First day in Amish country

•June 28, 2009 • 2 Comments
An Amish buggy drives through Sugarcreek

An Amish buggy drives through Sugarcreek

If I thought writing my last blog was surreal, the last five minutes have just topped it. I’m sat on the veranda of my guest house, using their wireless to communicate with people thousands of miles away. From somewhere in the distance I hear the clip-clop of horses hooves, and when I look up an Amish family, dressed in their Sunday best, goes rolling by in their horse-drawn buggy on the way home from worship or visiting family. I have truly arrived in the heart of Amish country.

After a 12 hour journey yesterday, publisher Keith Rathbun and his wife Maxine picked me up from the airport and drove the short distance to Sugarcreek. To give you a bit of background, the village is in Tuscarawas County, Ohio, and has a population of around 2,300 mainly “ordinary” people (known simply as English) in the village itself, and then Amish communties live in the farms and homesteads of the surrounding area. The next county over, Holmes county, is home to the largest Amish population in the world, despite the common misconception they are mainly based in Pennsylvania. Very little is open on a Sunday, so I spent most of today driving through the five nearby counties, watching Amish children waving out the back of buggies as they drove home from Sunday service, young girls in traditional white bonnets and Amish dresses, topped off with Nike trainers, and elderly gentlemen with long white beards lending an arm to their wives as they strolled in the afternoon heat.

This week's edition for Amish and Mennonite communities

I have absorbed so much information in my first 24 hours, but I’ll try to stay focussed on what I considerto be my most interesting finds so far about the newspaper, and how I’ll actually be spending my time here. The paper itself is traditional broadsheet size, and Keith, the publisher, was keen to hear about the shift to compact size he’s heard about in European newspapers. This week’s splash was about job losses at the local brick factory in the face of recession, and other stories included charity appeals and school achievements – not so different from the news values dictating the front pages of regional papers everywhere. But inside is the national edition – a compilatoin of 450 letters from more than 800 Amish scribes, writing about the day-to-day happenings in the Amish and Mennonite communities across the US, and those doing mission work around the world – the index lists entries from the Ukraine, Dominican Republic and Israel. The Budget have a policy of minimal editing on these letters – if a scribe sends it in, they promise to print it, and I plan to spend quite a lot of time looking at the themes in these bulletins and how they make the Budget a community newspaper in the most traditional sense.

Publisher Keith is a fascinating guy – a journalist of more than 30 years – who has run The Budget for almost a decade (he now owns it). He built his career as a music and arts journalist (none of the Budget’s 16 full time staff are actually Amish, although some are Mennonite), so not exactly the sort of person you’d expect to be editing an Amish newspaper, and has had to learn a lot on the job. But he has tried to make several changes to the 180-year-old paper to keep it alive (he appears to be the driving force behind moving it online) while remaining respectful and true to the paper and its readers. I hope to do a profile on him this week, as well as the local and national editors, to see what kind of background and philosophy the people in charge of running an Amish newspaper have.

Is the Budget suffering in the same way as local and regional press the world over? I asked him over lunch. Yes, he said – they struggle to maintain their 19,000 circulation with an aging population and a youth who can be difficult to engage (Keith has ideas about how to improve this too – a subject I hope to write about in its own right). He wants to try and move away from being just a weekly by treating the website as a daily publication, with the weekly providing something different. Sound familiar? The only slight problem is the majority of his readership don’t have electricity or the internet, and many are opposed to the very idea. This will be a major theme for me to develop on.

So tomorrow I start work; attending Budget meetings and holding interviews with the editorial, advertising and sales teams; shadowing them as they report on events in the circulation area I explored with Keith and Maxine this morning. I will also be going out to the printing presses and talking to some of the paper’s 800 scribes, one of whom has been providing content to the paper for more than 50 years. I will also go out to the communities, to see what the paper means to them, how they feel about online development, and whether they too find it difficult to get their youngest members engaged.

The pictures I’ve posted today on Flickr are of Sugarcreek the village, but over the next few days I hope to have some more photos of the Amish themselves, and of the Budget’s newsroom. As ever, any comments are much appreciated, and the blogging and project proper will start in earnest tomorrow.

