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.

Trinity Mirror’s editorial big guns Neil Benson and David Higgerson stirred by Croyden Advertiser’s Gareth Davies after Twitter storm

Croyden

Former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies created a social media storm with his criticism of Trinity Mirror.

 

There have been few occasions as far as I can recall when two such prominent editorial executives such as Trinity Mirror’s Neil Benson and David Higgerson have been moved to respond in such detail from the criticism of one reporter.

I understand that there was an emotional outcry when former Croyden Advertiser chief reporter Gareth Davies spilled the beans on how he felt TM was destroying his beloved newspaper.

The response from Mr Benson and Mr Higgerson showed as much passion for what TM is doing as Mr Davies obviously has for the Advertiser and his belief that TM is ruining it.

As stated eloquently by Mr Higgerson, TM hasn’t banned stories which generate less than 1,000 page views.

But, from what I know one of the firm’s digital documents states that 43 per cent of stories on TM’s top 12 web sites have generated an audience of fewer than 1,000 page views.

This is in a section which asks how well the firm’s journalists know its audience. The inference from this section clearly is that 1,000 pvs is a benchmark for stories…

Based on this, you can perhaps conclude that there’s a misunderstanding by some of the TM team over what is required, this isn’t a ban, just a quiet word of guidance.

What is clear, is that TM has a plan, this has not always been the case for many newspaper groups. It is based around growing its digital audience, so the focus of the newsroom is clearly geared towards this.

Analytics of the audience is a tool to help this growth. Never has an editor had so much quality intelligence about its audience.

It means, for the first-time, editors can base decisions on hard facts and not just finally-tuned instincts. I do think Mr Benson describing journalists as ‘arrogantly’ choosing what they want to write about as slightly harsh.

Most journalists I have worked with write stories which they believed were important to their readers. There was never a day when an editor and his top team worth their salt didn’t talk about sales and how to improve them.

The times a gleeful newspaper sales manager entered a news conference to proclaim a sales spike on the back of a top story are too many to remember.

No, the newspaper men and women I worked with were obsessed with their ‘audience’ (readers) so there is nothing new on that front.

The difference is that now there is more evidence available to work out which stories the audience is reading.

What would you rather rely on, fact or instinct with a teaspoon of evidence from the sales history of a newspaper?

However, there is a word or two of caution here, the web audience is different to the newspaper audience, so what works well online doesn’t necessarily reflect what might work well in print.

There is little evidence to suggest newspapers are doing well thanks to the digital-only policy, indeed, sales decline for many still smashes double figures.

I was also concerned with the point raised that there’s more content in the newspapers. Recently, sadly, I spent a day counting stories and pages in a couple of TM’s biggest regional papers.

I used the same formula as I had used when I was a deputy editor and editor and it was clear to me that rather than there being more stories there were fewer. I used to aim for between 65-100 local news stories a day in my papers and a minimum of 15-17 overnight pages.

Clearly, from my research, this wasn’t the case and there were a lot of centrally produced pages, which I didn’t count, because I wouldn’t have previously.

This is not a direct criticism, but there are fewer local stories, fewer pages and newspapers cost a lot more. With staff cuts and an emphasis on digital, something has to give.

One of the reasons for fewer stories is because a journalist will be asked to go out on a story, cover it live, write Tweets, post it on Facebook, a version or two online and then it is shifted to the paper.

This takes time, so one story will be polished, but there’s many other stories that won’t be written due to lack of time. The idea is to get, say 20, great stories online and get the audience to come by building content around them.

I guess the way to resolve this is to harvest content from elsewhere to publish, but once again this takes time, unless you can get out the automatic content scrapers.

When we got rid of the editions of the newspaper and printed overnight the newspaper felt dead, we dreamed of those adrenalin busting days of swapping stories around and writing breaking news.

This died with overnight production, but the web gave us a continual edition and I think reinvigorated the newspaper office, the buzz returned and that was great.

However, the demands are many for the journalists at any newspaper group. The 21st century journalist has to have an array of skills, which is exciting for the next generation.

At the centre of this is the ability to tell a great story using core journalistic skills but they also need to understand how to attract an audience using analytics, understand Twitter and Facebook, after all, just view these as modern day bill boards, the ability to use Facebook Live or Periscope, to edit video and write great SEO.

Challenging, yes, but this multi-skilling has helped to reinvent a business which was floundering. It is because a journalist is asked to do so much that massive effort is put into key stories.

What these stories are, is now based on a history of performance online. Is this click-bait then or the ability to give the audience content they want to read?

After all, a newspaper and a website are products which have to be sold, I can’t see Tesco’s selling something no-one wants to buy.

Similarly, why would a media organisation provide content no-one wants to read?

