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: 

 

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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.

Are free newspapers dead and buried? As Trinity Mirror newspaper managers ‘quietly’ close another title, is there a future for the poor old free ‘rag’

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The Sentinel Advertiser is one of a number of free newspapers which have bitten the dust in recent months.

Is the free weekly free newspaper on the endangered species list?

In the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s the free newspaper was a must-have and must-be seen to have toy of every newspaper group.

They were a cash cow, free to thousands of more readers than their paid for chums, hitting thousands of homes a week, even if readers didn’t want them.

Often cheap to run with cheaper advertising, they were the ugly sister, but effective in bringing in revenue.

Advertisers loved them with their large distribution network.

Hacks were not so kind and laughed in darkened corners of pubs as they described using them for their cat’s litter tray.

Free newspapers were like border guards, making sure no other newspaper group was tempted to set up a paid for or free newspaper in their area.

Quietly, before Christmas, one of my old newspaper’s, The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, closed its free newspaper, The Advertiser.

A bit of a pauper’s funeral for this once hallowed piece of newsprint.

This newspaper was a beast at its pomp with multiple editions and a vast distribution, up to 80,000, if my memory serves me right.

It took the title from the original Sentinel newspaper which used to be called the Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser — which hit the streets on January 7, 1854.

As I remember, it used to bring in more than £20,000 a week but slumped to around £5,000.

Its death knell was sounded long before it finally closed with distribution slashed without hardly a word to anyone outside the building.

When they first started, free papers had their own staff, but as time and cost-savings gripped the industry they were put together by the same staff as the main paper, as an after-thought.

While I was at The Sentinel , the Advertiser was reinvented on at least three occasions. It used to be full of all the local stories the news editor didn’t fancy.

Then an edict from on high went out from Northcliffe HQ that the newspapers had to be filled with the best of the stories from the paid-for title.

This sent editors into despair. Already under fire from falling circulations and the demands of the internet, the free paper was now in direct conflict with the main title.

But this idea quickly hit the rocks and the next reincarnation came when it was decided that free newspapers should just have trivia and gossip with little or no real local content.

I redesigned The Advertiser into a modern ‘i-style’ newspaper with a load of short gossip stories, no real leads, big pictures and wall-to-wall trivia.

Editors sighed collectively, no more local content and one of the thorns in their circulation woes removed.

At another time, withdrawing your border control newspaper would be tantamount to letting a rival onto your patch.

But these closures just keep coming, Trinity Mirror  recently announced closures and merges of four free newspapers.

Trinity Mirror is not a lone in closing titles. Research by the Media Reform Coalition and the Press Gazette showed that Newsquest, Johnston, Archant and Tindle have all been forced to close titles.

Some of the closures have been due to mergers and having two titles on one patch when only one is required, some others have been due to cost-cutting because the title wasn’t making enough cash.

Since 2005, 198 newspaper titles have perished.  It’s not all bad news, a snap-shot by the Press Gazette shows that in 2015, 46 local and regional newspapers closed with 29 opening, a net loss of 17.

Despite the fact that some people have the guts to set up a new title, the feeling is that you don’t really need a free newspaper to protect your daily because you would need blind optimism to set up a newspaper in these troubling times.

On the other hand, a niche magazine might work nicely, but that’s for another discussion.

So, does this mean the free newspaper is dead? Far from it.

The endangered species tend to be those attached to a bigger paid-for title or in an area where a takeover has happened and multiple titles from the same group are fighting over the same ground.

Soon, when cover price fails to bring in a good chunk of the profit like it did for newspapers such as The Sentinel, the inevitability is that paid for titles will follow the path of some newspapers and become free or part-free.

The London Standard is already free and papers like the Manchester News are free at certain times of week, many other papers are in a similar position.

Just check out the ABC sales figures and look at the last column which shows actively purchased sales, or the percentage of pure sale, for example, the MEN is just over 56 per cent.

Others will follow this trend as the cover price income drifts into oblivion.

It has been interesting to watch the cover price philosophy of late. I have always believed that newspapers have been too cheap.

This meant there was a culture of keeping the lid on the price and rises were one or two pence at a time.

Now, as circulation drops off, the newspaper groups in their wisdom have kept hiking the prices up. The policy seems somewhat flawed.

If a product is doing well, add a few pence on and hope sales are not hit too hard. Now the policy seems destined to bleed the paper dry, whack up the price, and watch the sales decrease at a faster rate.

