About Richard Bowyer

Lover of great journalism. I have been in the eye of the storm during a period of radical change for journalists and journalism during the last 30 years. These are my own views.

Trinity Mirror job losses, new-look newsrooms, Newsquest shuts press, editors go and 30p on the cost of buying a newspaper…phew…

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For a moment I had to close my eyes and squint. There was carnage everywhere.

It has been difficult to consume the media websites Press Gazette and holdthefrontpage in the last few weeks as job losses, editors leaving and presses closing have created a tale of sorrow across the regional newspaper business.

I considered at one point to take a picture of the holdthefrontpage web site and show my students the carnage, but I thought it would be overwhelming.

And the other point is, before I move on, there are many jobs for journalists, but they do not exist in the numbers they used to in the old regional newspaper industry.

I know many of my former colleagues will shiver at that thought, but this is the reality.

We are seeing the decline in one area and the growth elsewhere, everyone is a publisher, so every organisation, business, charity, school, needs a journalist to write for and about them.

So here we go, to all my students, look away, to the rest of you hardened hacks, here’s the front page of the holdthefrontpage.co.uk …ouch.

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From holdthefrontpage, a press closure and two editors leaving their posts.

Editors disappearing at a rate, another press closure as a news giant, in this case Newsquest, gobbles up a smaller company, and all this as Trinity Mirror was announcing yet another re-shape of its business with the loss of 49 jobs in the north east following the loss of 49 jobs in the Midlands and west.

Unlucky number that 49.

By chance, I was discussing the structure of the newsroom with my students when I first started in newspapers and how it (roughly) looked now in this age of online first news.

OK, I’m not an artist, but this is how the discussion developed and the drawing evolved on the white board.

Below is how the structure looked (from memory) and below that, roughly what it looks like today with on the right side the newspaper side and one the left a boiled down version of the web.

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OK, I admit, fine art wasn’t my strong point.

Hopefully, though, the point of the lecture was well made. So many newspaper jobs/titles have gone.

One of the key areas decimated is the good old production area, where the subs are few and far between and never mentioned in the world of digital news.

However, having heard about the loss and re-organsiation of TM jobs in the north east, it made me think that I might be out of step with some of the new structures.

TM has gone for the regional approach to cut costs. It has decided to get rid of some editors and merge departments.

The idea, I understand, is to move TM towards a brighter/profitable digital future while the decline of the newspaper continues at a pace.

You can completely accept this theory. The readers are disappearing from newspapers so build where the audience is growing, online.

The tough thing is that newspapers still make more cash than online and while the gap is closing, it is not fast enough, Grand Canyon comes to mind.

In reality, the business will have to accept it will never again make the profit it once had, the golden egg is more like a tin pot.

The north east areas consist of Newcastle and Teesside, in many ways, close geographically, about 40 miles, but a distance in terms of identity.

For those in the know, Teessiders don’t find Geordies agreeable and Geordies feel the same about Teessiders with Sunderland (and Durham) stuck in the middle.

So, there would be uproar if they end up in a properly merging content teams, with all the reporters put together, because they will argue that they can’t cover their own areas properly due to a lack of knowledge.
For now, in some key areas, there appears separation.

I guess the plan is to have a North East umbrella group allowing certain content gatherers to produce stories for both areas, in other words a lot of the new roles will be regional, the new local.

As I understand it, Neil Hodgkinson, the editor at Hull, will control the whole region while an editor for print and digital will report into him.

This plan also involves merging certain areas of the newsroom, I guess some parts of the  digital, social media and sports areas, will come under the regional banner.

There will be a few reporters specifically covering Newcastle and Teeside, but as I understand, they are on the digital side.

It would appear there will be three print reporters who will have regional roles with the idea that they cover stories not touched by the digital team and a further three writers will be harvesting content for the newspaper.

I reckon the total workforce specifically for print could be around 12 for two newspapers, in my sums are correct.

It has to amount to fewer local news stories in the newspapers and fewer journalists writing for the paper as mentioned above.

In many regional newspaper these days it’s easy to identify where the local pages are and where the centralised content begins.

I recently did a random local story count in The Sentinel, my local newspaper, where I once worked, I used to have a special story counting method, so applied that.

The number of local news stories was at least 60 per cent fewer than four years ago (and I was being generous), but with staff numbers down and the demands for online news greater than ever before, it’s easy to see why.

There is an argument as to whether story count matters and, on reflection, I feel we tried to provide too many to the detriment of the better stories.

However, the old ‘pack it full of local stories mantra’ was designed to give value for money, but with fewer local news pages and stories, it is no wonder that readers are turning their backs on newspapers.

Add to this the rising cover price cost of newspapers and we have a recipe for further decline.

Here are the latest ABC figures. They sadly show that once great beast of the north, the Yorkshire Post, is 29 per cent down in the last six-month period, selling just 11,494 compared with a decade ago when it sold 42,337. These figures reveal many other tales of woe.

Back to cover price. One of the key survival tools of the regional press has been to put up the price of the newspaper to bridge the decline in income as sales fall.

I have said before, newspapers steadfastly used to put their cover price up at one or two pence a year.

However, that has increased rapidly as the sales fall has set in. Cynics have suggested that it is a case of milking the business dry as it sinks…

What I can say is from some research I have done looking across at a decade of sales decline and price rises, and it looks like I’m telling you the obvious, that while online has pinched the audience, the policy of increasing the cost of the product while reducing the number of local stories in the newspaper, is a recipe which has accentuated the decline.

