Friday, October 30, 2009

Chris Ratcliffe, publisher of the Hebweb, on Journalism and New Media


Chris Ratcliffe, publisher of the Hebweb, internet pioneer and local hero, gave a talk on 28th October 2009 to the public meeting called by Calderdale NUJ on the subject of Journalism and the New Media.

Chris is someone whose ethics and values I respect greatly so I am delighted to be able to reproduce a transcript of his speech (taken from the Hebweb) on this blog.

Origins of Hebden Bridge Web in 1995

I am going to talk a little about how the Hebden Bridge Web started, say something about the rivalry with the local press, and then discuss some of the issues raised by the growth of the new media, including the big question to which I don’t really have an answer.

I started doing web pages and the Hebden Bridge Web in 1995. My partner Elaine Connell and I were both teachers but we also ran a small press called Pennine Pens. So initially, we thought some web pages might bring our books to a wider audience, that we could market our books in a way that even the big publishers were not yet doing.

When I started trying to do web pages, there were no books, no magazines, no courses and no-one I knew to ask. I had to email newsgroups in the US to find out how to do even the most basic of things

Although right from these early days I could see this new world wide web thing had immense potential, I had great trouble communicating the idea to others. Few had even heard of the Internet. I remember Elaine saying more than once, "Can you explain to me again about this Internet. I don't understand how anyone could make money from it." In later years, we had a good laugh remembering this. We are talking about a time before Google, before Facebook and before Internet Explorer - Bill Gates still didn’t get the Internet.

But Hebden Bridge being the kind of forward thinking place it is, there were others who did see possibilities. When I had done a few web pages, I was approached to do some small sites for others, and within 2-3 years I’d given up teaching and was working full time from home doing websites.

When we first thought about doing a website for Hebden Bridge, there were no community websites in the UK. We searched all over to find one upon which we might be able to model ourselves. But there were no templates to follow. We had to create our own unique way, making it up as we went. And I still am.

Doing the Hebweb over the last 14 years has often been exciting partly because this has also been the time that the Internet itself has been developing and we somehow felt a small part of this enormous change.

Rivalry with local press.

In small towns like Hebden Bridge the local paper has traditionally had a monopoly on the news, almost to the extent that if it isn’t printed in the local paper, it didn’t happen. The Internet has broken this monopoly. Other voices can be now be heard.

In Hebden Bridge, there’s always something going on. One burning issue gives way to another burning issue.

But often the local press has been very slow to notice these issues, or preferred not to cover them, or to cover them in a much smaller or different way to the Hebweb. One of my earliest memories of the Hebweb having an impact was the threat to our local cinema, the Hebden Bridge Picture House in the 1990s. We covered this story and very soon insiders were scanning stuff and emailing their scans, which we were posting online straight away. The Hebweb news item on this was at times being updated every half hour. Today, this is not that unusual but at the time it felt quite pioneering.

We can be quicker than the local press - often instantaneous if need be. But it’s not just about who gets the news first or even what news is printed. It’s also about setting the local agenda. What’s important and what isn’t. The Hebweb has set the local agenda more and more over recent years - issues which come to mind from the past year or so are Kerbside, Garden Street, the sacking of Miss Rusty and currently the controversy over the selection of the Labour candidate. The Hebweb has often been at the forefront of these issues, giving voice and confidence to those involved.

Sometimes, the local press cover stories really badly, eg Chainsaw Tuesday, five years ago. The town of Hebden Bridge was outraged at hired thugs being bussed in to attack local people in a back street of our town. The Hebden Bridge Times played down this issue to such an extent that many were convinced they were in league with the developers. But we covered it fully. The same day, photos and video of security guards attacking local residents and trees being felled with children still in them were on the Hebweb.

Sometimes, the local press just don’t cover things at all.