The cocktail for decline is greater than just everyone is going online. Higher prices, poorer distribution, cheaper paper, poor print quality, far fewer staff, fewer editions have all helped to stick the knife in.

But whisper it quietly, despite the decline, guess where most of the cash comes from? Yep, print…for now.

P.S Did you see the study by Munich and City University academic Neil Thurman which describes how online readers spend 30 seconds a day on the national newspaper web sites compared with 40 minutes in print.

This is surely the reason advertisers will never spend the same amount of cash online as they do in newspapers, they simply have the audience for longer in print.

Why the thought of Trinity Mirror production hubs brings back nightmares and the endangered species…the editor

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Trinity Mirror wants to introduce production hubs as it looks to restructure its business. Other newspaper groups, like the defunct Northcliffe Newspapers tried this method of subbing and design and confined it to the waste bin.

 

Production hubs. Those words. They always bring me out in a sweat. After the accountants had finished picking over the bones of the then Northcliffe Newspapers in 2007, the meat slicer came out, it was time to cut jobs.

I’m not sure how, but I was tasked with not only implementing a unified editorial system across large parts of Northcliffe, but also help be an architect of the production hubs.

At the time, I argued that if jobs had to be lost, the best way was not to create large hubs, but to use the technology to improve and speed up production and keep the subs at the local centres.

Ultimately, I was right, as the hubs collapsed in bitter recriminations and production was returned to the local centres.

Now Trinity Mirror is set to create those beasts of the newsroom once more.

One of the main problems with Northcliffe was that they used an editorial system which was being developed as it was rolled out.

This meant that most centres used the system differently and often this meant poorly.

Many editors didn’t like an inferior deputy editor like me coming in to tell them how to work, so the battles were long and hard to get one system in across the group.

One of the main advantages was that we needed to have the ability to share content, this could only really be done if we had one system and a shared server.

Getting in the new software, however, was only one tip of the iceberg. The real battle started with which centres were going to have the subbing hub and which centre would have their content subbed in a darkened warehouse many miles away.

This was the true war of the worlds stuff for editors who quickly realised that having a production hub on their site gave them enormous power and influence, plus it gave job security to their own workforce.

In many ways, a lot of newspapers benefitted from the hub system. The reason is that subbing at some centres, I’m afraid to say, was not brilliant and they benefitted from being subbed at centres with more experienced staff.

But, there were many, many downsides. The errors due to lack of knowledge about an area were extraordinary.

If you sat in a hub in Hull or Nottingham your knowledge of Lincoln or Leicester was often not up to scratch and errors were made by hard-pressed sub-editors.

There was also a proliferation of headline boxes which went out with the standard ‘Headline 42pt in ere ereere’ or ‘Fill this J please ere ere’ and a lot worse.

There was also a massive amount of posturing from editors as pressure to churn out pages increased.

In the hub I looked after with some excellent, extremely hard-working colleagues, we chucked out 1,000 pages a week.

It got competitive, the fight for survival and which centre produced the most pages most efficiently, a ‘who had the biggest balls’ contest.

To say the least, it was gruelling, it was like working in a factory, just churning out page after page.

I was tasked to spend time working out how many pages one sub-editor could do a day.

Of course, if every page had a 20×7 ad on, you could do a lot. So an average figure of eight pages per day became the agreed task for every sub.

I was not happy with the figure, but there had to be a benchmark, ‘let’s weed out the lazy ones’ one of the most senior editorial gurus in Northcliffe growled at me down the phone.

‘Mmmmmmmmm…’ I said, with a hint of desperation.

A colleague of mine bravely agreed to sub and design eight blank news pages as a trial. This experienced sub and designer worked flat out without a proper break for 10 hours and managed to achieve the task.

He admitted to me that after just one day of that, he was on his knees, how he said would he feel after two or three days having to do this? ‘Knackered’, I said.

I believe he may still be on medication…

Yep, eight pages without ads every day would break most subs, no wonder errors rose dramatically. The other major issue was getting copy through quickly.

Traditionally, as all us hardened subs know, reporters have a knack of delivering copy as they put their coat on and head for the pub at their close of play.

In the hub, this wasn’t possible, content had to be sent with military precision, each page had a deadline and if you couldn’t fill it, the front page lead would be grabbed and whacked in as a 140-worder so Page 47 could be sent.

In a way, the hubs were a sprat to catch a mackerel. They allowed major reorganisation of production, code for making a lot of people redundant.