I was taken aback slightly when the Western Mail, which sells 13,149 daily, decided to do a relaunch, redesign its magazine and slap 30p on its Saturday edition, more expensive than The Times on a Saturday which costs £1.70.

The odd penny always knocked a few off the sale, a grimace at the thought of what 30p might do.

And I can’t help but feel some sympathy with the paper’s editor, Catrin Pascoe, who came out with the well-worn ‘it will now be bigger and better’ for the new package on offer, readers just don’t get this.

They’ll look at the price, then head for their mobile phone or laptop to read something for free, however good it is.

I’m afraid this has all looked a little bleak. But I have some good news.

The University of Derby journalism department recently held a workshop (see below) with TM journalists with the inspirational Christian Payne to help guide them through a range of news apps which can help them tell their stories online.

There is so much innovation and creativity in the way stories can be told. In a way, this should be the most exciting times for story-tellers, but the shadow of cutbacks takes the sparkle off a new industry growing from an old one.

P.S A colleague of mine just sent me this link on Delayed Gratification. I love this concept of taking time to write the news and give it greater perspective.

I believe that, in time, we might all get fed-up with the chatter of social media news and look for a more complete picture, this offers that solution.

Do I now quality for the position of ‘happiness correspondent’? Read about that here.

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Trinity Mirror rolls the dice again, will the punch drunk regional press be able to get off the ropes and come out fighting once more to stay aLive?

 

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Trinity Mirror has decided to remove the names of newspapers from the title of its websites to create large Live sites, reflecting what Birmingham has already done.

So big is beautiful then? The unique selling point of most regional newspapers was about their affinity and closeness to the area.

They were small compact units with reporters, subs, advertising reps, and managing directors sitting in the heart of their communities.

But the survival package or new business model has changed.

It has been an extraordinary couple of weeks for Trinity Mirror, as it grows in size nationally while slicing its regional newsroom workforce.

TM bought Express Newspapers group for £127m, bringing into its stable the Daily Express, Star and magazines like OK!

Richard Desmond, who sold the Express gleefully told the Financial Times 
that there were huge opportunities to save some £20m and increase revenues.

He added that it was all about scale ie being big, and instead of the advertising agencies stitching individual titles up over price for ads, they would get a better chance of turning a few more coins by being a monster.

Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Simon Fox was equally upbeat about the new clout they had acquired and the chance of being in a better place to negotiate with advertising agencies.

The theme of big is beautiful carried on over the shuffling of the pack and redundancies in the regions.

The news that the excellent newsman Rob Irvine had stepped down from the role of MEN editor was a surprise (well, it was for me).

I worked with Rob many moons ago in the Derby Telegraph newsroom, he was an excellent operator highlighted recently by the way he masterminded the coverage of the Manchester bomb attack last year.

He has also done wonders in growing the Holy Grail for TM, the online audience.

But with Rob leaving it opened up the whole of the north east to Hull Daily Mail editor Neil Hodgkinson, an equally excellent editor.

It was revealed that he would take control of the titles in the Newcastle with the Newcastle titles editor, Darren Thwaites, heading to Manchester.

So, hang on, the editor in charge of the Newcastle papers is actually based in Hull, just, 147.4 miles away, or two hours 34 minutes in the car, as long as there aren’t any roadworks on the A1(M), according to AA Route Planner.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the Tamworth Herald editor, the talented, hard-working Gary Phelps was also to step down.

As I finally finish this blog, news of who is going to be put at the helm of his newspapers has not been revealed.

Facetiously, I could say any editor within 147 miles of Tamworth, which would leave the field wide open, but I guess it will come under Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves who is at least not 147 miles away.

Does it matter where the editor resides? I think I may have opened a can of worms, so let’s move on…

I worked with Gary for a number of years. I had the unfortunate job to tell him his whole production department was moving to Stoke when the original Northcliffe subbing hubs were created back in 2009.

He took it on the chin and didn’t bear any grudges against me (or didn’t say it to my face) for dismantling his operation.

Perhaps he knew that one day production would return to Tamworth, which it did, a slimmer version than before, but nevertheless a victory for returning subbing back to its hometown roots.

In latter years, with fewer and fewer staff to put together the Tamworth Herald and its beast of a sister the Sutton Coldfield Observer, Gary has managed to hold it together.

So he will be a big loss to these publications.

So we have editors in charge of huge regions, we have websites disappearing, such as Burton being swallowed up by its big sister in Derby.

Then there’s the name changes to the online parts of the business as TM divorces the newspaper from the website.

As all of us who trod the boards in the newspaper business will remember, some of the most heated debates took place in those redesign of the paper meetings.

Thankfully, we employed a top-class referee, the brilliant editorial guru, Peter Sands.

There was always only one conclusion, never touch the design of the masthead, or at least keep its integrity. It’s the thing that identifies you and offers comfort to readers, a symbol of trust.

But in a blink of an eye, TM has ditched those names for its online offering, the decree absolute moment, separating print and online forever.

Should we be concerned about a name change?

Certainly, a site like The Sentinel in Stoke has had different titles on its journey such as thisisstaffordshire and latterly thesentinel.co.uk before its new reincarnation Stokeontrentlive, to go with BirminghamLive, BristolLive, DerbyshireLive and so on.

The unanswered question is whether readers go to the online sites of regional newspapers because they are a trusted brand with their traditional title or do they simply not care?

