Friday, 19 December 2008

Lampeter University to link up with Carmarthen

It's now been over a week since it was announced that a place very close to my heart, the University of Wales, Lampeter, is set to merge with another West Walian education institution, Trinity College Carmarthen.

Having had time to digest the news and consider my feelings towards the move, as a proud Lampeter Theology graduate I thought I would blog my thoughts.

Although I have been away from Lampeter now for quite some while - indeed I had been out of Wales for two years until I moved to Cardiff this autumn - I must say this move didn't come totally out of left field to me.

Talk of a merger between Lampeter and Carmarthen has been doing the rounds for some time now.

With Lampeter’s financial problems and potential job cuts being spoken about since the summer, discussions about the two institutions joining forces have been taking place for months - and there was even talk of the possibility what the Western Mail described as a ‘Super-University’ between Lampeter, Carmarthen and the two Swansea universities.

After a meeting of minds between the governing bodies of both UWL and TCC last Thursday, it was agreed that the two institutions would look to form a new university.

The veritable paradise that is the courtyard of the Old Building, within the University of Wales, Lampeter. But what does the proposed merger mean for the UK's third oldest university?

As of the 2009/10 academic year, it looks likely that both Lampeter and Carmarthen will be under the same umbrella.

But what does this mean for the two colleges, and how will the link-up benefit each of them?

For a start, with Trinity College recently being awarded university status - having applied for it in June 2007 - a connection with the UK's third oldest university should give them an extra bit of prestige.

As far as Lampeter is concerned, having averted industrial action and job cuts in the summer, their governors hope a link-up with a bigger college in a larger town will help them not only make extra savings but offer their existing and prospective students added value.

However, not everyone is happy.

Their have been complaints to Ceredigion's local newspaper, citing about how a merger might detract from Lampeter's unique charm (although others feel this might be a blessing in disguise), whilst the Lampeter Society - the group representing the college's alumni - has announced it is against an amalgamation of any sort and wants to see UWL continue as an independent institution. They have the support of Lampeter Town Council as well.

So what does it mean to me? Other than it having pretty much knackered the review of the Uni I was writing for Starting University, on the face of it a closer relationship between the two colleges - if not a total merger - does seem to make sense.

When it's all said and done, if it’s done correctly it should ensure that departments and jobs are safe - and in the run up to Christmas, that has to be a good thing.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

Following up on brands and bans by contrasting Howell and Hallam.

Having not identified a stand-out issue raised in last week’s fascinating guest lecture from BBC technology correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones, I thought it would be a good idea to reflect on a theme I have already discussed here.

Firstly, I have to mention last week’s blog about “Journalists being brands”, which referred to how the Birmingham Mail rallied behind their football writer Bill Howell after he was banned from Aston Villa by then-manager David O’Leary.

The blog post has been commented on by both Bill and his Birmingham Mail colleague Colin Tattum, and it is interesting to read their recollection of the O’Leary affair and their thoughts on how Bill was treated.

Writing an article about football reporters getting banned from the clubs they cover has turned out to be quite a topical subject.

In the time since I last blogged, it transpires that the Derby Evening Telegraph’s Neil Hallam, who is amongst their team of Derby County reporters, has found himself on the wrong side of a similar banning order from the club (on clicking the link you’ll need to scroll down a bit).

Derby Evening Telegraph football reporter Neil Hallam has been banned from covering Derby County games after writing numerous critical columns about the club's owners.

Apparently the reason for Hallam’s ban from reporting at Pride Park is a result of him writing a number of critical opinion pieces highlighting the mystery surrounding investment made in the club by County’s new owners, General Sports and Entertainment (GSE).

However, in stark contrast to how the Birmingham Mail gave Bill Howell their full backing during his short-lived ban from Villa Park in 2006, the Derby Evening Telegraph has not been so supportive of Hallam.

His weekly Derby County column (which was published every Thursday) has been axed by the Evening Telegraph, and reports say that this comes after Rams officials had complained to the paper that Hallam had been trying to “destabilise the club” due to his regular questioning and criticism of GSE (again, you need to scroll down to the first bold bit when clicking the above link).

I’m sure that losing his column isn’t the end of the world for Hallam – who also works for the nationals, covering football in the Daily Mail and cricket in the Daily Telegraph – but it will be interesting to see how this story develops.