It forced editors, who had fought tooth and nail to keep staff, to rethink their strategy.

They simply agreed to take subbing back to their own centres with a massive reduction in the original staff who used to sub and design the newspaper.

It wasn’t a case of back to square one. Most news pages were templated, you could have taught a child to drag and drop a page.

The boxes on the pages were sent to reporters to fill, including the headlines. At the end of the day, a quick refresh and the page was full and ready to go…sort of.

The main issues were that despite some training, reporters struggled with headlines, particularly making them interesting.

Reporters, under huge pressure to fill a quota of boxes as well as feed online often filled a box which was 200-words when the reality was that the story was only worth a nib.

Anyway, Trinity Mirror does seem fixed on going down the hub route. It will probably mean large, actually, not too large (there aren’t that many left) offices with rows of subs.

It could also mean that some production people stay at their centre, but have to sub copy from across a large area.

Whatever the outcome this time, it was clear to me when Northcliffe brought in the hubs that subbing copy a distance away from the patch was far from ideal.

It also goes against my view of the industry. I think newspapers should be light on their feet, able to change at the drop of a hat, not being at the mercy of a vast subbing pools weighing down the rest of the business.

Also, it surely contradicts the philosophy that journalists should be multi-skilled and not tied to one particular part of the business?

An editorial floor should be a place where journalists can turn their hand to any job if a gap in what is required for the day’s business appears.

The silos in a newsroom should be confined to the spike.

Newspapers including the Grimsby Telegraph and the Lincolnshire Echo will no longer have an editor. Sad news.

The Telegraph has for more than 30 years been one of the better performing titles in the former Northcliffe Newspaper and Local World group.

It’s consistency of performance and great journalism has been in no small part to the editors, the late Pete Moore and the present editor, the excellent Michelle Lalor.

As for the Lincolnshire Echo, I had some of my happiest times at this fabulous paper under the editorship of Mike Sassi, now editor of the Notts Post.

It was a newspaper which truly championed the community with the editor being the heart and soul of this.

Local newspapers without an editor to represent the newspaper and be part of the community can only mean a disconnection between the newspaper and the city, town or village it represents.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Regional newspaper top brass take on ‘sniping’ university academics over newspapers’ golden era comments…online v newspapers (Part 346)

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Academic Sean Dodson has come under fire from the media industry for his criticism of regional journalism in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?

 

To those working in the regional media I am poacher turned gamekeeper. I was squeezed out of the the profession  and ended up teaching the fine art of journalism to the content gatherers of the future.

For the last few weeks, I have stood on the touchline as the classic row of how it used to be better in the golden era of journalism has rumbled on between academics and those still plying their trade in the industry.

KM group’s Ian Carter admits that ex-journo now academic Sean Dodson hit a nerve in his book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print?

Sean, a lecturer at Leeds Beckett University, is critical of today’s journalists complaining about listicles and user-generated content.

But Ian and David Higgerson, Trinity Mirror’s Digital Publishing Editor, were a bit miffed by this, with Ian describing Sean as sitting on the sidelines and ‘sniping’. Ouch.

To be fair to them, the regional newspaper crowd have probably had a bellyful of criticism, unfortunately though, in journalism, it comes with the territory because it is a public-facing industry.

I digress.

It is as easy for those in the business to criticise academics who are no longer on the frontline as it is for academics to write despairingly about the industry they love/loved.

What it does show is a passion for journalism and I for one rather like that.

Having said all of the above, here is my defence of Ian and his colleagues.

As an academic, even though I still also consider myself as a journalist as well (dual professional), it’s our duty to to stay in touch with what’s happening in the industry.

I was surprised in the summer when an academic almost choked on his nicely chilled Sauvignon Blanc when a journalist lecturer friend of mine told him he now never bought a newspaper.

He gathered all his news online, he added.

What most startled me was the response from the wine drinking lecturer who couldn’t quite believe what he had heard, his blood pressure seemed to spiral out-of-control.

Of course, the outcome was that he ranted at my friend about throwing in the towel and being a traitor to the newspaper industry and journalism.

Far from it, my friend’s comments were just a reflection on reality and not past glories.

Indeed, my friend is one of the most passionate advocates of journalism, in whatever form, I have ever had the pleasure to meet.

As I left the conversation I was left to ponder on whether some parts of academia were still stuck in the past.

As for me, I fret that I may have missed the latest trend in journalism or a different way of working as I sleep, let alone during the time I’m awake. Yep, I need to get a life.