I would think that the generation who no longer read newspapers will not be bothered or understand the significance of whether the website was a Mail, Sentinel or Post, their trusted brand will become Live.

So, this is the old line in the sand moment. It splits print and the web and creates new boundaries with larger audiences and increases the advertising potential.

I have said before, that I firmly believed the web sites and their content should be separated from newspapers.

Over the last few years I have watched as those few print production journalists left have had to copy and paste off the web and squeeze that content into the newspaper.

In so many cases, the online content simply doesn’t match up to the requirements of print.

Online has so many variations when it comes to telling a story such as video, audio, slideshows and being able to aggregate social media via software such as Wakelet.

It has always been clear that the audience for print and online is different. My own little straw poll recently proved that.

I asked an audience at a lecture of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society if they still bought a newspaper, there was a forest of hands raised.

The following day I asked a group of students, not one twitch, no-one bought a newspaper.

This is the changing face of the media landscape. If TM or any other newspaper group are to secure their future, they cannot rely on print.

Similarly, newspapers cannot rely on online content. There is simply too much content which appears online which is not any good for newspapers.

Is this the brave new world then of the regional press? No-one likes to see job cuts, so many of us have felt the pain.

But, it’s all about preservation, so should we be thankful that still a lot of journalists are employed, despite there being fewer jobs?

The regional press has become like the punch-drunk boxer, wondering around trying to find away back into the fight.

Maybe, the re-shaping of the business will be the key. It’s another big gamble.

What it will achieve is a huge online audiences across the TM titles. This power will give it space to negotiate with advertisers while on the front foot.

As for print, the ability to run newspapers as standalone businesses is fine in principle, however, you need the staff to allow that to happen and it does look a bit thin on the ground.

STOP PRESS: Back to big is beautiful…family-run newspaper business Carlisle-based CN Group, sells to Newsquest.

Another move by a media giant to swallow up a minnow. Is it good for the newspaper business to have fewer owners? The argument again is, better to be big than not to be around at all…discuss.

Should taxpayers’ pay for local democracy reporters for (mainly) the regional press as the BBC seeks to protect its empire…and why office newspaper closures hurt our local communities needing a voice…

 

Bob Dylan’s song title ‘These times are a changin” is appropriate when you consider the how the regional press and the BBC once got on…or not, as the case maybe.

As the great Bob Dylan has often been known to sing, ‘The times are a changin’’…is there a more apt lyric to match the new love-in between the BBC and the regional press?

In many ways, it’s astonishing that the BBC is forking out £8m of taxpayers’ money  to provide content for the regional press.

OK, technically, as a colleague mention to me, the content is open to any viable media outlet, not just the regional press.

But the deal has been cut by Ashley Highfield, who is chairman of the The News Media Association, the voice of national, regional and local news media organisations in the UK.

He also happens to he CEO of the regional press group Johnston Press. So, you can see, it’s pretty obvious where this is going.

Just to add to my argument, look at where the reporters are to be placed, it’s just weighted to the regional press, end of discussion…

  • Trinity Mirror – 24 contracts, 63 reporters;
  • Newsquest – 17 contracts, 37 reporters;
  • Johnston Press – 8 contracts, 30.5 reporters;
  • DC Thomson – 2 contracts, 4 reporters;
  • KM Media Group – 1 contract, 2 reporters;
  • Stonebow Media (The Lincolnshire Reporter) – 1 contract, 2 reporters;
  • Archant Community Media – 1 contract, 2 reporters;
  • Citizen News and Media (The Hackney Citizen) – 1 contract, 1 reporter;
  • London Evening Standard – 1 contract, 1 reporter;
  • Manx Radio – 1 contract, 1 reporter;
  • Shetland News – 1 contract, 0.5 reporters.

Now that’s done, back to £8m. Actually, the total bill will be £72m for this newly-formed love pact which has a predicated life span of nine years.

Why astonishing? Well the relationship between the local press and the BBC has not always been so cosy, it might not be now.

The reporters at a number of newspapers I used to work for often said through gritted teeth that the local radio station had ‘stolen’ a story from the paper.

I’d ask ‘how do you know’ and they would simply say they could hear the rustling of the paper in the background as the stories were read out and the pages of the newspaper were turned, cue laughter across the conference room.

Maybe, this was a slight exaggeration, but you get the point. This was a time when ‘stealing’ stories was a big no, no, unlike today when it’s a free-for-all.

I also heard many rows going on in the newsroom when the BBC would ask for a story and my bitter news editor would be screaming  ‘no, get your own stories’ down the phone after the request was made.

Of course, in those days you had to feel sorry for the BBC at local radio stations, with so few staff compared with the army of journalists I and my colleagues had under our command in the regional press.

Simply, the BBC didn’t have the strength in depth to cover the stories we could, so it was obvious they would come round with the begging bowl.

The reason for the angry response from the local newspaper was all about professional pride, they wanted the story exclusively.

Also, there was not any real pressure on BBC reporters, they didn’t have to hit their sales/income targets, life was too easy for them, in the eyes of the regional hacks.

However, there were a few occasions when, often thanks to their national colleagues, who had great contacts in Parliament, they would scoop the local newspaper.

This often led to the editor having a fit in the newsroom and the news editor spitting feathers at the local council reporter.

A couple of years ago I was at a Society of Editors’ in meeting in Manchester and one of the most uncomfortable moments was when the BBC and a couple of regional newspapers were talking about a new content sharing relationship.