In the early days, one thing which helped the Hebweb was a very entertaining online column written by John Morrison. So popular were these columns that we produced them as a series of books, perhaps one of the earliest examples of Internet to book. Local journalist Issy Shannon wrote a review for the Hebden Bridge Times which was pulled at the last minute. Apparently some of John’s comments about local journalists were not appreciated. Maybe comments like the following: “A local newspaper is supposed to reflect the tenor of local life, but the Milltown Times has lost its way over the years. It's been allowed to drift in the doldrums of editorial neglect: a rudderless boat becalmed on a placid millpond. On how many other newspapers, for example, would a story be summarily spiked for being "too interesting"? View from the Bridge went on to be a great success, helped in no small part by being ”banned“ by the local press.

Even before the growth of the Internet, Hebden Bridge’s demography was changing radically but the local paper was still producing for an audience of 30 years previously. In 1999, they failed completely to cover two major events: the Arts Festival and the first Big Green Weekend, which was at that time organised by H Gregg, then of the Alternative Technology Centre. H and I wrote the the Managing Director of Johnston Press complaining. We received an apology and a meeting with the Editor of the Hebden Bridge Times and a couple of its journalists. One result of this meeting was a monthly Green Page printed in the Hebden Bridge Times and made available online by the Hebweb - an example perhaps of cooperation between old and new media.
Those of us producing the Green Page did, however, find it frustrating that the text we sent them had to be retyped, they weren’t really familiar with jpgs, even when they used our digital photos the end result was often washed out and they usually ignored our suggested layout.

In 2005, we wrote a feature entitled “Ten Years of the Hebden Bridge Web”. I sent a copy to the Hebden Bridge Times. They didn’t reply for a while, and their reporter phoned me up, explaining they weren’t able to use it as “we don’t do websites”. And I note that in the last issue of the Hebden Bridge Times they found room for telling their readers about an Abba Tribute band in Brighouse and a beer festival in Keighley but no mention of this meeting. When the Hebden Times reports the Jamie Oliver visit, will it include the heckling?

There are many of anecdotes and stories I could recount but I don’t want to go on too long. Here’s a couple, briefly. At the time of the Garden Street issue, I had a phone call from a woman who had an unpublished dossier she wanted share. It had been prepared for the Calderdale Cabinet. She came round and we chatted in front of my fire. She didn’t tell me her name and to this day I don’t know it. All very cloak and dagger. We published the document which gave several pieces of information which weren’t in the public domain including the fact that the site had been sold to the developer for £1. Then there was the incident involving Biker Dave. John Morrison had created this character for View from the Bridge. There just happened to be a real Biker Dave who lived in Hebden Bridge and roared up our street on his motor bike one day, forcefully explaining that the Chapter weren’t happy.

Forum

One challenge the Hebweb faced was how to promote discussion. So many discussion arenas on the Internet are conducted using textspeak and insult by half a dozen people who scare everyone else away. We didn’t want that. Being an old hippie at heart, initially I wanted to have a free, open debate where anyone could post what they liked. However, the first sign that this wasn’t going to work was waking up on Saturday mornings to find some clever Internet user, presumably after a few Friday night pints, had worked out that it was very easy to copy a selection from a porn site and paste it into the body of the message. We’re still in the nineties here. Soon, things like spambots were to come along whereby remote spammers would develop programmes which automatically post rubbish into thousands of online forms. After much thought and some experimenting we came with the system where I entered each message manually.

But there was another issue here as well. Elaine and I had both been English teachers and publishers. We valued and appreciated good writing. If we were going to put our time into this, we decided we didn’t want textspeak or one liners which barely said anything. We were determined to promote good, informed discussion and even the good use of English on the Internet.

So we made the decision to moderate messages. We urged correspondents to write in proper sentences and using capitals correctly, and added a few other rules along the way, such as not making personal attacks, etc.

I know this moderation has occasionally been seen as censorship, with the occasional suggestion that we only post messages with which we agree. But if we only posted messages with which we agree, what would be the point? Disagreement and different points of view are the essence of debate.

Looking at the Forum today I feel quite proud. There are thousands of messages, many of which have been penned with considerable thought and time by our correspondents. I have not found many other areas of debate on the Internet of such quality.