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My Amish adventure…and a plea for help

•June 25, 2009 • 2 Comments

This is going to be a slightly surreal blog post, but I wanted to ask for some input on a project I’m about to embark on…

On Saturday morning I am flying from Gatwick to the United States to spend two weeks working in Ohio on an Amish newspaper. (Say “Amish” and you might automatically think (I know I did before now) of the 1985 film Witness, starring Harrison Ford, or maybe the Jodi Picoult novel Plain Truth, but for a more accurate description of the defining features of an Amish community, check this out.) Somewhat random, I know, but I won funding from the Welsh Livery Guild for a travel journalism scholarship, and this was my winning proposal. The plan is to go to the Ohio town of Sugarcreek to spend a fortnight with The Budget – a weekly Amish newspaper founded in 1890, catering for Amish and Mennonite communities across the USA by bringing them news in national and local editions on topics ranging from agriculture and church events to schooling and sport – all from communities who still live large parts of their lives as if they were still in the 17/1800s.

My primary aim for the trip is to produce a 1,000 word article for the Guild, talking about my experiences of the Amish media while I am out there. But I also plan to blog, every day if I can, on the things I’m doing and seeing, and would be really grateful if anyone with ideas or feedback on how I can make the most of my trip (and my blog) would put their ideas forward.

There will, of course, be lots of observations to make about Amish life in general, and I am not planning to let those go unsaid. But as my main focus is their media, here are my ideas so far for areas to look at:

  • I am planning to look at how The Budget is produced – at least some content is generated by scribes in individual Amish towns and villages, who send their handwritten updates to the Sugarcreek office. What sort of technologies are they using, and what editorial policies direct their content? How do their journalists work as a team?
  • I also want to look at their news values – what makes a front page splash on The Budget?
  • Do they cover only Amish news, and do they cover any of the “outside-world” topics that might affect them? Did they, for example, carry any coverage of the November US election?

But one thing I am perhaps even more interested in is the fact The Budget launched its website in 2005. When I have explained this project to friends and family over the last few months, they have stared at me in disbelief. One tutor summed up many’s bewilderment when she said: “But the Amish don’t even have zips on their clothes! How can they have a website?!” This is one part of my research I think will provide much food for thought – what made them decide to go online? Who is actually reading the website, and how are they marketting it? Are they using any social media tools, and if so, why? I have organised the trip with publisher Keith Rathburn, who told me the Amish community are, perhaps not surprinsingly, opposed to much of the paper going online, and I am also keen to talk to these readers about their feelings, as well as their engagement with their own and other media.

At the moment, with my bedroom strewn with clothes (what do you pack for a trip like this?!) and various bits of technology, it feels like a big project to tackle, but I wanted to post something to give anyone reading an overall idea of the questions I am going to try and answer over the next fortnight. I hope to use as many online tools as possible to document what I’m doing, and hopefully make it a collaborative experience. I will be uploading slideshows from my Flickr site, updating regularly on my Twitter feed, and hope to get at least some audio/video up and running while I am there.  Other suggestions have included Audioboo and Bambuser. But what I would really appreciate is if anyone with any ideas – whether suggestions of tools which will make my online coverage better, or questions I could pose to the Amish journalists and readers I will meet – could please post a comment and let me know.

My next post will be a bit more focussed, when I’ve had a 12 hour journey (and hopefully some input from others!) to give me a clearer direction of where I’m going, but hopefully this will be one media subject you wont have read about too often.

Change of scene…

•May 27, 2009 • Leave a Comment

Just a quick post to say hello from my new wordpress venue. I moved from my Blogger address because I am always getting jealous looking at other people’s lovely wordpress blogs. There seems to be so much more you can do with these pages than with Blogger, and they generally look a lot slicker. So here I am. Any suggestions for changes and improvements to the page are very welcome.

European elections for dummies

•May 25, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I have never voted at a polling station before. I was born a month too late to vote in the UK general election in 2005, and in the local elections of 2008 I voted by post. So when I suddenly realised I was eligible to vote in the European elections in under two weeks time, I panicked. What I know about Europe I learned for a public administration exam, and that was dry at the best of times. So I set myself the challenge of seeing what was happening online and through social networking that might help me. And it turns out, rather a lot. So for anyone else struggling with the idea, here is a quick rundown of the main online resources that might be able to help you find your feet – and a good indication of how well European politics is coping with the blogosphere.

How do you know who to vote for?

Step in Euprofiler. It’s a bit lengthy, but stick with it. This site asks you a range of questions about your opinions on social welfare, immigration, security, integration and the like and then maps your responses with the party “most like you”, both in the UK and in Europe at large. Admittedly it’s not an exact science, but it’s a good starting point to know where you might start reading around.