Behind the gritted smiles it was obvious the plan wasn’t working and the relationship was as awkward as two teenagers on their first date.

In the dim and distant past I had an interview for the BBC and was taken back about the cultural differences in the regional press and the Beeb.

I was asked in detail about my work and there was a perceptible intake of breath when I told them about the ‘death knocks’ I did, they didn’t like it, not their kind of reporting.

Of course, there is a not so hidden agenda behind the plan. The BBC is desperate to be seen as fulfilling its Charter by signing up to this sort of local agreement, it’s an £8m tick box exercise.

Also, maybe more to the point, the BBC wants to hush the noises from the local press that Auntie has an unfair advantage online with a business model that simply doesn’t have to make cash and a resource so large it batters the regional internet offering.

So this is the £8m-a-year gagging order.

Meanwhile, the regional press can’t believe its luck, getting its hands on extra content for no pounds, no pence.

Also, it allows them to cover all the councils they have turned their backs on.

The reduction in council coverage happened for two reasons, the huge reduction in staffing numbers and the fact that many council stories simply do not get web hits, so resources have gone into producing different content.

For taxpayers, you maybe perplexed why your hard-earned cash is being used to pay for this sort of reporting?

Here, there is a brilliant response. Do you want to hold authority to account? Do you want to protect the Fourth Estate? Well, most of us do. End of discussion.

But whisper it quietly, the newspapers seemed quite happy to abandon a lot of this reporting before the BBC strolled into town with its protectionist plan.

Also, a cynic might ask why these positions be funded by the BBC when the likes of Trinity Mirror,  Johnston Press and Newsquest still manage to make a neat profit.

In July this year TM recorded an adjusted operating profit which was down £6.5m year-on-year to £62.6m for the six-month period.

Also Newsquest reported a pre-tax profit of £23.5m in its annual accounts for 2016.

So, why we all know that the businesses have had a beating, the odd £22,000 for a reporter wouldn’t hurt them, but why bother if Auntie is there? Thank you Mr and Mrs Taxpayer.

And then there’s pay. How much for a BBC reporter? The jobs are being advertised at £22,000. I saw one comment on holdthefrontpage that this was a small sum.

But it isn’t compared to the junior reporters being employed on a lot less.

One of my old newspapers is paying less for a junior than when I worked there, a reporter after two years on £16,000.

Meanwhile, on smaller publications this figure is sadly a lot less, so £22,000 doesn’t look bad, but it isn’t great.

I have also heard that some may get paid a lot more. The original TM newspaper reporters were generally better paid than those of the old Local World which it gobbled up a couple of years ago, as an example.

Overall, this does sadden me, as I have always said that the future of journalism would lie around fewer but better paid multi-skilled geniuses. I can’t see this happening.

Another difficult dilemma will be what to do with those newspapers that still maintain a council reporter?

OK, they could apply for the jobs, particularly if there’s more cash on the table, the job has more stability than their existing job.

The newspaper companies have said that they will backfill if this happens, but they may get away with paying less for a reporter.

Then there’s the thorny issue of who manages these reporters, the editors of the local publication or are they answerable to the BBC?

This could be complex. Who decides what they cover, when they publish, the content of that story, as I mentioned early, there are cultural differences.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not against this sort of reporting, it is vital to hold authority to account. The regional press needs to be the eyes and ears of the people its serves.

More than anything, it is just uncomfortable that this sort of relationship has been struck up because of neglect.

Of course, there is an irony sitting in the middle of this. We want local democracy reporters, but at the same time newspaper groups are shutting their local offices.

Surely, local democracy also includes having a voice or presence in the towns where a lot of these councils sit?

The closure of so many local offices came to my attention when I was in the Staffordshire town of Leek and came across the office of the Leek Post&Times.

The message on the door was simple. This office will close on Friday, October 13th. How apt, Friday the 13th.

Surely local democracy is also about having a foot in the town where you report, but sadly, like the Leek Post and Times, town newspaper offices are closing.

Since about 1870 the Leek Post and Times has had an office in the town. A place where people can pop in, place an ad and talk to a reporter.

They probably saw the editor walking through the town and were able to stop and chat to them.

An editor is so important to a place like Leek, or any other similar market town.

They are the voice of the people, raising concerns and campaigning for the town and its people, a figure head, a bastion of local democracy.

Over the years the position has been diminished as newsrooms shrank.

The last real editor of the newspaper, based in the town and working full-time from the office was Steve Houghton, he lost his job in the summer.

His role was merged with the editorship of the Staffordshire Newsletter and the editor was based 26 miles away, until the Stafford office closed. Luckily, they are based closer now, in Hanley, Stoke-on-Trent, just 13 miles away.

The closure of these offices is the moment when a town loses its champion, an editor who worked every day in the town and lived and breathed the good and the bad times.

A person who, dare I say, championed local democracy.

The readers of the P&T have never liked that fact that it was associated with its bigger sister title The Sentinel.

Sadly, even the newspaper’s website has been dragged into The Sentinel’s website, it’s just a sideshow to its bigger sister.

The demise of these newspapers is sad and I guess if it’s a case of jobs or offices, I would save the jobs, so I understand the decision, but it is still not very palatable.

The voice of the people, while not lost, is diminished by these closures.

 

 

Old fart story haunts former Trinity Mirror journalist…should Birmingham Mail split print and web content? Meanwhile, editorial executives get steamed up over bored journalists in editorial conferences…

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A journalist friend of mine has said that one of the reasons they have left journalism is when the top trending story was about how smelling your farts could be good for your health.