Here’s the plug (but it’s truthful) I want my journalism students at the University of Derby to have the most up-to-date education in the ways journalists work.

So, not only do I spend time in newsrooms, I speak regularly to people in the business so I have quality intelligence on the latest techniques or theories.

Attending conferences where cutting edge news organisations talk about how they work and why they work in that way is also essential.

As an academic/practitioner it’s all about having up-to-date professional currency.

The course I teach on is a digital journalism course. Do I expect all our students to work in so-called traditional media?

No, I don’t, some will, others will write content for businesses, charities, football clubs or anyone or any organisation which wants quality, modern content with high journalistic standards.

Everyone is a publisher now, so they all need quality content. We teach the core skills of journalism, like being able to tell a great story, but we also teach that once a journalist has a story, there are many, many ways to tell it now.

I’m in the camp where I don’t think that regional journalism is any better or worse than it used to be, there’s an argument for both.

In the so-called golden days of journalism, when Northcliffe Newspapers used to have annual profits as high as £96m, I saw, like Ian, some terrible, lazy journalism in newspapers.

I remember having to wake up journalists to do some work, I found reporters sleeping under their desks.

A colleague of mine recounts a tale of how in a district office the old copies of the newspaper were laid out in the shape of the bed, so the reporter could have a sleep after a liquid lunch.

However, these are just great anecdotes, they do not define the journalism of the era.

There was some amazing journalism in the so-called golden era, but there is equally some brilliant journalism and journalists now, it just might does not look the same.

So who do I back the academics v industry battle of the golden era?

Like most former regional journalists I mourn the past, we were a cash rich industry and we had a blast, producing sparkling newspapers and enjoying the riches of the industry.

We worked really hard, we played hard as well.

It’s a difficult argument to say one generation worked harder than another. However, from my knowledge and recent visits to newsrooms, the 21st century journalist is working very hard.

The business is more demanding now, it’s bound to be with the massive reductions in staff, but we mustn’t forget, that technology has helped journalists to get stories easier as well.

But the modern journalist has many more skills and jobs to do, as Ian rightly points out. At the university we are teaching students to tell stories for print, online, video, broadcast, radio, audio, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat.

They need to understand audience software and how to interpret that, be masters of SEO, take pictures, understand content management systems, aggregate/harvest content and maybe do some html coding.

Why are we teaching this? Because this is modern journalism, these are the skills a journalist has to have.

With regards to content, I have often said that I was worried the traditional news agenda was not necessarily fit for today’s audience.

We used to have little intelligence on buying habits compared with today’s constant analysis of audience.

However, I do feel that the newspaper and online audiences are different. The issue is that it’s becoming increasingly more difficult or if at all possible to write different content for both online and newspapers, which I think is needed.

As for the nature of the content, no-one read every story in a newspaper.

What online offers is an immediate understanding of what interests readers, so why write content that readers are not interested in?

There’s the argument that much of this online content does not fulfil the Fourth Estate principle, but the reality is, how much content ever did tick this box?

There is still a lot of investigative journalism going on and it’s a fallacy that regional newspapers spent everyday chasing after Fourth Estate stories in the ‘golden era’.

Criticisms of listicles by the golden era brigade is also futile. The reason listicles exist is because the online audience like that presentation of this content and if researched well and with good information, they are an excellent way of presenting content.

Anyway, listicles are hardly a new concept. Throughout my career in newspapers we constantly produced added content to a lead story.

We used to call them panels or sidebars…not as sexy as listicles.

Are they trivial? Well who are we to say that if they are ready by thousands of people? I actually find many a good, fun, informative read.

I ask my students to produce listicles but apply good journalistic practices, well-researched, well-written and quoting people when appropriate.

As for the  concept of click bait, it is also old hat. We have always been keen to flog a story hard and get people to read it.

Why did we spend so much time on the front page, fretting over as cracking headline, a hard-hitting intro’, the right photo and intricate detail in the front page puff?

We didn’t sweat buckets over this to turn readers off, it was to lure them in, call it newspaper bait.

So what we are creating at the university is multi-skilled geniuses, journalists who can tell a story in many ways.

Why, because that is what a modern journalist needs, whoever they write for.

Forget the bickering over better or worse than this or that era. We need to start to appreciate the difference and let the industry evolve.

Don’t worry, I have not been paid off by the regional press…yet…but I do try to seek balance, I know, it’s a bit old school.

Just maybe, this is the golden generation of change for journalism.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.