the web is their most important customer service channel, yet this isn’t reflected in the way they recruit, train and pay their web officers. Web skills ought to be seen as an investment in improving service quality.

So for instance, Socitm found that bad websites cost councils £11m a month in abandoned transactions requiring attention by other, more expensive means like face-to-face or telephone. Yet few councils have people skilled in studying analytics or improving user experience, and so are unable to tackle this.

There are countless examples of this lack of foresight and understanding.  The value of moving services online is clear, with enormous potential to reduce costs. But for this to happen, we need to focus on giving web teams the skills and resources they need to cope with this channel shift.

There are a number of other initiatives with similar aims, such as the COI’s Web Academy and the GCN. But the former is largely aimed at top civil servants, giving them a brief overview of digital and its potential, while GCN focuses on career paths for web professionals in government comms. 

Most in the room felt that while the GCN was useful, they don’t have enough focus on digital and Socitm was well placed to continue this work. However, digital communicators need to work closely with those working in press and marketing, so should keep their general comms skills up to speed too.

Vicky noted particularly the need to develop a skills framework for web, as these roles aren’t recognised in the national skills farmework. She hopes Socitm can bring web skills into the Skills Framework for the Information Age.

Those with most to gain from raising the status of web professionals are those devolved editors and authors. Too often they’re isolated and lack training, get no additional pay or support, and don’t have their web responsibilities written into their job description. A professional group and a widely-recognised competencies framework could force their managers to understand the work they do.

All of those in the group felt this would help web teams convince senior management that professional web management requires a skill set; it isn’t just something you should devolve to anyone with a half-day’s CMS training. Producing good web content is about a lot more than copying and pasting.

I also think communications teams, and particularly press officers, will be forced to develop broader content production skills, as  the news outlets they serve demand a full package of rich media content rather than simple press releases. But this is something we covered in much more depth at a session on how journalism is changing, and I’ll blog about that later.

Socitm are part way through their project, working with consultants to scope the remit of a web professionals group and draft skills profiles for common roles.

Their preliminary report is already out, and they’re holding a workshop on February 4th at the DCLG. The main output from the day will be a set of defined skills, and a draft will be circulated to those coming beforehand. If you’d like to attend, contact Vicky for more details. 

SOCITM have a web community of over 600 people on the IDeA’s Communities of Practice site (called the Web Improvement and Usage Community). This is one of the most popular groups on the CoP, and has three people faciltating it for a few hours a day each.

Vicky hopes that this group will help to identify where we go next and help to take this forward. Socitim will provide the neccessary admin support, but they people need to join in order to signal their commitment to the project and give them the funding they need to deliver this.

In my view this is something webbies would benefit from getting behind. If web becomes a recognised profession, it gives those working on the web greater credibility within their own organisation, so that their professional opinion is respected and valued, and they are given the recognition, pay and support they deserve.