Flickr, MySpace and Facebook

Visit the European parliament’s Flickr page to have see how various elements of the campaign are getting underway across the continent, and there are also MySpace and Facebook pages. Both are using similar viral tactics to Obama, with buttons or badges which can be embedded into profiles, although they lack the iconic edge that saw pictures of Obama appear on hundreds of thousands of people’s own personal web space. The Facebook site is definately worth checking out. There are discussion strands on first-time voting, among other issues, and all sorts of links to other web projects happening in collaberation with the poll.

One of these includes a quaint resource on the European Parliament’s own web site. The interactive time machine aims to explain (in very simply terms) what the EU has been doing for the last 30 years. It’s obviously going to have a certain level of bias, but kudos to their web team for trying something different. There’s also a very extensive delicious page for more in-depth reading on everything from gender equality in European democracy to sites analysing individuals MEP’s voting records.

Further reading

A couple of the most interesting sites I came across were CanEUhearme? and thinkaboutit.eu. The first site is a competition run in conjunction with MTV designed to get primarily young voters to send in their videoa/pictures to make a statement about what it’s like to be part of Europe. Although the competition is its main purpose, there is also other useful information, links and polls relating particularly to young, politically-minded Europeans, and they’re on Twitter.

Once you’ve got an grip of the basics (I’m still not sure whether I have), thinkaboutit.eu is the next step for dicussing some of the more complex issues involved in the EU. The site is part of an international blogging competition organised by the European Journalism Centre and there are bloggers from each of the 27 states (three from the UK) who have been writing on European issues that matter to them. One of the UK bloggers Katrina Bishop gives a frank account of navigating her way through European politics, combining serious analysis with lighter content like “broadcast bingo”- measuring the number of times politicians use cliches in party political broadcasts. It’s a good way to break up what can otherwise be a painful subject to push through.

YouTube and Twitter

Finally, the EU parliament do of course have a YouTube channel. The videos range from adverts reminding people to vote, explanatory vignettes on how the EU works, and clips from mini studios that have been placed around the UK for members of the public to “put their questions” to Europe.

But as mentioned earlier, the EU machine and individual MPs seem to be lagging behind on one vital ingredient- Twitter. According to one bit of research, only 27 out of a possible 736 MPs are using Twitter and two-thirds have never even heard of the site. However, this site acts as a forum for all tweeting MEPs, and suggests they are doing better than that.

TweetElect09: Watch in real time what people say on Twitter about the European Elections!

There is also a way of keeping up with the bigger debate about the elections in the Twitterverse- TweetElect09 keeps up with EU-related tweets in real-time, analysing and categorising them by country, candidiate and other variables. Hash tag #eu09 is also up and running.

So there you have it – a fool-proof guide to the European elections using social networking tools. I’m hoping later in the week to write another post about what specific candidates are up to on the web, and I know there will be loads of really great blogs on a whole range of European topics, but for someone who started off today knowing very little about what was happening, I now feel a bit more connected. Hopefully no-one is left feeling the same same way as the girl in this slightly odd promotion video.

Living with HIV and haemophilia

•February 20, 2009 • Leave a Comment

This is a piece I wrote for my training newsaper, the Cardiff Evening News.

Like any new grandparent, Haydn Lewis was thrilled to welcome his first grandchild into his Cardiff home. But as the carpenter from Penylan played with his week-old grandson, it did not escape him this was a moment he thought he would never live to see. “I am 52 and I have Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, HIV and I have been diagnosed with liver cancer as a result of the Hepatitis C,” said Mr Lewis. “I would drive myself mad if I thought about it all the time.”

For the last 23 years, Mr Lewis has been one of 1,246 members of the haemophiliac community infected with the HIV virus, and one of more than 5,000 haemophiliacs who contracted Hepatitis C, as a result of contaminated blood imported from the USA in the early 1980s. Haemophilia is a hereditary condition that means an individual’s blood does not clot properly. But American blood used to treat the condition between 1979 and 1985 was taken from paid donors with a high risk of HIV and Hepatitis C infection, such as drugs users and prisoners, and the imported blood found its way into NHS treatments for haemophiliacs.

Panic surrounding Aids and HIV in the early eighties was at its height, and both governments and the public knew little about the virus. But the Government has since refused to hold a public inquiry into the mistakes that led to the tragedy, and for many years documents relating to the scandal were reported missing. These documents were found in 2006, and on Monday Lord Archer of Sandwell will present findings from an independent inquiry that many hope will provide a clearer picture of what happened more than two decades ago.