Politics

From the beginning, before most councillors even knew what email was, we realised that the web had the potential to be influential in politics. The Hebweb is concerned with one small town. But multiply this around the country and the power of communities to make their voice heard is significant.

I have already mentioned several issues which may not have impacted on local awareness as much if it had not been for the Hebden Bridge Web - others include attempted developments at the Mill Pond, Linden Mill and the Colden Valley, where’s the swimming pool money gone, the campaign for broadband and setting up our own cooperative to provide this service, clamping in Mytholmroyd, the Tin Tab, the Fustian needle and stones in the square, and whether red squirrels should be returned to the Crags.

Increasingly, local politicians send us their press releases and comment to discussions in the forum. We ran special discussion areas during each of the last three general elections.

In the last general election, the Hebweb might even have even affected the result, given the few hundred majority involved. It had been widely thought that the main vote was going to be split three ways given how strong support for Lib Dems is in the Hebden Bridge area. I think we were the only ones to point to polling information showing that in the Calder Valley it was neck and neck between Tory and Labour with the Lib Dems quite a long way behind. Providing this information allowed people to realise that in 2005 only a Labour vote would stop the Tories winning and only Tory vote would stop Labour.

Is this journalism and can we trust the new news?

My friend and your NUJ colleague, journalist Andrew Bibby has suggested more than once that I should join the NUJ. I was quite surprised the first time, thinking “I’m not really a journalist”. In my mind, I am a publisher and website developer. So are those who participate in the new media journalists?

In some ways, the Hebden Bridge Web does follow good journalistic standards. The use of good English I have mentioned, but also trying to make sure what we publish is accurate and, if pushed, not revealing sources who don’t wish to be revealed. I try to use original material and don’t just copy what appears in the printed media.

But if what I do on the Hebden Bridge Web is journalism, where is the line going to be drawn? If people like me are journalists, what about regular bloggers, twitterers, those who go around filming events for YouTube - those citizen journalists who video errant police officers on demos or public officials abusing their power?

And then again there are many “proper” journalists who don’t follow any standards. In the forthcoming Starsuckers documentary hoaxers fed the Tabloids made-up stories about celebs which the Tabloids then printed without even checking. These were reprinted all around the world. The director commented that what he found fascinating about making the film was how little truth there is in the Tabloid press. Fresh in our minds is the distasteful column written by Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir about the death of Stephen Gately.

Maybe we shouldn’t be looking at dividing lines between new and established media. Perhaps the crucial line is between good and bad journalism.

Which leads to big question to which I don’t really have an answer.

Where's it all going and how do we get paid?

We know that most journalists are over-worked, badly paid and face an uncertain future. As the web intrudes further into their domain, this is likely to get even worse. Falling profits, more layoffs and less local newspapers. So who is going to pay journalists in the future? How can I make more money out of what I am doing?

Currently, I make money from those who advertise on the Hebweb - but although increasing year on year, it’s not by itself a living wage. I see the Hebweb as a potentially sustainable business but at the moment it is also a shop window for my other webwork and part of my commitment to the community I live in.

There’s talk of pay per click or subscription sites. I can’t see these working - except maybe for specific specialist areas, like the Financial Times. While people can get more content than they need for free, who is going to pay? Rupert Murdoch is supposedly going to introduce some kind of pay to view system for some of his newspapers. One interesting project I came across is in California called spot.us where members of the local community club together, a few dollars each, to fund a journalist to invesitgate a specific issue. If the story is subsequently sold, they get repaid.

Much of the traditional media was slow to embrace the online opportunities. but over the past few years that has changed. One fear I have is that the big players will eventually regroup and swamp out the bloggers, twitterers and people like me as they seek to re-establish their power.

But I think between us in Hebden Bridge we’ve created an effective model for how a community website can be. I say “between us” because the Hebweb wouldn’t be like it is without the creative, adventurous and colourful community who live round here. And it certainly wouldn’t have been the same without my partner Elaine Connell who died two years ago. When the Head of Calder High phones me up in a temper, when a supporter of Steph Booth threatens me with libel or when I have to prepare a talk like this I really miss being able to consult her and her wit, judgement and passion.

