Gloves off for the Johnston Press blame game as Reach goes back to regional subbing hubs with a difference and my part in the creation of a newspaper production monster…

Johnston Press has gone into administration.

The writing has been on the wall for Johnston Press for a few years due to the massive debt the company was juggling with, so it was no surprise that the firm went into administration.

 

Where do we lay the blame for the chaos that surrounds the collapse of Johnston Press? The management? The journalists or journalism? The changing media landscape?

I know that some of you won’t want to play the blame game, but hell, I just feel like it.

As soon as JP went up for sale for £250m we all knew that no-one from outside JP was brave enough to empty their bank account to buy into a turbulent newspaper business.

The CEO of JP and now the CEO of  the newly-formed JPIMedia, David King, put his finger on the button when he announced that the business was going into administration.

He blamed the firm’s acquisitions in the early 2000s as the cause of the firm’s financial mess, you’re not joking…

Obviously, hindsight is a wonderful thing, but it was in the 2000s that Johnston Press made some astonishing moves, not astonishing for what they bought, but what they paid.

I remember raising an eyebrow as the firm splashed the cash like a drunken gambler who believes they can’t lose so they keep spending.

In 2002 the managers paid a staggering £560m for Regional Independent Media (RIM).

“This is a transforming acquisition for Johnston Press at a fair price,” said Roger Parry, the then chairman of Johnston.

Fair price. Really? Mr King said that it was not obvious that the business would suffer from the impact created by the rise of the web in 2002 with the loss of classified and motors and the rise of Google and Facebook.

Maybe, in 2002 he was right, it was not too easy to see what lay ahead for the newspaper industry with the rise of the web, home wi-fi, smartphones and Facebook.

But we all knew something was in the air, even back in 1999 as I sat in an office in Lincoln with a ‘dial-up’ to get online. Ok, it didn’t work very well, but even for a then naive deputy editor, I knew things were on the cusp of changing.

This was also pointed out by David Higgerson, Reach’s Chief Audience Officer, who at a conference I attended last summer pulled out a copy of the Birmingham Mail from 1999.

That paper had a puff across the top welcoming a new health and fitness supplement.

As he rightly said, it was an attempt by the paper to grab new readers as sales of the paper continued to slide. It was almost unspoken pact, that we dare not talk of what lay ahead of us, but we all knew, didn’t we?

But when Johnston bought the Scotsman Group for a mouth-watering £160m and were said to be in the frame to buy Northcliffe for £1.6bn in 2006, you would be rightly concerned about who was giving out the advise.

Ok, I accept that this maybe easy for me to say, but by 2006 the writing was firmly on the wall.

In early 2006 Northcliffe had brought in Aim Higher, yep, the accountants were in the corridors of most newspapers in the group counting stories and paperclips.

Job losses were firmly on the card, it was a big clue for the Johnston managers. The second clue came when Northcliffe decided to sell its cherished regional newspapers.

The papers, once loved when they used to bring in £96m profits a year, went from being the most-cherished child to the black sheep of the family.

Oh, the final bit of evidence surrounded the fact that newspaper sales had been in decline since the early 80s anyway. Yes, financially they had held up well, but that was without the threat of the web.

The problem was that the business model was too fragile. It relied too heavily on certain areas of advertising and failed to pull in more income in from cover price, which only ever crept up a penny or two and therefore was never enough to prop the business up.

Despite this evidence, Johnston ploughed on and snapped up the Scotsman titles which only made £7m in pre-tax profits in 2004 anyway, hardly a great acquisition for £160m.

So there were some pretty good indicators around that maybe it wouldn’t be worth paying such large sums for a newspaper business in decline.

And here we are today, a company riddled with debt it cannot pay. Administration had been on the cards for a long time.

Now a new company, JPIMedia, made up of those who were owed money by the old Johnston Press, has been created to run the business.

Under the deal, £135m will be wiped off the firms debt, £35m injected back into it and more time to pay off the remaining £85m debt.

The new company has body-swerved taking on the pension scheme which did not transfer and will come under the Pensions Protection Fund, a scheme set up by the government to provide pension benefits to members of scheme whose employers have become insolvent.

While the pension should be safeguarded, according to holdthfrontpage, some of the pension pay-outs may not be as high. This is a bitter pill for staff.

On the up side, we are told by the new company that jobs are safe, there’s not even that good old ‘for now.’