The impact on the lives of those affected has been devastating. Of more than 1,200 people infected with HIV, less than 350 are left. Three-quarters of those who contracted Hepatitis C have died. And these numbers do not consider “infected intimates”- the spouses of haemophiliacs who were infected before their partners were diagnosed.

In Cardiff, the issue has particular resonance. One of the earliest cases of haemophiliac HIV infection was identified in the city as early as 1983, and the Heath Hospital’s haemophilia unit was the home of Professor Arthur Bloom, a leading figure in haemophilia treatment, who the unit is now named after.

Mr Lewis (pictured, age 50), whose mother was a carrier of the haemophilia gene and older brother Gareth is also a HIV haemophiliac, suspects he was unknowingly treated with contaminated blood from 1979 but was not diagnosed with HIV until 1985. By this time he had already married his wife, Gaynor, 52, and they had two sons. Gaynor, who has been married to Haydn for 33 years, unwittingly contracted HIV from her husband.

“It has had an absolutely profound, fundamental affect on my life,” Mr Lewis said. “I had to give up my job and have not worked for 15 years. I am constantly juggling my health and my wife’s.
“Just think what my two boys have had to grow up with, with both of their parents’ lives in the balance.”

Neither of Mr Lewis’s sons, now aged 32 and 30, were infected, but their father suffered another blow in September last year when he was diagnosed with liver cancer – a direct result of his Hepatitis C infection. He is on the transplant waiting list, but without a new liver his life expectancy will be reduced to a matter of months.

In to 2009, the campaign for a voice for this often forgotten group is also being led from the Welsh capital. Frustrated by the lack of Government cooperation, Mr Lewis approached MP for Cardiff Central, Jenny Willott, three years ago.
“When Haydn first came to me it all sounded like a conspiracy theory,” said the Liberal Democrat MP. “But the more I dug, the more suspicions it raised. It seems to me that with 5,000 people infected by NHS treatment, I think it should be automatic that there is an inquiry into what happened.”

She said despite numerous parliamentary questions and freedom of information requests to the Department of Health, responses were rarely received and no one from the department was officially represented at the Archer inquiry. The Department of Health could not be reached for comment for this article.

There is support available. TaintedBlood is a campaign group set up by victims, with Mr Lewis as a founding member. And in 1988 the government founded the Macfarlane Trust to provide financial support and guidance for those affected, giving out around £3.4 million in aid to patients each year. Chief executive, Martin Harvey, said: “We might help someone with a small business start up or a new washing machine – anything to make the difference.” But victims have never received any compensation, aside from ex gratia settlements the Government paid out in 1991 under the condition victims did not try to sue for future infections.

When Lord Archer (the inquiry is pictured here) publishes his report next week, many would like it to provide answers for those patients still alive and for the many affected partners, widows and children. Although all blood products have been tested since 1985, revelations earlier this week a haemophiliac who died recently carryied the CJD virus (the human form of mad cow disease), has put 4,000 haemophiliacs on yet another “at risk” register and suggest there are still lessons to be learned.

But Mr Lewis, Ms Willott, and Mr Harvey are not confident that will happen. “I think the Department of Health will probably say that’s all very interesting but there’s nothing which can be done,” said Mr Harvey. For Ms Willott and Mr Lewis, they simply want the Department of Health to acknowledge the report’s findings, before deciding on the next course of action.

Mr Lewis said: “I am angrier now about the way the Government has dealt with this than I am about being infected. It is absolutely shameful. I am a human being and I deserve respect. All I have had is contempt.” But despite everything, he remains upbeat. “Seeing my new grandson has given me the biggest boost and zest for life, more than any chemical combination,” he said. “You just get on with it, with a smile of your face and a constructive attitude to each day.”

The tweeting elite

•February 5, 2009 • Leave a Comment

The explosion in commentary and coverage of the Twitter phenomenon is great for the fledgling website. As technology and media commentators alike continue to debate how the website can ever make money, the increase in users is testament to its popularity as a social media tool, regardless of whether it is turning a profit or not.

But one thing I have noticed, which has coincided with Twitter’s rising star, is a wiff of twitter elitism. In the spirit of Charlie Brooker’s (@CharltonBrooker) recent new media dictionary, we’ll call this tweetism.