So, the conversation turned without premeditation to passing wind, or farts (sorry…). It had been this moment, when this most talented of journalists had decided to quit the profession.

On a quiet Bank Holiday it was revealed to those hard-working Trinity Mirror souls that a story about farting having health benefits was trending and they should publish a version of this story and build content around.

For the journalist, the whiff of wind story was the straw that broke the camel’s back. They decided enough was enough and planned their great escape.

Cut to many months down the line and a student of mine expressed their despair at the quality of the stories on the Birmingham Mail web site.

I asked, ‘what kind of stories do you expect then?’. The answer was based around the need for ‘proper’ news stories. Mmmmmmmmm.

OK, sleeves now rolled up, ‘what is a proper news story?’, I asked.

And this is the issue. My view has always been that the online audience and the newspaper readership is fundamentally different, they want different content.

The problem newspaper executives have been fighting with is, how can they provide great online content and keep newspapers ticking over as sales disappear while drastically reducing staff?

Now we have the chance to find out. TM’s Birmingham Mail is separating online and newspaper content and has different teams to do the work.

In a blog, the newspaper’s editor Marc Reeves, outlines his plan and states that this may help save the newspaper.

While I think this is a brave claim, the paper only sells just over 18,000 (it sold 130,000 in 2000 and more than 200,000 in the 1990s), the ideal of separating the content is absolutely right.

Online content is different as is the audience, so why feed them content from newspapers?

On the other side of the coin, it is difficult to copy and paste a lot of the content from online and hope someone can turn it into content for a newspaper.

So what are the issues? Can the Birmingham Mail sustain two news teams? It’s a tall order but I hope they give it a chance and not pull the plug too soon.

Also, there maybe problems in convincing anyone to work for the print version when clearly TM is fully focussed on the web, but I digress.

The concern is that this online/newspaper divorce may be possible when you are a big operation based in a cosmopolitan city, but in the sticks it might not be sustainable, or even possible.

So how do you provide specific content for online while maintaining a newspaper which also has its own content?

In a way, what the Mail has decided to do is finally put to bed the row over the definition of what a story is.

Clearly, the online audience has one view of what kind of story they would like to read and the newspaper readers another, and that is fine.

Also, online readers are their own editors, so often set the news agenda for the newspapers who are chasing the audience.

Meanwhile, those in charge of a newspaper provide the content they think the paper readers want by bundling the news up for them to digest.

Of course, there are old-style newspaper stories which do well online, but many don’t, or at least they don’t get an audience.

I return briefly to a blog I wrote where it was decided that many health stories didn’t work online…unless they were of a certain type.

So those difficult stories from health meetings, while important, just fail to engage the audience, but a warning/scare story on scarlet fever flies online.

One of the most obvious reasons for different content is that there are so more many tools available to tell a story online such as video, audio, slideshows and aggregation of content, a rich seam.

This is why the skills of the 21st century journalist are so varied. Compare this to when I started with just a typewriter and one job to do, write a story.

So, back to farting… is this a story? You can’t really blame anyone for reporting this, academic research showing that sniffing farts is good for your health…

For me, this is a story. The disappointment I have is that most of the stories around it that I have read only quote the researchers, there’s no balance or another opinion.

This is a problem. The demand to produce endless content to feed the online beast means little time is spent on exploring in depth the stories about to be published.

Here’s an example. When I was in newspapers I demanded at least three quotes per lead story and these shouldn’t just be councillors or any other usual suspects…that was too easy.

Today, as a journalism lecturer, I demand this from many of the articles written by students.

They often point out that this requirement now doesn’t always match that of the professional standard when often there are fewer quotes.

The students are right. So my three quote rule has had to become an academic standard to test their ability to interview people, it is no longer or at least a necessary professional standard. That’s unfortunate.

Journalism is about balance, even when it comes to passing wind…

Finally, it has come to my attention that there’s a rumpus going on in a regional newspaper newsroom.

According to sources (love using that expression) some editorial staff are looking bored and disinterested in the news conference. Whoops.

The boredom is so transparent, that senior editorial executives have been moved to send out a memo telling the staff to basically…not to look bored and stop staring into space. There’s a telling off.

I’m baffled. Conference was always grand theatre and the star performer was the editorial head honcho. If they are unable to inject some enthusiasm into their staff, I think there must be a problem.

The only way to rectify this is to make it interesting and engaging. Some of the conferences I have attended were pure genius.

News editors telling stories while climbing over desks to relive the drama, editor’s showing their disapproval at the news list by leaving the room and minutes later being spotted driving past the conference room on their way to the pub.

OK, this was drastic, but we laughed long and hard about it and the editor’s act of mutiny made sure we produced a set of sparkling stories.

Lively debate, great humour, brilliant ideas, amazing photographs/video. This is conference. It is where the editor’s voice is heard and the philosophy of the newspaper is developed.

It is also great for team building and allowing the creative juices to flow. One thing, it was never was boring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why ‘death knocks’ are an essential part of the journalist’s toolkit to find out the truth in a world of fake news…and how police are doing the jobs regional newspapers use to do…

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Journalists were criticised for approaching the relatives of the victims of the Grenfell Tower fire disaster, but so-called ‘death knocks’ are an important way of telling a truthful story.

Where angels fear to tread…it is with some trepidation that I have decided to write about the unfortunately named ‘death knock’.

The subject is high on the agenda after the terror attacks in Manchester, London and the fire at Grenfell Tower flats.