Don’t get me wrong, I have plenty of concerns about the ability of firms to hold authority to account, for example, how many local councils and health authority meetings are covered today?

Newspaper groups may well argue that the reality is that no-one wants to read this anyway, where is the audience, so why cover them?

I completely understand Mr Davies for being so annoyed with the way TM has developed. But what choice did the firm have?

Newspaper sales are in terminal decline and there’s a chance to keep the business going by throwing resource into digital.

The issue however comes down to cash. Most of the money still arrives from newspaper advertising and sales, as sales decline, so will the cash.

However, no newspaper group will ever be able to get the same revenue returns online, even if the cuts go deeper.

So we will all have to accept that it’s a different business, one with less income, better audience knowledge, journalists with different, but more skills.

Is it better or worse than when I started? Difficult to say, it’s just different. I often had the discussion with my newsdesk about content.

I constantly challenged them on whether the stories newspapers had traditionally covered were the stories for the 21st century readership?

What we are seeing is that the content produced has to reflect the new needs of the audience.

The web has proved that a re-focus of what is good content is needed and that is why it has changed and Mr Davies is unhappy, as are many other journalists who plied their trade when regional newspapers were in their pomp.

There is an argument to say that the policies of modern newspaper groups has accentuated the decline.

But for at least two decades the industry dithered over what to do with the web and while this went on the world passed it by.

Now there’s a lot of catching up to do.

Regional journalism has some great challenges ahead. My hope is that surely, continuing to tell great stories means that it will continue to be the best job in the world…for now.

 

 

 

 

The folly of 24 as it joins the graveyard with New Day…and regional editors continue to face print v digital dilemmas

 

24

After the demise of New Day, 24, the North’s National Newspaper has also shut after just six weeks.

 

Like most media pundits, I have no pleasure in being right that 24, the North’s National Newspaper has shut after just six weeks.

I flippantly said that not even Kiefer Sutherland could save this 24, sadly, like so many people in the newspaper industry, we wished it success, but deep down knew it had little hope.

Six weeks is not long enough to see if something will work. However, I would be more concerned about the thought processes which set the wheels in motion to launch the paper in the first place, as I was over the strange decision to launch New Day, which lasted just nine weeks.

I admire entrepreneurial spirit, but with the landscape increasingly bleak for papers in the regions, just look at the latest ABC figures, and the next batch will not look much better.

The figures suggest that the newspapers with the lowest sales have a lesser decline because there’s nowhere else to go in terms of decline, while the biggest papers just keep losing big chunks of sale.

The dilemma an editor faces today is where to put his resources. Within a company such as Trinity Mirror there is a clear digital first strategy.

Previously, I have discussed how, despite putting a brave face on it, the newspapers are taking a back seat  as TM newspapers strive to get a slice of the digital audience.

This has left many journalists at the group upset with industrial action threatened at some of the newspapers.

But the reality is that there’s a relentless move to bring in the audience and get page views at all newspapers.

Based on this the editor has to decide to whether to put all their eggs in one basket and just do digital or carry on doing the paper and hope no-one notices that digital performance is lagging behind.

Of course, you might say that editors need to do both. The reality is that with fewer staff than ever before you cannot be all things to all men.

The philosophy of digital content has shifted. In the early days, regional newspapers used to put up every story written for the newspaper, often in one bulk upload.

Things are more sophisticated now and there’s a constant flow of content with particular emphasis on key times of the day and for the digital operation, rather than throwing up as many stories as possible online, to polish fewer stories and build more content around it.

The outcome is that many of the digital stories can take time to put together. If a reporter is out live blogging from an event, or on Facebook Live, taking pictures, and sending out Tweets, the chances of doing many more stories in a day is limited.

So when the print gang turn up to produce the newspaper they may not have as much content to play with as they had in a bygone era, where story content and value for money were high on the editor’s agenda.

What I have noticed is to compensate for the drive on digital in the regions, paginations have gone down, as has story count, while at the same time the cost of buying a newspaper has risen dramatically.

While the decline in sales has been endless, the above is a recipe for a nose-dive.

But does it matter? The business is firmly placed in digital land and the newspaper is just one aspect of that.

While The Independent took a brave step to bin its paper version and go digital only, I still think that a modern media firm needs both a presence online and in paper.

At the moment the revenue from newspapers sales continues to boost the coffers of these firms, but increasing cover price will inevitably see the readers disappear.

Once this happens, a different model for print will have to be created and the once great regional beasts will probably have to consider either charging £2 a copy or going free or part free.

But, as the grip on staff numbers tightens, who is going to want to read regurgitated content in the newspaper which appeared online 12 hours earlier?

My thoughts were always to make online the first read and the paper the last read.

