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Hull Daily Mail reaps its whirlwind

March 8, 2010 Leave a comment

According to a friend who lived in Hull it was known universally as the Dull Daily Mail – the newspaper that served the readers of Hull and East Yorkshire was never known for its journalistic prowess and from all accounts spent most of its time rehashing the day’s breakfast headlines from BBC Radio Humberside.

In the last 24 hours though the Hull Daily Mail has put itself right on the map as the local paper that completely lost the plot, embedded its foot firmly in its mouth and reaped a whirlwind of 21st century feedback that will serve as an object lesson in social media that will be repeated by journalism teachers around the world for years to come.

A few days ago the HDM led its tatty tabloid edition with an exposé of a local website producer, Paul Smith, who also happened to be the mind behind a hyper-local news site HU17.net, which covers the town of Beverley and surrounding areas.

Much to the HDM’s disgust, Mr Smith had, in the past, built the infrastructure for various porn websites, so they mounted an ‘elaborate’ sting operation involving a reporter posing as an escort (complete with fake Facebook site), and lined up various clueless local councillors to heap on the moral approbium, then produced an article which stayed just the right side of the defamation laws but still managed to suggest the Mr Smith was responsible for the content of hundreds of porn sites, and using inneundo even suggested paedophilia!

Hull Daily Mail - Classified Ads example

Hull Daily Mail

Of course they failed to point out a few salient facts, like the fact that Mr Smith’s site was a direct competitor to their monopolistic presence, was a better and more popular website than theirs (those in the know say the HDM’s coverage of Beverley was always woeful and doesn’t seem to have improved much), and that the HDM is financed by large number of ads, many of which offer escort and massage services (see the screenshot to the right).

They also only just managed to point out that Mr Smith’s business is entirely legal, and while I leave it up to you to judge the morality, it is a fact that one of the few business sectors making a resounding profit out of the interwebs these days is the pornography industry, so they, along with the online bookies, tend to pay website builders pretty well compared to most other clients.

Mr Smith’s response to the ‘sting’ operation was to pose for a picture and invite the hapless reporter in for a cup of tea so they could see for themselves the purely business relationship he had with the website owners in question, and he himself posted a rebuttal on his own website outlining the facts for his readers.

What the HDM didn’t point out was that there is a world of difference between building the infrastructure for a website and providing the content, they also failed to make any inquiries about domain name ownership, which would have shown that website contractors usually own the domain names on behalf of their clients because the clients don’t usully have the experience or training to secure and manage these themselves.

So that fact that Mr Smith “owned” these websites was, in their view, proof positive of their case, and of course, they’re not going to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and the HDM has, in its zeal, posted some follow-ups to their story which, of course, they claim are all in the public interest. So, no self-interest there then.

Aside from the fact that this is a deeply distasteful article and a great example of truly appalling journalism, what’s been interesting is the huge backlash that the HDM has reaped from the online community, where hundreds of posts have appeared in the last 24-48 hours supporting Mr Smith.

Even on the HDM’s own site comments have been suspended after hundreds of people took them to task for running the article, only a handful were on their side; John Meehan, the HDM’s editor, then tried to defend his mistake with weasel words and sophistry … and then made things worse by suggesting that those whose criticised the HDM were “misinformed”, and claimed the comments facility was still open (it’s not).

Whatever your views on the story itself, this is a perfect example of the fights to come, as the old media press barons struggle to hold onto their readership and their incomes in the face of growing competition from smaller, leaner and more agile publishers who know their community way better than the press barons’ lackeys could ever do.

The bottom line is that in this age of media literacy and instant interactivity, misguided old farts like John Meehan (and his head-in-the-sand overseers at DMGT) insult the intelligence of their audience at their own peril.

Further coverage at Journalism.co.uk, Virtual Review and Journopig, who pull out some of the unnecessary and unsupported paedophile-innuendo running through the story.

Interestingly The Register also provide coverage, although if I were them, I’d check their headline with a good libel lawyer.

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