Journalists have been criticised for even considering door knocking the relatives of the victims. It is because of this that I have considered for sometime the merits of writing this blog for fear of recriminations.

But, it has to be debated.
Dominic Ponsford, editor if the Press Gazette has been given a bit of a kicking by critics who say his attitude of ‘it’s ok to door knock’ to be out of kilter with the way people are thinking in this, read his article.
Like Dominic, what I can say is that door knocking is just about the toughest professional experience a journalist can have.
However, it can also be the most rewarding.
You may now think I have already stepped across the line by saying that, it could appear callous.
What I mean is that from my experience, many families who have lost a loved one are often happy to talk to a stranger about the death of someone who is near to them.
Dare I say that it is actually a cathartic experience for many of them because, simply, it is just too difficult/traumatic to talk to another member of their family.
I hated the thought of doing death knocks and even today the first one I ever did is a clear memory.
Asked by the newsdesk to talk to a family about the loss of their teenage son I drove round for almost an hour before plucking up courage to knock on the door.
The angst wasn’t required because I was welcomed in and spent an hour listening to the story about of their teenage son. There were tears and laughter as his life unfolded before me.
A few days later they rang to thank me for the report, telling me it was a beautiful tribute.
When I was a reporter on the Express and Star, Wolverhampton, I was asked to door knock the family of a lad who had been murdered.
After spending 10 minutes plucking up the courage to knock, I was left speechless for a few seconds when they berated me for not having turned up sooner, they actually had been expecting me.
I walked out with a wonderful tribute and two bags of pick-up pictures, three of them housed in ornate gold frames.
When I worked at the Derby Telegraph I met the kindly Neil Kerr, Ripley district reporter.
The legend was that he had never failed on a death knock. Even to this day, I’m not sure how true this was, but I certainly never knew of a time when he didn’t come back with the story.
Neil was an old-fashioned district reporter, well-known in the area and respected for his faithful reporting. Families expected Neil to be at council meetings, in the courts, at summer fairs and door knocking.
The humour surrounding why he always came back with the story was based around the fact that people just thought he was from the Co-op undertakers.
However, it was the fact that he was known for telling the truth and that he had a winning way about him. He would knock on the door and simply say, ‘it’s Neil from the Telegraph, pop the kettle on, I’ve come to have a chat about xxxxx’ and across the threshold he went.
Dominic mentions a report by Liverpool John Moores University which actually suggests that journalists hard-pressed for time are using social media to pick up tributes leaving the bereaved families unhappy with the outcome of what is written.
I would argue that death knocks are more important than at any other time in journalism. Why you may ask?
The answer is that in this world surrounded by fake or unverified news, or controlled news from the authorities, we need to do everything in our power to get to the root of the story.
It is too easy to accept a bland press release from the police about a sudden death. That’s not our job, just to take it and not check it.
A lot of the public do expect to have their story in a local newspaper. They expect reporters to go to them to check the facts, not just lift from social media or copy from a press release.
If media organisations are serious about telling the story fairly and accurately, they really have an obligation to knock on the door.
Of course, to those outside the profession, a ‘death knock’ might seem outrageous and heartless, but there are many working practices that happen in other professions which to those looking in seem odd.
If the families of the victims of the Grenfell fire hadn’t been able to tell their story, where would we be now?
Certainly, the pressure brought by these interviews, or door knocks, has helped to tell not only the story before us but the story behind the story, the ticking time-bomb of a disaster waiting to happen.
For those who worry about door knocking, they should be reassured that journalists adhere to the Editors’ Code, here are the sections:
3. *Harassment

i) Journalists must not engage in intimidation, harassment or persistent pursuit.

ii) They must not persist in questioning, telephoning, pursuing or photographing individuals once asked to desist; nor remain on property when asked to leave and must not follow them. If requested, they must identify themselves and whom they represent.

iii)  Editors must ensure these principles are observed by those working for them and take care not to use non-compliant material from other sources.

4. Intrusion into grief or shock

In cases involving personal grief or shock, enquiries and approaches must be made with sympathy and discretion and publication handled sensitively. These provisions should not restrict the right to report legal proceedings.

In the end, for those who don’t like the idea of door knocks, they will never change their minds. But if these are the same people who want the truth, maybe, just maybe, they will think again.

A final thought on another matter. I admit I have a bit of inside knowledge on this, but it concerns me deeply that a court case I’m about to describe was reported in this manner.

I’m told by a close friend that they were looking out for a court case involving a member of their family.

It was a nasty stabbing incident at a time in Birmingham when knife-crime is high on the news agenda.

My friend tells me the court story appeared on the police press web site first and then an hour later on the Birmingham Mail web site and later the front page of the Sutton Observer and on its web site.

What concerns me is that it would appear that no news organisation was in court. The police reported it online, of course there was no mitigation, and it was lifted with a few tweaks by the two newspapers.

West Midlands Police, like so many other forces, have clearly taken to covering the news that newspapers can no longer cover.

However, more worryingly, is that if a reporter had been in court they would have surely challenged the order prohibiting the naming of these youngsters.

This case was of such significance that naming them was an important part of the judicial system in ensuring that justice was seen to have been done.

Instead, we have a bland, one-sided version of events, copy and pasted for wider publication.

There probably is a decent follow-up story about the victim who lost a kidney, his spleen and was left permanently deaf in his left ear.

But with the failure to life the ban, who wants a story about an anonymous victim?