As with what happened to Bill Howell, the Neil Hallam affair raises some pointed questions about the freedom of the press, especially when it comes to reporting on sport.

I find it troubling that a journalist can be silenced so easily after posing what would seem to be a number of, if perhaps uncomfortable, perfectly legitimate and legal questions.

Challenging the views of a football manager, who in all likelihood won’t be around at that club forever, is one thing.

It would appear that taking a group of multimillionaire investors to task is quite another.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Do the Birmingham Mail view Bill and others as brands?

Rick Waghorn, founder of the exciting project, on visiting Cardiff last week made a point of telling us “journalists are brands”.

It is perhaps a forthright view but one I agree with.

During his 13-year tenure as Norwich City correspondent for the Norwich Evening News, he told us that for many Canaries-daft readers, he was their football writer. In fact, for many of these, he was the only writer whose work they read full stop.

He went onto ask those of us who are fans of sports teams who “our football writers” are. In responding to a Birmingham-based student, he referred to the Birmingham Mail’s Birmingham City reporter Colin Tattum.

It was interesting to hear “Tatts” get a namecheck, as it is actually a chain of events surrounding a Birmingham Mail colleague of his that led me sharing this view of journalists being brands.

For the Claret and Blue half of the UK’s second city, Bill Howell is “their football writer”.

Having worked for Trinity Mirror’s West Midlands newspapers for ten years, Bill has been covering Aston Villa for the Mail since the 2000/01 football season.

Fast forward five and a half years, and to the culmination of the 2005/06 campaign.

Villa lie 16th in the Premier League table, and perilously close to the relegation zone.

Their boss David O’Leary is under great pressure to keep Villa up and retain his job in the process.

After a number of understandably negative critiques, in late March 2006 the Irishman banned Howell from reporting on the club.

O’Leary claimed that Howell had a “vendetta against me” and that he was “trying to undermine me and the football club”.

Birmingham Mail football correspondent Bill Howell and former Aston Villa manager David O'Leary side-by-side. But when the two clashed, you might be surprised to discover which of them came out on top.

So, going into the final two months of a crucial campaign, the Birmingham Mail are lacking a Villa correspondent able to attend club press conferences or games at Villa Park. What do they do?

You might say it would be easy to dump Howell and bring in someone else to cover the Villa in these final few months.

But what actually occurred was the very opposite.

The Mail stuck by their man, with editor Steve Dyson stoutly defending Howell in editorials.

Howell himself soon became a Midlands media magnet, being invited onto a number of broadcast platforms including ITV Central’s ‘Soccer Night’ to state his case and defend his position.

Many fellow journalists from different organisations (such as BBC Radio WM football commentator Mike Taylor) leapt to his defence too.

Even the fans, already dissatisfied with O’Leary’s management, sided with “their football writer” over “their football manager”.

To this day some still refer to Bill as being the man who “saw through O’Leary for the charlatan that he is.”

After the initial media storm, Bill’s ban was revoked and you could even say that in some small part the affair was one of many contributing factors in bringing down the curtain on O’Leary’s Villa reign in July of that year.

Whether the Birmingham Mail would have been as supportive of one of their writers had he or she clashed with a manager popular with the fans and generally deemed to be successful, as opposed to one as unpopular as O’Leary, remains to be seem.

But I think what this cautionary tale shows is that, even in these times where journalists are sometimes seen as being expendable, a reporter like Bill Howell was seen as being much more than just a faceless nobody who could be replaced without anyone batting an eyelid.

Plenty of people were willing to speak up for “their football writer” when they felt he had been wronged.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Can Blogs and Bisping change age-old reading habits?

Last week’s guest speaker, Shane Richmond, the Daily Telegraph’s Online Communities Editor, spoke of how his newspaper once enjoyed great popularity amongst students due to its sports coverage.

In spite of the newspaper’s traditional conservative leanings and news agenda, which tend to oppose the politics held by the stereotypical view of a student, the Telegraph’s sports section has consistently won awards due to its comprehensive nature and selection of top writers which Richmond credits as helping to win sales amongst students.

I am sure Telegraph Sport’s popularity amongst students is still true today, but although I appreciate the quality of articles from the likes of Henry Winter, personally I find the general content of the section a little “too straight” for my liking.

