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.

 

 

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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.

Should journalists be gagged by their editors from putting their views about Brexit on personal social media?

brexit

Should journalists be free to write their own opinion on their personal social media? Has an editor the right to ask them to ask them to stop writing their own views?

 

‘Some people’s idea of freedom of speech is that they are free to say what they like, but if anyone says anything back, that is an outrage…’ – Winston Churchill

Most journalists believe in the idea that they are still part of the Fourth Estate, holding authority to account and preserving freedom of speech.

But the rise of social media has certainly tested this freedom to the limit. Many editors have been forced to wince every now and again when one of their troops says something they are unhappy about.

This is particularly true if their staff are saying something they may not agree with.

So, if an editor spots one of his journalists commenting on something they dislike, have they the right to tell them to stop?

If this was the case, wouldn’t the editor be at the very least going against all the historic and ethical principles of free speech?

I agree that most of us can tell a tale of how one of our colleagues or friends wrote something which made us shudder.

And firms, such as Sky, are keen to view the social media output of people they are interested in employing, to make sure there’s nothing too controversial.

Personally, I repeatedly tell any youngsters I know looking for a job to clean up their social media, or at least have a professional one and personal one, which should be for their mates only.

So, back to journalists. Has an editor the right to impose a gagging order?

Surely journalists should be free to express an opinion or is it right if their editor warns them to be neutral, even if the editor is clearly biased?

I guess, if the journalist is writing under the banner of a media outlet, then they have to think carefully about what they write.

They cannot be seen to bring the organisation into any kind of disrepute, but there has to be a sensible boundary.

So, if impartiality is required by the business, then they have to sit on the fence.

However, what if they are expressing a view on a personal account?

Ok, most of their mates will know that they are a journalist, but even journos deserve to have a private opinion, don’t they?

What’s more, as I have often experienced, editors have a view and ensure the paper or web site support that personal opinion.

I have known editors, for example, who insist on writing headlines on certain issues so the ‘tone’ is right, in other words, supports their view of the story.

So if you are sitting in an office listening to the editor mouth off about their opinion and write headlines to match it, would you perhaps think that you had a right to also have your say?

It is easy to hide behind impartiality to stop journalists having an opinion if that suits your game plan. But the idea that journalists should be gagged because of their profession seems unfair and even unethical.

In the Brexit debate, many people have taken sides and debated the issues, this is real democracy, as opposed to informing journalists to keep quiet, that’s tantamount to tyranny.

Journalism is built around the premise that it is a bastion of freedom and democracy.

These are fine principles as long as you practice what your preach and effectively telling staff to keep quiet is a bit of a blow to this philosophy.

Personally, I always encouraged freedom of speech, but would warn journalists that their reputation was always on the line, so sensible comment was preferred to a bias rant.

In the case of the Brexit, I would have asked for the same. If writing directly under the banner of the newspaper, I would have said stay balanced and pose questions rather than forcing out an opinion.

As for any other account, I would encourage them to choose what they say carefully and professionally, but journalists are entitled to an opinion.

It has to come down to a matter of trust. You have to trust the professionalism of your staff to do the right thing.

Anyway, much of what is written in a newspaper has an opinion behind it, just look at all those campaigns which are so often heralded.

They are clearly designed around a bias opinion, or the editor’s own agenda, so it is nothing new for journalists to have an opinion, like everyone else.

So it would seem rather cheap if an editor was to put the fear of God into his journalists by sending out a ‘Big Brother’ is watching you memo.

If the opinions of a journalist are against the majority, or the editor’s own views, it doesn’t mean that they are not worthy of being broadcast.

Editors who attempt to enforce a policy on journalists inevitably lose the respect of their newsroom.

Are the BBC going to sack Danny Baker for his rather outrageous and possibly offensive remarks about the England team?

I think not. Even the BBC believe in some kind of free speech.

So I would say to all journalists, have a voice, our industry is a broad church of opinion and if it becomes restrained by dictatorial editors, the world will be a poorer place.

Meanwhile, I know I keep saying I’m going to write about skills audits and redundancy. Ok, it doesn’t sound too much fun, but there are some unusually dark arts at play.

More of that to come.