The Hebweb has been at the top of any search for Hebden Bridge since Google started, but like the local press we too have competitors. Other websites, blogs, YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. In ten years time, it is going to be different story again.

I often reflect on how none of the science fiction writers I grew up with ever predicted this biggest technological innovation of our era, the world wide web. The Internet is still really in its infancy. But however it goes, I am confident that there will continue to be more than one voice in small towns like Hebden Bridge. With luck, we won’t again have a situation where arts and green issues go unreported, where injustice goes unnoticed and where greedy developers go unchallenged.

This was first published on the Hebweb.

NB. Originally, the first comment (from "Kevin") that appeared below this post contained a potentially libellous sentence so has been removed and republished (without the contentious wording) as the fourth comment. This is why things do not appear in order! :-)

7 comments:

Jason said...

Hmmm... Whilst it is clear that the Hebweb "takes a line" on some issues, every informative publication I've ever come across does.

You may call that "bias", to make it sound malign, but in reality it is just opinion.

In my view, the absence of opinion would make it a dull read indeed. The Hebden Bridge Times and the Courier have opinions on local matters, so why not the Hebweb?

On the subject of the site structure, I would agree with you insofar as this is something I also think needs updating. However, as it is such a huge amount of data that has been built up over such a long period of time, migrating it to a new format would be a gargantuan task. One that, as the Hebweb is primarily a labour of love rather that a profit-making business, Chris has naturally shied away from as a "non-essential" at this point.

(I'm sure there will come a time when you can "tweet" his articles to your heart's content in the near future though.)

Regarding publication of copyrighted material, if what you are referring to is HBT and Courier content, I know for a fact that many press releases, from a large variety of sources, are also sent to the Hebweb as a matter of course, purely because it is seen by news providers as an important and credible local news outlet.

Jason said...

Nearly forgot!

When you're talking about the Hebweb being old-fashioned and out of date, have you ever visited Craig's List? http://geo.craigslist.org/iso/gb This is one of the busiest websites in the world.

Cheers.

Rosie said...

The Hebweb serves the community well. Chris puts many of unpaid hours maintaining and updating it. I think we need to respect this service, not criticize it.

Jason said...

The first post on this topic came from Kevin, the editor of the hebdenbridgelist.com, and is what is being referred to in subsequent comments.

I have since been made aware that one of his allegations could be potentially libellous so I have re-published the comment in full without that particular sentence,

"Much as Chris Ratcliffe should be respected for being an 'early adopter' of the internet, Hebweb is now an anachronism. It fails to recognise even basic web standards, nor is it accessible or particulalry usable. Ever tried bookmarking a page on Hebweb? Or posting a link to a page on Twitter?

Aside from that, the prejudicial handling of extremely sensitive local issues fails to adhere to even the most basic journalistic standards. From Garden Street to Miss Rusty, the bias is clear and demonstrable. Some of the misleading and deliberately hysterical copy published on Hebweb would make Daily Mail journalists blanch! For a recent example, check out the coverage of Leonora Rustamova's dismissal, eg. "Since 19th January, when she was suspended within 4 minutes of an interview with Headteacher Stephen Ball, Miss Rusty has had to sit at home in silence, not talking with anyone."

Really? Miss Rusty has been at home and not uttered a word for months?

[potentially libellous content removed at this point]

Additionally, Given the dozens of methods now available for preventing spam on forums, there is simply no excuse for manually 'moderating' the Hebweb 'forum'.

October 31, 2009 9:45 PM"

Lynn said...

Kevin, you sound pretty up to date with website stuff. Chris has been working on his own for years to produce this extremely valuable (and sometimes controversial!) community website. Maybe you could offer Chris some of your expertise?
And no, ...'sitting in silence', doesn't literally mean sitting on a chair at home, and not saying anything at all! Bless!

kevin said...

Well, I guess I must be wrong then.

Enjoy a good tune on me: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WwoM5fLITfk

kevin said...

Lynn, if you are going to quote others, please try to be accurate, it helps save a lot of confusion.