Whilst what they do cover in depth is written about very well, I have long noticed that they seem to concentrate only on sports with a traditional popularity in Great Britain – football, cricket, rugby union, tennis, golf, boxing and so on.

I can see the reasons for this – the Telegraph has an older, more mature readership that are likely to favour reading about the sports that have always held media sway – but it doesn’t do it for me.

The Telegraph is not where I’d turn to if I wanted to read about the Philadelphia Phillies’ triumph in Baseball’s World Series, nor is it the place to read about James Wade’s nine dart finish at last week’s Grand Slam of Darts.

In contrast to the Times and the Guardian, who cover such events in innovative ways, Telegraph Sport tends simply to marginalise growing, international and/or less glamorous sports into the news in brief sidebars.

In light of this, I was surprised to hear around this time last year that the Telegraph had become the first broadsheet newspaper to appoint a Mixed Martial Arts correspondent.

Gareth A. Davies, who is also the Telegraph’s boxing writer, took on MMA on top of his portfolio both online and in print form thanks largely to the rise of Lancashire fighter Michael Bisping.

Bisping’s ascent from reality TV stardom has lead to a growing interest in the Ultimate Fighting Championship, in which he competes.

The Telegraph's MMA Correspondent Gareth A. Davies interviews British UFC hopeful Michael Bisping on Telegraph TV.

MMA is a combat sport that permits a variety of fighting techniques. It has its critics and has been looked upon with a degree of snobbery and contempt, particularly amongst the boxing fraternity.

Indeed it was once famously described as being akin to “human cockfighting” by John McCain.

Although tabloids such as the Daily Star have covered the UFC for a number of years now, that an established boxing writer working for a newspaper not known for its coverage of supposed ‘minority sports’ is blogging about MMA with regularity in a generally positive, non-cynical manner is quite something.

This shows not only how far MMA has come, but also how new online technology has transformed how editors (both in print and online) view what is newsworthy.

As Davies wrote last November:

But does it?

Whilst clearly there is enough interest in Bisping and MMA for Telegraph Sport to give it a good level of coverage, how has this translated on their user-generated content blog site

A quick search of the site for the terms ‘MMA’ ‘Bisping’ and ‘UFC’ generated just one blog. Similar searches for other ‘minority sports’ also produced low numbers.

That’s not to say that My Telegraph contributors have no interest in blogging about sport – there are plenty of them, over 1,230 at last check.

Thing is, they’re all about sports like football, cricket, rugby union, tennis, golf, boxing and so on.

Perhaps the Telegraph are right to stick rigidly to the sports that they (and their audience) know, whatever I may think.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Ishy’s gonna get Google for news on him.

Last week’s guest speaker, Anthony Mayfield, spoke about how Google has defined web-searching, due to its quickness and – in his words – ‘honesty’ in generating the most popular and relevant results in next to no time.

Google News was mentioned and it was it said that, due to the “key word” nature of “Googling”, the resource would yield its best results from those news sources with intros containing specific words to relevant to the story as opposed to snappy one liners.

After the lecture I took myself off to the Newspaper Room in Bute, and after nearly spitting my tea out over a PC screen, Google News was one of my first ports of call.

You see, this week I can’t bring myself to write this blog without mentioning the biggest story in West Midlands football – the sacking of controversial now-former Walsall winger Ishmel Demontagnac.

Former Walsall winger Ishmel Demontagnac enjoys happier times, but his sacking last week made national headlines.

This is neither the place nor the platform to talk about the whys and wherefores of the situation itself; however I am blogging about the fascinating way in which the story has been covered online.

Getting the news early on Thursday afternoon, I went to Google News to see who had picked up the news – or at least ‘went live’ with it online – first.

The first “official” source to hit the ground running was the Express & Star, with their initial piece hitting the net at 11.26am – around half an hour after unofficial club fansite UpTheSaddlers had uploaded the story, prompted by news reports on local radio station BBC WM.

In contrast, the BBC uploaded an item onto their website (interestingly as a leading article on the BBC England news pages, rather than one primarily for the sport section) at 12.11 – a piece that has since been updated to include further quotes from the club, and a news report from Thursday evening’s Midlands Today TV news bulletin.

The Birmingham Mail put their first report on this news up early in the afternoon, not long before the Express & Star uploaded a more considered article citing Walsall manager Jimmy Mullen’s thoughts at 2.20pm.

