Wednesday, 16 September 2015

What is an 'important' story in the age of the internet?

Recently, there was a fair bit of fuss made within the industry when one Trinity Mirror paper - the Birmingham Mail - 'admitted' it could no longer be a paper of record.

My instant reaction to this was: well, of course. The concept of a 'paper of record' has always seem to me to be a ludicrous journalistic conceit: there is something arrogant about the idea that you could boil down all the important things that had happened in the world, on any given day, to 20 or 30 pages.

No; that was never true, never could be true. I can't be the only former political hack who has had my oh-so-vital reports of scrutiny committee meetings and council debates knocked back to a 50-word brief, or left out of the paper altogether.

And how many incredible human-interest stories pass us by every single day, that we don't know about - let alone have chance to reject?

The classic paper of record - the Times - was once characterised by lengthy, turgid reports of parliamentary debates. Fine, I suppose. These days you can search Hansard in seconds if you are really interested in neutral presentations of that kind of thing. People don't, of course. But they could.

Were readers of the Times ever interested in that sort of content? We can't be sure. What we do know is that tabloid newspapers became the dominant force in British journalism based on the insight that choosing the stories that people actually wanted to read, boiling them down into the most gripping essentials, telling them in an entertaining way, showing a bit of character, breaking exclusives rather than simply regurgitating what had been said the previous day, were things readers might actually want.

The red-tops weren't 'papers of record', not like the Times of old. They never wanted to be. But they broke (and continue to break) big stories, and they found (and continue to find) plenty of space for 'serious' topics like politics, too (as Jeremy Corbyn, surely, will attest). They treated readers less like passive recipients of medicine - not enjoyable, but good for you - and more like consumers whose interests and values they shared. Autonomous individuals who were willing to listen, but could also make choices about what they wanted to read.

Now, in the age of the internet, people have all the choice they could ever imagine. Millions of pages of content, thousands of pages of news every day, on just those issues that they choose to seek. We aren't just fighting for readers to buy our papers. In an internet age, we have to fight to persuade them to read every little scrap of every single page.

So what are people who claim to want a 'paper of record', now, really saying? They are worried, I guess, that too many important stories will go by-the-by, in an age of limited resources and - yes - metrics that tell us who is reading what.

Here, then, is a more difficult question: what counts as an 'important' story, when we can measure exactly how interested people are in every single thing we write?

A casual glance at the 'most read' section of any given news website, on any given day, might make you think that the British people were obsessed with celebrities, soccer and videos of drunk people getting into fights. And - let's be honest - as consumers we do like those things. But scratch a bit deeper and the figures will show you that very large numbers of people can and will read about political issues, about health issues, about education issues. Those types of stories can be, an often are, in the 'most read' lists, too.

And why wouldn't they be? After all, 30.7 million British people voted in the general election this year - more people than have watched any television programme, ever. (Den divorcing Angie in EastEnders got 30.1 million, since you ask.) Everyone who has ever had a sick relative cares deeply about how good (or bad) their local hospital is. People move house to get their kids into a good school.

The trick with these 'important' issues is to tell stories in ways that people respond to; and maybe think harder about the stories we don't do (or shouldn't), as well as the way we tell the ones we do.

Because that's the point: no matter how important we think a story is, what can that possibly mean, if no one is reading it? Important to whom? Or if that isn't the right question - if we're claiming it is somehow intrinsically important - well, can anything be intrinsically important if no one notices?

If we believe, as journalists, that a story matters, then we have to find a way of telling it that makes people engage and share. Otherwise, ultimately, it doesn't matter at all. It can't. You can't start a debate, frame a debate, if no one hears your voice.

Metrics are a good thing. They make us ask difficult questions. They make us work harder. They make us treat our readers like human beings with their own concerns and interests. We might not always like the lessons we learn from the data; we might sometimes wish the world were different.

But we can also embrace the challenge and use the power of data to help us connect with our readers, tell them 'important' things in engaging new ways, and maybe change the world one small step at a time.

After all, isn't that what great journalism has always been about?

Sunday, 6 September 2015

Mapping asylum, continued

Here's a geographically accurate map of Europe:

Now, here's what happens when we adjust the area of each country according to the number of asylum seekers each nation registered as arriving between April and June this year:

Hopefully you'll notice straight away that it isn't the UK which has swollen significantly in size. It's central Europe  - in particular Germany and Italy - and Sweden, too.

