Iain Hepburn is a journalist, podcaster and the former digital editor of the Daily Record and editor of STV Local. He is currently a multimedia producer, director of brand journalism with social media agency Contently Managed and a misanthropic commentator on the media.
Last week saw the latest instalment of News:Rewired, Journalism.co.uk’s semi-regular day of seminars, speakers and socialising aimed at developing and sharing innovation and ideas in digital media.
Bringing together high profile figures from across the industry, attendees had the chance to hear from the likes of NYT social media editor Liz Heron and Sky News’ Neal Mann. Hugely interesting and comprehensive, there seemed to be only one thing missing.
You guessed correctly, filthy assistants. A distinct lack of Scottish hacks and digirati among the delegates and speakers.
It tends to be the case that these events. The metropolitan biases in terms of content and location makes it pretty damn tough to get down to these regularly. Rarely do you see Scots sites or outlets featured as speakers or presenters at events such as News Rewired, let alone as delegates.
That’s not their fault. The cost - both in time and money - of getting from Scotland to London for the day can often be prohibitive for smaller operators, and tough to argue for the larger media organisations desperately counting every penny in a bid to stave off the vultures.
But the sad fact is that we need to be getting to them more - or better yet, having our own. As an industry and as a country, the more we find ourselves on the outside of journalism innovation, the more we’ll get left behind as a country.
That’s not to say Rewired’s a perfect event. Indeed, as one friend who was there last week remarked to me, it’s “interesting in a ‘this is lovely, now try getting an actual newsroom to do this’ kind of way”. A lot of it trends towards the idealistic Guardianista brigade with big budgets to implement their social news strategy, ideals which for a lot of smaller regional news organisations can be a stretch at best and a pipe dream at worst.
But at least it’s a showcase - a venue where the great and the good and the imaginative can get together and share ideas. And that’s something we’re desperately lacking this side of Hadrian’s Wall.
Where are the Scottish News:Rewired style events? Where are the masterclasses and collaborative exchanges? Where are the seminars for social journalism? If we had these kind of events in Scotland, we wouldn’t have to be casting covetous, envious eyes south of the border.
It’s not that we don’t have innovation in this country. There are phenomenally talented journalists, bloggers and social media users in Scotland who ARE coming up with creative and innovative ways of using digital media to tell stories. But as a country we are failing them in terms of support and infrastructure.
And there are a number of projects which are trying, at least, to do something different. Two are currently being co-driven by Cristiana Theodoli - a co-founder of the Scottish Press Club, and now one of the powerhouses behind the fascinating Open Justice Project.
The latter is a socially-driven project she and James Doleman are initiating later this month to provide a snapshot of exactly what state British law is in 2012.
Both have substantial experience in legal journalism - Doleman is the Press Award-nominated architect of the Tommy Sheridan trial blog, while Theodoli is a court reporter - and the venture has already attracted the support of an English-based newspaper.
“Our goal is to publish accounts from all levels of justice - from the lowest courts to the highest, inviting lawyers, journalists, members of the public and offenders to write, blog and tweet about what really goes on in our courts,” the project boldly claims.
Over the course of a week, the project plans to expose the attitudes and inner workings of the legal world, in line with Lord Hewart’s statement of 88 years ago: “Not only must justice be done; it must also be seen to be done."
Now, as a venture it is clearly fraught with danger - not least being someone committing a fantastically high profile contempt of court - but it is also a remarkable and bold project that covers the full spectrum of society and uses social platforms to tell a story to its fullness.
If the project achieves even half of its aims, then it will have done something remarkable - creating a genuine snapshot of perception and policy.
But what’s also sad is that it’s taken The Guardian to back the venture. Why did no Scottish title partner with them? A project conceived and driven in Glasgow should, you’d imagine, have been an obvious fit with our news media. Where was STV, or the Herald, or any of the other Scottish news organisations which like to proclaim themselves digital businesses or online innovators?
Court, like local government, used to be the cornerstone of news on a regional level. Now both are neglected areas by mainstream journalists - yet in doing so have become areas increasingly well police and reported by non-traditional platforms, from the Digger’s crime coverage to hyperlocals livetweeting Edinburgh Council’s trams meetings.
And we need these to continue - and to grow. It’s great that individual journalists embrace social platforms, and it’s to the credit of people like Doleman and Theodoli that projects such as Open Justice or the Scottish Press Club exist.
But they’re not enough. They can only fill some of the gap.
If getting down to events like Rewired is too difficult for Scottish hacks and editors, then there’s a clear and definable need to do it themselves. Sitting passively by, reading twitter streams and blogposts on what’s happening in London isn’t enough. How about everyone comes together, for once, for an event that benefits the whole of the Scottish press corp, from the smallest hyperlocal to the largest broadcaster?
Something driven by the needs and wants of those who are actually telling the stories and creating the content this side of the border. Something which is accessible by journalists in Dingwall as it is in Dumbarton or Dundee. Unless we’re so apathetic as a media industry now that we don’t care about improving our skills for the future.
As the independence referendum countdown continues the focus on Scotland will increase, yet our media is contracting - not expanding. And that will come with an increasing cost in innovation and imagination in reporting.
The Scottish Press Club’s a good place to start. Doleman and Theodoli will be talking about the project at the next meeting - in Glasgow’s Griffin bar on February 16 - where they’ll be joined by BBC journalists Ken McDonald and Eleanor Bradford talking about their storied careers.
But beyond that? I asked Theodoli why she was involved with projects such as the Press Club or Open Justice.
"I think a lot more can be done than just discuss the issues, and I believe coming together and collaborate on different projects can only help," she told me.
"Rather than sitting and discussing the issues in Scottish journalism, I just get on with it and try do something about it. It might not help much, or solve all the problems, but hopefully it will help bring Scotland to the forefront of digital and social media journalism."
An admirable attitude. And she's right. The fate of Scotland’s digital media is as much in its own hands as its consumers. Time we got off our arses and grasped it.
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