The Times has taken a similar stance, both in paper and online. It doesn’t published continuously unless a big story breaks. This allows the paper to print online in an edition structure and the benefit is that readers get the fuller story rather than endless snippets.

This flies in the face of just about every other news media outlet, but it is not without merit when you think about the endless content put out when a story is breaking and having to piece it all together like a jigsaw.

It is an experiment worth watching but perhaps reflects the readership of The Times, 55+, who frankly do not fancy endless news feeds.

However, we all have to remember that the paper is still the cash cow. Simply, advertisers pay pence for page impressions and the cash coming in is not enough and certainly will never reach the scale of the amount of money made by newspaper businesses in their pomp.

Finally, I was with an SEO news guru a week or so ago and they stopped me in my tracks. Passionately they spoke about how to get your news on top on the Google pile and it’s often down to the fine art of SEO headline writing.

Who were the best headline writers? Sub-editors. The expert went onto say that media groups will regret not having this much-maligned breed back in their newsrooms, surely they said, they would have been the best SEO headlines writers in the business?

Food for thought.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

They think it’s all over…should regional newspapers pull the plug on football match reports?

The screams of disgust could be heard across the land as regional newspaper hacks muttered desperately into their frothing pints of real ale.

The source of this despair was the news that Tom Bodell, who works for Newsquest North London, will no longer provide on the whistle Barnet FC match reports or in-game tweets for the Barnet Times website, or match reports in the print edition.

Why we all asked? The reason was simple, not enough web hits. It would have sent the most hardened journo racing to the bar for a top-up.

So are all decisions on stories going to be based on web hits? I have already touched on this issue before. The defunct Local World used to shout loudly by the fact that health stories didn’t get any hits so bin them and deliver more servings of web bait.

Pitch
Regional newspapers have to decide whether they can afford to cover football matches like they have traditionally done so in the past.

The reality is that not all health stories, all council stories or all football stories get big hits. Some health stories fly online, like the threat of scarlet fever or a dodgy doctor.

But the run-of-the-mill health stories often don’t get many hits online, despite the fact that they were often of real importance around staffing or finance.

We already know that Trinity Mirror journalists were threatening strike action over the firm’s ‘Big Brother’ approach to set journalists targets over how many hits they get on their stories.

In a New Year goodwill gesture, TM has now withdraw this idea…for now, although the newspapers which are doing this as a trial will continue to do so and it is certain that it will be back on the table soon.

So where is this all leading? Obviously, part of Newsquest’s decision was based on cost. The reality is that journalism is expensive and is seen as a drain on resources and not one to bring in the money, which is not true.

Selling more newspapers thanks to a big story or getting more hits online are areas where you can argue the journalist helps to bring in the cash.

There are other ways, through business awards run by newspapers which are events cleverly packaged as celebrating greatness, but the reality is that they are a damn good advert for firms involved.

Let me assure you, I’m not knocking this, I’d rather bring in £100,000 for the business to protect jobs than turn my back on this money-making opportunity.

Anyway, back to the web hits. What really annoys journalists is that based on web hits, certain stories may well never be covered again, this could include aspects of holding authority to account, what we often proudly call Fourth Estate journalism.

But there is another argument. Simply, what if the traditional news agenda is wrong? When I was in a senior editorial position I would often question whether the stories put up in conference were the stories which people really wanted to read?

While the web audience is different to that of the newspaper, what the web has shown is that so many of the stories which traditionally appeared in regional newspapers didn’t really get read.

In a bygone era we relied on instinct or newspaper sales spikes (do you remember those?) to form an idea of what our readers wanted.

However, even if we were right about that for a period of time, that news selection passed down through generations of news editors and editors may just be out of step with the rest of the world.

Going deeper into this, the bundling of news into a newspaper is an out-dated concept. As I have said before, it’s all about personal media, not mass media.

So if football match reports fail to grab the audience, do something else. It is clear from the report on Barnet that aspects of the club will be covered, the parts that in many respects the fans are more interested in and will get an audience.

Football fans want so much more than reading about something they have just watched.

A simple match report is all but dead in the water. Football games can be covered live, so why would I want to read a match report hours or even days after?

This is where a football writer now comes into their own. They have to look deeper into the game, look at data, talk to the fans, or a moment in the game and look to expand what happened in that moment which changed the game.

It means football writers have to have a holistic view of the game and look beyond the usual ‘the lads done well quotes’.

What readers are after is the extraordinary, the piece of data or insight which will make them stop and say ‘gee-whizz’.

How many football writers really know everything about the club they report on? Do they understand the finances, the work of the physio, the nutritionist, the groundsman, when was the last time they spoke to a ref?