That's because while the UK received 32,300 applications from adults and their dependents, Italy received 63,700 - nearly twice as many. Sweden received 81,300. And Germany? Germany received 173,100.

Even that, though, doesn't really give a sense of the 'burden' - if such a word is appropriate - that each country is carrying when it comes to refugees. Germany, after all, has a significantly larger population than other European nations. So I suppose you could argue that Germany can comfortably accommodate a higher number of refugees.

So here's a final cartogram. In this one, the size of each country is determined solely by the proportion of the current population who are asylum seekers:

Suddenly the UK doesn't look so big. And it isn't: as a proportion of the total population, Sweden has 16 times more asylum seekers than we do. Hungary has around eight times as many. We may be a European giant in economic terms; when it comes to taking in refugees, despite all the sensationalist headlines, we are far from a major player.

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Asylum seekers in England, in cartograms

Ah, cartograms. Those funny squashed maps where the size of an area - a region, say, or a country - represents not the actual geography, but a variable.

That could be total population. Or number of millionaires. Or average house prices. Or death rates from cancer.

It could be anything, really.

Cartograms have their drawbacks. They can be misleading, I think, by making small absolute numbers seem terrifyingly large. They can also be messy and confusing.

Done right, though, they can be a very useful way of drawing at-a-glance, intuitive comparisons between different areas.

With the plight of Syrian refugees at the top of the news agenda - and a domestic debate about whether we can 'take' any more asylum seekers - I've been having a closer look at the latest asylum statistics, which run to June this year.

The data shows how many asylum seekers are currently receiving so-called 'section 95' support from the British government. This can be in the form of money, and also in the form of accommodation.

In order to receive section 95 support, an asylum seeker must be 'destitute'. This is defined as not having 'adequate accommodation or enough money to meet living expenses for themselves and any dependents now or within the next 14 days'.

The offer of accommodation is the most controversial. Under an official dispersal programme - aimed at 'spreading the load' to places outside London - anyone wanting accommodation will more than likely find themselves hundreds of miles from the capital, and in a place that is certainly not of their choosing.

Critics have suggested some areas are pulling far more weight than others - with potentially negative consequences for all concerned.

But to what extent is it true that the dispersal has been skewed?

First, here's a geographically-accurate map of the English regions:

Now, here's what happens if we change the map into a cartogram where the size of each region corresponds to the total population of that region:

London suddenly becomes much bigger. The south west, which is relatively sparsely populated, looks a bit skinny. The south east looks a tiny bit fat.

Before we start adding in data on asylum seekers, there is a very important caveat to bear in mind.

The total number of asylum seekers receiving section 95 support stands at just over 80,000 across the whole of the UK.

The total population of the UK is 64 million.

That means only one person in 800 is a supported asylum seeker.

The numbers are relatively tiny, and politicians (and others) would do well to remember that when talking about these issues.

With that in mind, here what happens if we make the size of each region correspond to the total number of supported asylum seekers in that region:

Two things stand out. Firstly, despite the dispersal programme, London is still supporting significantly more asylum seekers than any other region.

They may not be getting accommodation; but they are staying in the capital, somewhere and somehow.

But a second feature is equally striking. The south west, east of England and (to a lesser extent) the south east have virtually disappeared from the cartogram. That's because the south west is supporting just 1,668 of the 80,000 asylum seekers in the UK; the east of England just 1,944.

Those are very small proportions indeed.

Finally, let us look at the dispersal programme.

Here is a cartogram where the size of each region represents the number of asylum seekers in section 95-supported accommodation:

This is hugely top-heavy. Why? Because the government's 'dispersal' programme doesn't mean dispersal around the country. It means dispersal, by and large, to the west Midlands and the north.

I wouldn't invite you to draw any major conclusion from these cartograms, other than this: if someone from the south west, south east, or east of England starts telling you how 'we can't take any more asylum seekers', they probably aren't basing their opinion on data, but on something else.

You can decide for yourself what that something might be.

(These cartograms were created with the fantastic tool Scapetoad. I'd also like to thank Boston-based software developer Zia Sobhani for answering questions I had about using shapefiles. You can see some of her blogs about cartograms here and here.)