While I appreciate the staffing issues of regional newspapers more than most, you can’t help but feel rather sad.

Here are the stories for comparison:

West Midlands police version:

Sutton Observer:

Birmingham Mail: 

 

Trinity Mirror, the Tory party front page wraparound adverts and why there’s a need for regional newspapers to be a trusted and unbiased voice in the community…if you can turn a blind eye to the cash…

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One of the front page wraparound adverts for the Conservative Party which went on a number of Trinity Mirror regional titles.

Regional newspapers should be biased, but not in any political way, but biased towards the area and the communities they serve.

Wherever I worked on a newspaper, the key principle was always to support the readers and their battles, whether that was for a new road, better education or more Government cash, as long as it made sense.

This policy had no political bias. When as Editor-in-Chief of The Sentinel I handed the then Prime Minister David Cameron a letter asking for more cash from the Labour-controlled Stoke-on-Trent Council as I stood in Number 10 at a reception, I didn’t do this for any political motivations.

I did it purely for the community, to better the lives of the people of the city, I was neither a red or a blue or any other political colour, I was just standing up for my readers.

When The Sentinel fought to ensure that the BNP couldn’t become the majority party in the city, we did this for one reason, for the good of the city, once again, for no-other political reason.

So, however we were or are perceived by our readers, and some did think we were bias, I can say that the regional newspapers I have worked for tried to steer clear of hanging their hat on any political party.

So it was a surprise that The Sentinel and other Trinity Mirror newspapers decided to go with a front-page wraparound of a Tory advert prior to the election.

Adverts on the front pages of the TM regional titles are now common place as the group attempts to claw back declining newspaper income.

At one time, editors fought tooth and nail to stop adverts from going in the prime position in their newspapers, but the game is now up, cash and accountants are making those kinds of decisions.

Of course, newspapers did once carry ads on their front pages and the early history is of them being scurrilous political rags.

But the more recent history has seen newspapers use the front and back pages to flog the paper.

Pages two, three, five and seven were also often preserved for mainly editorial content, but this has changed dramatically in the last four years.

MDs now twist the arms of editors or enforce (depending on the relationship with the editor) a policy of putting an ad anywhere they like and while I accept cash is cash, so is ensuring the readers get the news they are looking for.

There are some fantastic adverts which improve a product, but there are many terrible ones which if placed in the wrong part of the paper simply diminishes the product.

My theory behind having the paper packed full of editorial high up the newspaper and present itself as a good read was based on the fact that if the paper costs 65p, the readers need to feel they were getting value for money and stories provided that value.

Having to wade through advertising to find a story has a detrimental effect on the readers’ perception of whether there was any news in a paper.

That’s why free newspapers have been so maligned, because they looked full of scrappy ads and no content, often something which just wasn’t true.

I admire Trinity Mirror Regionals Digital Publishing Director, David Higgerson, for his stout defence of the wraparounds on holdthefrontpage.

He stated that the ads were making so much ‘noise’ that it proved they had worked and added that it was a good sign that regional newspapers were being used by political parties to communicate with their voters.

Ok, fine. I’m all for newspapers making money, without this more regional journalism jobs would be under threat.

I just wonder if he has missed another point. This issue is not just about welcoming the fact that political parties recognise the importance of the regional press.

This is also about being perceived as a trustworthy, honest, impartial newspaper of record. The wraparound just sends out the wrong message.

Simply, it does harm the integrity of the business and of the editorial team who are tarnished with being on one side of the political fence or the other.

We are told that other political parties might do the same, but two or three wrongs doesn’t make it right.

The Sentinel’s reputation received a bashing (see below) on social media and one reader said it would be reported to IPSO.

 

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Social media users were quick to condemn The Sentinel and other Trinity Mirror newspapers for putting a Conservative Party wraparound advert on the front and back pages.

 

As pointed out, no laws or rules have been broken here, but whatever TM says there is some damage to credibility. (By the way, it wasn’t only The Sentinel which was criticised, some readers of thew Westmorland Gazette have signed a petition asking the paper to apologise for putting the ad in the newspaper.)

In this world of fake news, it raises the question of whether our local papers can be trusted if they are perceived to have a political bent?

There have always been suspicions that money talks and in the last few years with the emphasis on making a quick buck, commercial pressure has fallen on editors or decisions taken out of their hands by MDs desperate to turn a coin.

However, as an editor, you also have to be a businessman and this often means making decisions which may drag you close to the line of your editorial integrity.

It’s Russian roulette. Take the ad or lose jobs, a bit black and white, but it was often put to me in this way as the storm clouds in the industry gathered.

One brief memory was when my last newspaper printed a court story about a garage mechanic effectively stealing oil off customers.

After the story was published, the garage, an advertising customer, kicked up a stink and asked for the story to be withdrawn from the web and a retraction in the newspaper.

I was asked by those on high to ring the owners and grovel to them and pull the online story.

Firmly, I believed this was a story in the public interest, our readers were getting conned, but money talks.

It was one of those moments, do you resign on principle or quietly nod ‘ok’ and remove the story?

The beginning of the end or good commercial sense?

Whereas the debate on the political ads has been in the public realm, the real debates like the garage story are going on behind closed doors.

When someone asks me about the future of journalism, I refer to a future in which readers will probably pay a premium for trusted, well-researched, un-biased journalism.

Is this idealistic? Possibly. But readers need content they can trust and a political advert on a front page doesn’t help the cause.