Tweeitsm can be defined as a certain level of snobbery about who is joining Twitter, and most importantly, the quality of their Tweets. This could be a reaction to celebrities jumping on the band wagon (see here for a great summary of influential Welsh Twitter users). In line with this, my first inckling this was happening was when, sat at my desk 10 days ago with Twhirl pinging away in the background, Jonathan Ross (@wossy) informed his 60, 047 followers disgraced comedian and fellow BBC exile Russell Brand (@rustyrockets) would be joining Twitter. Keen to see how this would pan out (some might call it schadenfreude), I signed up to the @rustyrockets fan club. Within 10 minutes, Brand had almost 10,000 followers. He now has 21, 218.

And what were his first words into this most trendy of new media spaces? “I have come to join you please be gentle with me, I have been feeling vulnerable…yet implausibly, sexy.” Typical Brand, not many surprises there. But some of the tweets in reply, on my feed at least, expressed a cyncism about what people like Brand could bring to the forum, and, I felt, an inherent assumption about what Twitter should be about. That assumption was twitter was for those ‘in the know’ on subjects relating to new media, and not much else.

Firstly, I agree with the notion of good Twitter etiquette. And I will freely admit the majority of the 113 people I follow are in some way linked to journalism. This is not something I should, or will, apologise for; social media forums are primarily platforms for creating groups of shared interests. But it got me thinking about what we, as journalists, are using Twitter for. Is it just a case of journalists tweeting at other journalists about all things, well, journalism? If so, this is a very closed space.

If the purpose of forums like Twitter is to network, then this should be extended beyond our own colleagues, and could provide great opportunities for communication with your audience and public. In fact, this is what Jonathon Ross is doing by “following back” and engaging with a huge proportion of the people who follow him. If Twitter continues to grow at its current rate, and you get the readers of, say, a regional paper to contact their district reporter in this manner it could build up a much more personal service. Applications such as TwitterLocal can help to facilitate this.

Typing “business card twitter” into the site’s search function brings up a whole host of conversations about whether it’s appropriate to give your Twitter address out to clients etc. Some are forging ahead and doing so (picture taken from here). I say yes- it’s another way to connect to your community- plus it can help combat the increasingly tight time constraints journalists are under.

Of course journalists will be early adopters for this kind of technology, and I would be interested to know whether others are in fact connecting with “client” commuities for business purposes. But I look forward to a time where my network at least, isn’t quite so inward looking. Tweetism is on its way out.

Lest we forget

•January 21, 2009 • Leave a Comment

I saw this a couple of days ago. Due to being in the midst of the month from hell work-wise I haven’t had a chance to get it up here, but thought it was important to post something before it slips my, and the rest of the world’s, mind.

While it may seem every journalist and media outfit has been transfixed on the events in American and Washington, on Monday From the Frontline reported (on Twitter, obviously) the shocking statistic that in the first 20 days of 2009 more than 10 journalists have been killed around the globe. Although by no means a satisfactory figure, by way of comparison there were 41 confirmed industry deaths in the whole of 2008. The latest was a young Russian reporter, Anastasia Baburova, who worked for the same anti-Kremlin newspaper as Anna Politkovskaya (pictured).

I’m sure many blog posts could, and have, been filled with musings on the perils of working in Russia, and their government’s apparent failure to react, but the other deaths in the list were just as shocking. The eerie case of Lasantha Wickrematunge, editor of Sri Lankan paper the Sunday Leader, who wrote an editorial in preparation for his own muder. Nepalese journalist Uma Singh, “hacked to death” by 15 men, as well as three journalists killed in the Gazan/Israeli fighting, and deaths in Pakistan and Somalia.

These journalists were all working in very dangerous parts of the world, many in countries known for this most extreme form of press restriction. But it reminded me of Rodney Pinder of the International News Safety Institute (INSI) when he said all journalists should take responsibility for their own safety seriously, no matter what part of the world they are in. In my blog post Crying lone wolf, I talked about how becoming multi-media journalists could be isolating us from our colleagues. I wonder whether there’s a point at which this isolation could become dangeous. Being able to multi-task suddenly seems irrelevant when you’re stuck in a situation you can’t get out of. The case of the student journalist in Calais last year is a haunting case in point.

The INSI safety code should be essential reading for any trainee journalist, especially if, as Rory Cellan-Jones said, we are moving towards a more lonesome way of working. By keeping an eye on those reporters who have ended up dying for their story, perhaps something can be learned from their sacrifice. The counter on INSI’s home page for “journalists and media staff killed in 2009” is a sad indication there will be more to come.