My (old) thoughts on Birmingham City Council’s Newsroom Consultation

Geoff Coleman at Birmingham City Council has put up this wordpress blog to ask for ideas about how they can best make a “virtual newsroom”.  Back in January I had a meeting with Geoff, one of those exploratory meetings that people have. Deborah Harries, the fine head of news at BCC, had suggested we talk.

I wanted this to have an impact – it had started with a conversation with Deborah the previous May. Because I’m passionate about this, because I wanted to see things happen quickly before the meeting (on January 4th) I sent these ideas to Geoff.  I’ve not heard anything of substance since then.

The good news is that Geoff has begun asking for people’s ideas and yesterday set up this twitter feed

Below is the stuff I sent them in January.  What do you think about it?

Online News for Birmingham City Council
Some thoughts

© Nick Booth January 4th 2009.

Relations with the ‘media’ or No More Press Releases.

How many news releases do you put in the post these days? Zero? How many ‘publishers’ relying on your information use e-mail? All of them?  If we get a move on then Birmingham could be the first council to declare an end to the News Release.

You can still send information about diary events to the planning desks to help them decide how to deploy their resources – and on that you may still be able to manage to maintain the odd embargo.  But sending finished stories as press releases should stop. That is news that you tell the people of Birmingham.

These news desks need content. They can subscribe by rss to the content coming out of your new website (see below) and you can also send them automated e-mails with links to stories as they are published. The key is that you will be the first to publish your news. Not them.

Routinely make media for the media.

Just before Christmas I did a full quality audio interview with Les Lawrence as part of a job I was doing with VCSMatters. He was very curious about how simple it was and said that it could be good for the council. He’s a wise man!

Which late night bulletin producer at BBC WM won’t want to use a choice quality clip that they just download from you?  That in turn might encourage them to ask the councilor to come in for the breakfast programme.  Equally it simplifies the process of agreeing quotes internally:  record them, then use the same quotes in text based stories.  This principal should be applied as widely as possible to images and sound. Get your version out there, let others make use of it. Will some use it to have a go at you?  Of course: Lolitics.  But the original is always available for those who want to see what was fair and what was done.

It’s your story. Tell it.

This is the key. You need an easy to use and very flexible web site where you can tell the story you want to tell. A site dedicated to sharing news about Birmingham, written (or sometimes aggregated) by the City Council news team. See 10Downing Street

I would strongly recommend using software such as wordpress, hosted on space that is free from restrictions about files sizes etc.

This is Birmingham news, not a home for the cut and paste of the press releases.  You don’t write those anymore – you tell stories for the public, not the press.

Each individual post will tell stories in much the same way the media would do.  It will usually contain text, it may also have a photograph, video or audio included. These stories will compete with all other media on the internet.  Here is an example of the variety of media available to tell a story:

This uses some text, audio, photographs and video to bring the story to the user.    Other means are available: photo-montages, audio with stills, maps, cartoons, graphics. Indeed some of the most interesting new skills to be developed will be around choosing the best medium for the story and audience.

You will notice that the content is also deliberately distributed across the internet.  The photo is hosted on

The description on flickr links back to the original blog post.  The video is hosted on youtube, creating other ways in which people can reach the story.   This is about taking our news to where people are.

Let others use your news

Flickr, youtube and similar services come with a major added benefit. Other people can use the same photo or video on their website. The Evening Mail can embed your video directly in their site,  unchanged.  A blogger or newspaper in Omaha or Kandahar can use your images of Birmingham without ever bothering you when writing about the city. Your message is being spread and multiplied because you are willing to let it free.

Users of your new site can also approach the information from a number of perspectives.  It is possible to geotag a post as you write them, so they will appear on a map of the city.  For example:  this map from the Birmingham Conservation Trust.  Doing this means people can find stories near to a part of the city where they live or that interest them. If they search for a post code on google maps then a story of yours near that place could well appear in the search.

RSS feeds are everything and yes they are free!

Each story can also be tagged in numerous ways and critically, every single tag creates its own RSS feed

It could be tagged to match your own internal organization. For example the Bordesley Story above could be tagged Hodge Hill Constituency and Community and Living, Environment and Planning and Birmingham Community Safety Partnership.   More interestingly it can also be tagged in ways which might benefit others. If you tag it Bordesley Green then anyone who is blogging in and around Bordesley Green can take that feed and use it to monitor your material for what they care about. Likewise if you tag it activecitizen or volunteer then I can follow it or so can BVSC. Much more importantly though, we can also use those RSS feeds to include your material in our websites.

So we can take your news and give it straight to our audience. Nicky Getgood at can take the RSS feed from your Digbeth tag and your eastside tag and add them to the sidebar on her blog. As you update those feeds so her site will be updated.

Rss feeds can also be used to create feed content for sms services or for platforms like twitter. Indeed they can be fed into a whole host of online places.

The Birmingham Voice. Web first then print.

Every story that is written for the council newspaper should appear first on your new news site. As soon as you know something the public should too. Get it up there on the day/hour it happens. The material for print can then be selected from the site and adapted. You can offer links in print to more information on the web.

Why? Because as long as these stories are only on paper they can’t be easily linked too or copied by other websites or other news organizations. Why shouldn’t the Balsall Heathen keep tabs on the web stories you write about Balsall Heath and then copy and paste those into their magazine or learn to link to them from their website?  All you need to do is ask them to credit the source. By putting these on the web and tagging them your are making it easier for others to spread your message.

That’s for starters. Next Community.

Above I’ve outlined some key ways in which you change the way your share news about Birmingham. We are right at the beginning of a new wave of hyperlocal media making.

The next stage is a much more complex business of building wide ranging relationships in an online community which includes paid journalist, unpaid citizen journalists. Sometime they are just up the road, sometimes they are on another continent.  They are all networked, and all have clout in those communities.

So how generous and trusted you are in these networks could well determine the respect people have for the City Council both locally and globally.

© Nick Booth January 4th 2009.

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