As the day developed, the nationals got into the act. Those that covered the story in detail tended to put their own spin on it, for the benefit of a wider audience.

The Daily Mail, through their ex-Express & Star reporter Neil Moxley, spoke of how “Walsall have taken a stand against football’s bad boys” quoting at length former Saddlers manager Paul Merson.

Over at The Times, after initially publishing curt details, Peter Lansley wrote about the story leading with the perspective of PFA boss Gordon Taylor.

Today, as you can see from the screenshot above, it is the two Times articles that come out as the top two results through Google News’ search engine optimisation.

They are listed ahead of the Express & Star, BBC, Birmingham Mail and all of the other sources who broke the news ahead of them. The Daily Mail is only beaten by the BBC from that list.

This goes to show that it’s not just being first with the news that counts – but by getting the best, most interesting take on the story it can leave a more lasting impression.

Thursday, 13 November 2008

Learning from the Legendinho

A theme that has been stressed in our two most recent Online Journalism sessions is the importance of using blogging as a tool to understand and connect with your audience.

Last week’s guest speaker Adam Timworth spoke about how he finds blogs to be at their best when an enthusiastic writer finds a niche, and blogs regularly on a range of topics within the subject.

Talk of this turned my mind to one such writer who does all of the above with great success.

One of my favourite journalists is Tim Vickery, a sports writer who has been reporting on football in South America since 1994.

In the 14 years he’s spent in Brazil, Tim has become arguably the foremost English-speaking voice on South American football - to the point where he is regularly called upon as a panellist in studio debates about the game on mainstream Brazilian television.

Whilst I first became familiar with Tim through his work in World Soccer magazine, where amongst other things he is known for his observant, descriptive player profiles; in recent years I have begun to follow the content he writes for online audiences.

Currently Tim writes three internet-only columns, a weekly piece for the BBC Sport website, and fortnightly articles for the CNN Sports Illustrated and Australia’s SBS The World Game sites.

Tim has been writing his Monday BBC column since 2004, and as a regular reader I was interested to see that in August his columns were integrated into the wider BBC Football blog network.

From this...

...To this.

But although the format of Tim Vickery's articles changed, that didn't mean the content had to.

Although what the BBC did here was nothing new – indeed Tim’s SBS columns have taken blog form since the beginning of 2008 – it did strike me as being an excellent way of getting instant interaction from readers and measuring exactly how popular Tim’s niche is.

After a slow start in blog form, Tim has built an audience of contributors and tends to get 50 to 100 comments on each one (barring those on Diego Maradona which are predictably more popular).

The tone of the feedback sent is generally complimentary; at times even reverent (to the point that he’s been given the nickname ‘The Legendinho!’).

That Tim is willing to speak to his audience, not just on radio phone-ins and in responding to mail, but – unlike many other bloggers – through actually replying to posts on his blog regularly must attribute to the popularity he enjoys amongst the audience he plays too.

Not only is Tim happy to talk, but he is willing to listen too.

A good example of this came back in September, when on a blog about Paraguay’s World Cup qualifying success, numerous readers noticed that the ‘Readers Questions’ section – over the years a consistent feature at the end of his articles – was missing.

Two weeks later and they were returned to their usual place.

By keeping the Readers Questions section, Tim is able give a detailed answer to a specific query in a more lasting form, rather than just a quick reply soon to be buried amongst a myriad of other comments.

Not only does this say that, to a good blogger at least, what the audience thinks counts; it also goes to show that whilst new ideas and technology may bring improvements, it doesn’t necessarily mean the new must supersede things we already have that work well as they are.

Thursday, 30 October 2008

Getting Saddlers supporters on side the Express & Star way.

This week I was hoping to write a blog that was not tenuously linked to sport. Mission failed!

On hearing about different methods used to bring members of the general public to a broadcast medium within professional media organisations during our most recent lecture, one particular case of this leapt out at me.

Although the examples our guest speaker Dr Daniel Meadows brought up were put into practice in a diverse range of places – from Cardiff to Canada – the idea I'm going to highlight is a bit closer to home for me.

Yes, back in the Black Country newspaper journalists are harnessing enthusiasts to bump up their growing online video content.

In Wolverhampton, the Express & Star have begun to trial a number of experimental ideas online.