Why Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press editors have embraced pleas by The Samaritans to report suicides with greater sensitivity

Conference

Keith Perch, Head of Journalism at the University of Derby, opened the conference which tackled the issue on how best to report suicides in the media.

The editors sat quietly and pondered the question from the back of the room. ‘Why’, said the man ‘do you have to report suicides at all? You don’t report the fact that someone has died of a heart attack’, he added.

It was an uncomfortable question for many journalists, do we really need to tell the story of someone who takes their own life?

One editor I know has already decided not to cover all suicide inquests, but only the ones he considers are in the public interest.

Of course, public interest can cover a multitude of sins, but at least there’s an acknowledgement that there’s an issue in reporting suicides and this guidance allows time to consider publication or not.

This week I attended a conference at the University of Derby, there were around 30 editors there from Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press.

The point? To raise awareness over the dangers of reporting suicides, which can often lead to copy cat incidents.

Obviously, the media is not being asked to stop reporting the deaths, just be careful.

The Samaritans offer a best practice guide to the media and it has a hotline where its staff are willing to discuss the content of a story prior to publication.

Similarly, the Editors’ Code offers advice to journalists when reporting suicides which is based around not putting in too much information about method of death.

As Editor-in-Chief and deputy editor of the Stoke Sentinel I was faced with numerous issues surrounding the reporting of suicides. Two stood out.

One inquest involved the death of a man from carbon monoxide poisoning. The paper was reported by the charity Papyrus to the defunct Press Complaints Commission for breach of the Editors’ Code by giving too much detail.

Did we overstep the mark? Debatable. I argued and proved that we had not printed a huge amount of information which I detailed to the PCC, but what I still ponder today is perhaps whether there was too much information in the article.

Now, I’m sure that I would have removed even more information from the original article because the ground has shifted.

I wasn’t proud of being accused of putting in too much detail, this wasn’t a gung-ho attitude from me or the editorial team, but the matter did make me think twice when faced with similar dilemmas in later years.

There is a line in the sand as to how much can be reported, but drawing it accurately can be hard. There is a grey area between putting enough information in to tell the story fairly and putting in too much detail which could have repercussions.

Another issue I had was a number of suicides on a rural section of railway. We had what would be described as a cluster. For me, five was too many in a short space of time.

This figure rose to nine deaths in under two years and The Sentinel came in for a lot of criticism for reporting the deaths.

At first we reported the inquests, but as concern grew and local communities started to feel unhappy at the situation, we asked for something to be done to prevent what was happening.

It was through this campaigning that the Samaritans became actively involved within the communities and with the newspaper and certain safety measures such as new fencing and CCTV cameras were put up on the stretch of line.

The result is, as far as I know, that there has not been a suicide on this stretch of line for several years. If we hadn’t raised the issue would more people have died?

On the flip side, was it because of the reporting that there were nine deaths? Reflecting on this time, we were careful on the reporting and despite this the incidents continued to happen.

It was only after we took action with the help of the railway authorities and the Samaritans that the deaths stopped.

However, one of the growing issues today is the response on social media to suicides, particularly the death of a teenager.

The outpouring of grief is difficult to report. Sorry, that’s wrong, it’s not difficult, the difficulty is getting it right. It is all too easy to lift the social media quotes and build a story around that.

How often do you see words like ‘another angel in heaven’ followed by ‘we’ll be with you in heaven soon.’

The sentiment that someone will join their friend in heaven soon shouldn’t be taken literally, but often impressionable children may just do that.

Also, a lot of social media almost glamorises suicide, this is a long distance from the reality.

The response on sites such as Facebook look easy pickings for journalists attempting to get a reaction to the death, but the media has to be careful how it uses this information and reflects the outpouring of grief.

Simple phrases like ‘another angel in heaven’ pulls on the heart-strings and can entice vulnerable people to believe that suicide, wrongly, has some sort of romance about it. It hasn’t.

Most senior editorial staff believe more than ever that they have to be careful in reporting suicides.

One of our journalism students at the University of Derby, Eleanor Crone, in her research on reporting suicides in The Sun and the Nottingham Post ,showed that the press has become more alert to its responsibilities.

But being careful in reporting suicides and the drive to get page views, provides editors with dilemmas.

Editors know that they have a responsibility to report some suicides that are in the public interest.

But the pressure to ensure they fulfil their requirements in getting an audience will inevitably lead to them having to make difficult decisions about pushing the boundaries to maximise page views.

Some of you reading this may gasp in horror, but the reality is that good court copy, whether from an inquest, crown or magistrates court does well online.

And undoubtedly, in the pressure cooker world of an editorial room where staff are forever watching the audience stats, that fine line of reporting responsibly or chasing audience may become blurred.

This isn’t just something I believe, it is also what a number of editors talked about on the day of the conference.

On the flip-side, the other point made to me was that often the reason for not covering inquests was not based on a moral opinion but more down to lack of resources.

There is also real audience pressure, not just the stats.

With the world in conversation it is impossible to control certain web platforms from having a full and frank discussion about a suicide.

They are not governed or feel responsible to abide by the advice on reporting suicides.

This often leads to criticism of the main media for failing to report as much information and accusations of a cover up.

Once again, more pressure for an editor to decide how much can and cannot be written.

What we do know is that at least the debate is ongoing and this can only help editorial staff to make better, more informed decisions in the future when it comes to covering suicides.

Just one last thought, it seems this is often forgotten. Only the coroner can decide if a death is a suicide, the press should not speculate.