It is a grand statement to make as the regional newspaper continues to reconfigure weekly to meet the needs of its consumers and the business.

The reality in my opinion is that JPIMedia, like its fellow media groups, will inevitably make editorial cuts once the dust has settled and there’s a debt to service.

This is because, with falling newspaper profits and circulation to consider, despite a growing online presence, I think the only way financial targets can be hit is via streamlining.

We have seen the latest remodelling of the industry with recent job losses at Reach Plc, the old Trinity Mirror, where 41 more production jobs are going.

A few years ago I welcomed the steady move away from regional subbing/production hubs to a return to producing the newspaper on your home soil.

But the latest plan, on top of regionalised sports departments and centralised page units, does see a return to centralised subbing hubs, of sorts.

Before I move on and because I was feeling nostalgic, I managed to dig out some old notebooks (see photographs below).

They show my wild scribblings as I put together a new workflow plan for the then newly-created subbing hub in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of The Sentinel.

Stoke was one of several hubs which took in pages from other Staffordshire newspapers including Tamworth, as production was streamlined and subs lost their jobs.

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This rough diagram shows how I was trying to provide a new workflow system for the subbing hub in Stoke-on-Trent, the home of The Sentinel.

My jottings also show my attempts to calculate how many pages had to be subbed per paper, per day, per sub. Yep, terrifying.

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In this picture I’m attempting to work out the number of pages to sub per day per newspaper and how many staff in the would be required in the Stoke-on-Trent subbing hub, the home of The Sentinel.

It is different this time, as I understand it, looking from the outside in. This time there will be production staff still in the local centres.

The subbing hub will be virtual, so, for example, as I understand it, in my area there will be one big production unit covering the East and West Midlands.

While the local teams will take care of their paper, they will also have the capability of helping out the other centres when the pressure is on and there is a greater ability to share content/pages.

The outcome of all this? Probably more generic pages, similar to the ones which appear in the regional papers at the moment.

You know which pages they are because it’s like you are reading two different newspapers every day, but that’s just my design snobbery coming out, but boy do they look ugly…

Secondly, based on some recent research of one of my University of Derby students looking over the last 30 years, which shows that story count in the local press is way down, I’m wondering if this trend will continue?

Please note, at the moment I’m not saying this is a good or bad thing, it’s a debate for another day, particularly on around what is local?

One of the issues is that most of the content comes from the web. This is a bit of a poison chalice, because while the content is perfect for the web, it can be more difficult to translate that into newspaper content.

It’s the reverse of the argument in the late 1990s early 2000s when newspaper content was uploaded onto the web.

The problem with that was it was impossible to search for a story online with a newspaper headline.

Let me assure you, somewhere in the ‘cloud’ are a load of stories no-one will ever find, because they have a newspaper headline, not a web head.

Finally, there’s the thorny issue of errors. holdthefrontpage used to have a field day during the old days of the Northcliffe subbing hubs when it found an error in a newspaper, for example, such as Lincoln, because it was subbed in Hull.

The difference this time is that at least there are some local staff at the local centres who should be able to pick up any problems, hopefully.

So is this latest move good or bad? My old journalist bones shout out ‘oh no’ but I’d rather have journalists employed and a newspaper to buy.

The newspaper industry has to use the technology it has at its disposal, for too long it relied on the old ways of production.

From what I know, there’s still some terrific journalists in the print units who through sheer love of the job will continue to turn-out newspapers to the best of their ability.

For too long, newspapers buried their heads in the sand. You can see by going to www.archive.org and checking out some of the regional websites and realising how far behind they were even in the mid-2000s.

The industry failed to modernise quickly enough. Now it’s all coming at such a pace, it’s hard to keep up. Let’s hope it works.

So back to my original question, is there anyone to blame for poor old Johnston Press going under?

OK, none of us claim to be Mystic Meg, but the foolhardy nature of Johnston’s spending in the early 2000s suggests, without sounding like a shop steward, I think the blame must lie with those in charge.

If Lord Rothermere was prepared to sell Northcliffe without looking back in anger in 2006, surely JP’s top team must have had a whiff of what was going on…didn’t they?

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Do we need football match reports? Why journalists control the cash…with a touch of Alex Ferguson, the good old Saturday sports specials and journalism, but not as we know it Jim…

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When I thought about the row over covering football matches, the first thing that came to mind was Sir Alex Ferguson’s famous quote after the 1999 Champions League final.