And remember, in the future all football clubs will provide their own match reports. We are moving faster and faster to the situation that exists in the States where American football clubs provide all the reports and interviews directly to the media without an independent journalist anywhere to be seen.

There is a massive movement towards professionalising media output right across the football world, most clubs will be asking, why do we need to even talk to journalists outside the inner sanctum of the club?

Back to the demand for web hits. It won’t go away, particularly as some senior staff get a bonus based on performance, a case of forget about the quality, go for the numbers, Primark economics.

This goes hand in hand with the demand to make more cash online despite the fact that print still is king on the money front. The solution, casually transfer funds from one to the other, which makes print look like its cash income is declining more rapidly and the web is booming.

It’s a slight of hand. Lies, damn lies and statistics, but if it keeps my former colleagues and friends employed, I can live with it.

If there’s any budding football journos out there who want to get some experience in reporting, I’d bang on the door of Barnet FC.

Journalism dead? You cannot be serious?!

Mark Twain famously said that reports of his death had been grossly exaggerated. The same can be said of journalism.

There is a feeling that journalism is a sick patient and there’s little we can do to revive the old girl.

Where does this feeling of decline come from? It’s fairly straightforward, journalism and newspaper are too intricately linked and they need uncoupling.

Circulation figures show that since January 2001, the total circulation of the UK’s 10-major national newspapers has declined from 12.06 million copies sold on average each day to a daily average of 6.89 million copies sold in 2014.

That’s a decline of 42.84 percent. If the same number of copies were lost over the following 14 years, the total average daily circulation would be under two million by quite some way, at around 1.7 million daily copies.

Journalism needs to uncouple a little from the demise of newspapers so it is not viewed as being in decline.

Sadly, similar decline can be seen in regional newspapers…

The problem with these figures are that they are all about newspapers. The decline in newspapers has created a feeling that there is a demise in journalism.

However, I think, I know, this cannot be further from the truth and we need to instil this into the journalists working in the industry now and would-be scribes of the future.

The point I want to make is that journalism is alive and kicking because now more than ever there are so many outlets for the skills of a journalist from print, to web, social media, apps, a massive playing field for scribes.

Content is king and what we have to do is prepare for is a world where journalism doesn’t stop on the doorstep of newspapers, radio or TV.

Interestingly, and to back up this point, a social media trend report for 2015 which I read last week said: “Brands will invest a lot more on content creation, using multidisciplinary teams to produce stand out material.”

Secondly, it has become increasingly obvious that the press officers and public relations firms are becoming 21st century newsrooms with the decline in numbers across editorial.

I know journalists will turn in their graves at this view. However, there is now more than ever a realisation that this content has to be good, not some old flannel because consumers too easily recognise half-baked, unoriginal content.

Who are the people who will provide content of this quality? That, of course, is journalists, and the kind of journalism spoken about above is different to our traditional view of the profession being inter-linked with newspapers.

It doesn’t have to be a dumbing down and the web’s thirst for only original copy being ranked highly will ensure quality, I hope.

The days of mass media are gone, that’s where readers use to consume their media in one location ie a newspaper. Today it’s all about personal media, like going into the old Woolies’ pick and mix sweet section, we all dip in and out depending on our channels of interest.

And the skills which today’s hacks need have to reflect this disloyal consumption of content.

There will always be a demand for core journalistic skills. These involve finding a story, telling the story, structuring the story, making sure the right information is in the story.

But journalism has greater variety than ever, writers need to know how to produce content for different arenas and different readers who consume in various ways from indepth articles, to hundreds of photos with an eye-catching SEO headline to a Twitter or Facebook one-liner.

A newspaper report is a far cry from a first take on a breaking web story or a blog, a video story or slideshow. These are different journalistic skills which provide variety in the job which it has probably never been seen before.

Journalism is about multi-skilling, working on numerous platforms at the same time and more than likely in the future this will not be on a newspaper.

Journalism is: “The activity of gathering, assessing, creating, and presenting news and information. ”

The art of journalism is the art of telling a story, where this story appears and in what form depends on where it can gain audience, this is what journalists both old and young are starting to understand.

Similarly, content which works in newspapers or TV, often does not perform well online or social media. Journalists will have to investigate and test different mediums and different content and how they interact together.

What was required of me as a journalist 30 years ago as is a far cry from what is needed now.

There are around 1.35billion people on Facebook, 100 million users of Twitter, three billions users of the web, then newspapers, TV and radio all scrambling around for audience.

And what links these three? It’s the desire and thirst to have content, which will be provided by the modern journalist.

So journalism is far from needing the kiss-of-life. We just need to be broader in our outlook, newspapers, TV and radio are just three areas where journalism works well, there are many other outlets and the demand for quality content is growing daily.