Amongst these includes online Fans Forums. Intermittently, a fan from each of the 'Big Five' West Midlands clubs (Villa, The Albion, Blues, Wolves and the Super Saddlers of Walsall for those of you who need to ask) is invited into the E&S offices to chat about the goings on at their club.

Now for newspapers to call upon public opinion on the sports teams they cover is nothing new.

For years 'Vox Pops', letters pages and even individual columns (for instance, the Walsall Advertiser run a weekly "View from the Cheap Seats" article authored by Saddlers fanzine editor Steve Stuart) have been used as means for papers to interact with their audience, and for their audience to see their names and faces in print.

What with it now being an online world, and with the use of streaming video becoming common place, this is just natural succession.

But what with the power of television I think that, if utilised correctly, the use of video could potentially be more effective than any of the above methods.

Take the Express & Star example. Unfortunately for them, there is a consensus of opinion amongst football supporters in the Midlands that says the newspaper pays scant attention to 'Little Walsall' and instead chooses to obsess over the Mighty Champions of Europe (circa 1953) from the Molineux (a reputation which I personally think is very unfair incidentally).

So, what better way could there be to challenge this negative perception of the E&S not caring about Walsall and being all about Wolves than producing videos like this one:

"Anthony Gerrard transfer listed – Wolves' defenders are dropping like left, right and centre; it's conceivable that they need two new centre backs."

Sorry, I couldn't resist!

Seriously though, inviting a Saddlers daft fan into your office, just to plonk them in front of a webcam and get them to chat football for the web won't just please one fan.

This fan is someone's mate, someone's brother, someone's son: many of whom, in this case, will likely be local, interested in the said subject matter discussed and be a potential E&S consumer).

They'll tell their mates, word will spread and thus might change a few people's pre-concieved ideas about that paper.

It might not be groundbreaking, but this kind of user-interaction might just help improve a few newspapers visibility and standing amongst their audience – which surely is what having an online presence is all about.

Thursday, 23 October 2008

How the Worst Team in Baseball alerted me to Networked Journalism in a Sports Context

To be honest, I was struggling for inspiration when writing this blog.

You see, my mind is fixed on the best underdog story in the world of sport right now – how loveable losers turned winners the Tampa Bay Rays have gone from 'Worst to First' and have reached Baseball's World Series, which starts in just a few hours time as I write this.

But, whilst Googling America's pastime when I should have been researching for my blog, I managed to stumble across a stateside sports website which I feel is an interesting case study.

The Bleacher Report website has proven that citizen journalism, rather than being looked upon with distain and suspicion, can actually be embraced and used as a soundboard for networked journalism by the professionals.

From looking into its background, I discovered that the Bleacher Report is not just another user generated content news website, which are beginning to become ten-a-penny on the net.

This site is notable because, as of June this year, it struck up a partnership with the Fox Sports on MSN website, one of the most widely known American sports websites and indeed the online home of the US TV broadcaster that is airing the World Series.

Understandably, people are focusing on the Bleacher Report and how the fledgling site has come from nowhere to be in a position to provide content for a major organisation, and are looking upon this deal as a victory for citizen journalism.

However, what I want to know is what's in it for Fox Sports?

As Kristen Nicole notes in her blog article about this which I've linked to above, one of Fox Sports' main rivals – ESPN – had started to introduce user-generated content onto their already strong website. felt they were falling behind.

By forming an alliance with a large network of sports bloggers, not only could Fox Sports improve their standing amongst this user base, and directly take content from them, they are in the position to use the Bleacher Report as a smorgasbord of opinion to dip into when they see fit.

Not only will Bleacher Report users be pleased to see their articles uploaded onto the Fox Sports website, with no much being done to differentiate them from those written by professional journalists or by former Major Leaguers and other sports stars, but due to the notoriety of what is happening it will attract further users into the community.

And all of these people will be giving their feedback about what their fellow users on the site are blogging about, on whichever stories that are getting them talking.

This information can be analysed by Fox Sports webmasters, helping them to better understand which specific topics within the myriad of American sports are raising interest online amongst a certain breed of their consumers.

This, in turn, gives them a good indicator as to which issues may be worth giving more or less prominence to on their website.It's still early days yet, and it is probably too early to tell how successful the Bleacher Report-Fox Sports partnership will be, but it will be an interesting one to keep an eye on.

Who knows, if it works out maybe other noted sports/media websites will follow suit?

Oh, and C'mon the Rays!