 

‘Football, bloody hell’, said Sir Alex Ferguson as Manchester United won the Champions League in dramatic fashion in 1999, thanks to a late goal.

And it was this quote that swirled around my head as I watched from the touchline as a debate raged over whether you have to be at a football match to cover it?

In brief, a journalist was worried that at a recent Brentford game, there wasn’t a local reporter covering the match at the ground, but more of that later.

So, for a few weeks, I have thought long and hard about this debate on whether you have to be at a match?

A couple of points came to my mind, firstly, if there’s no online audience, can you afford to pay for a journalist to sit in the press box at a game?

This idea of whether to send a reporter to a game depending on whether it is cost effective is an alien concept to many journalists, but a fact of life for many 21st century reporters.

Let’s face it, if no-one bought the newspaper, you would have to shut, so really there’s nothing new here.

Secondly, do we need match reports at all? This week, I suffered the fate of having to watch Manchester United in action against Valencia, it was a far cry from that night in 1999.

So, dealing with the second point, the following day after the Valencia game, I decided to put together a lecture based around the coverage of that match.

I nipped onto the Mail Online, which to be fair, is obsessed with United, much to the disgust of other fans.

But as we all know, this obsession is due to the fact that Man U gets the biggest audience.

This is not necessarily down to their own fans eager to read about the latest spat, but because so many opposition fans love having their say on the team they hate.

However, the point of the coverage was not that the Mail loves United stories, but the variety of the stories.

It was hard to actually find the match report buried in so many of the other things going on.

In the end, with TV and social media, do we really need a blow by blow account of what’s happening?

Most journalism students are taught how to Tweet from a game anyway and if you are a football fan, you know the result and what were the major incidents without picking up a match report.

Do we really want to know about a pass, a header, a goal when we already know the result and probably seen video clips of the key moments?

And I’m led to believe that match reports don’t get the same audience as so many of the other stories surrounding a team.

So as I pored over the Mail Online after the United game to prep for a lecture, I was slightly bemused, not only about the amount of stories coming out of the game, but how far they were removed from the match report.

Don’t get me wrong, I loved match reports. Was there anything better than sinking a pint in your local as you read a Green ‘Un or Sporting Argus printed just 45 minutes after the final whistle?

I, like so many other football fans, would greedily read the match reports and picture the moments of glory or despair.

But that was a different time. Today, football fans don’t need that kind of detail, there are so many more interesting stories to tell.

The 11, yes 11 online stories about the Man U and Valencia game were at the time I clicked on the website:

  1. Paul Scholes speaking on BT sport saying that Jose Mourinho and his mouth are out of control;
  2. Mourinho refusing to discuss what Paul Scholes said;
  3. Mourinho waving his little finger at the camera for no apparent reason;
  4. The United team bus being late due to traffic;
  5. Rio Ferdinand, on BT Sport, being critical of United striker Lukaku;
  6. A comment piece on United being boring;
  7. Another comment piece on why the fans booed the team;
  8. Player ratings;
  9. A poll on whether Mourinho should be sacked;
  10. The team’s captain Antonio Valencia liking an Instagram post saying Mourinho should be sacked;
  11. Another Paul Scholes piece on why he was surprised that Mourinho wasn’t sacked after the defeat against West Ham the previous weekend.

Of course, one of the reasons for all these type of stories is that football clubs are too keen to control the message.

Add the restrictions of the footballing authorities and TV stations and it’s hard for football journalists to get a decent story, away from the bland nonsense quotes often served up.

It’s a far cry from the time when you could ring a manager or player up for a chat.

There is a benefit of doing a match report of a Man U game, if you can find it, due to the size of the possible audience compared with Brentford.

But the reality is that the audience is after so much more these days, they are likely to have watched the game and seen what is all over social media.

So the fans want something different, something to debate and interact with so the job of today’s modern football writer is to look far beyond what they see in front of them.

So are match reports a thing of the past? If this is the case, do you have to attend the game to cover it?

The reason for this blog is that Jim Levack, formerly of the Birmingham Mail and Coventry Telegraph, attacked Reach plc (formerly Trinity Mirror) in an article for Beesotted, a fanzine for supporters of Brentford FC.

In his piece, Jim claimed there had been no local media representation at Brentford’s Griffin Park stadium, for the first time in the club’s professional league existence.

But Reach came back at Jim and said that it was now bringing its coverage of the club to “a bigger audience than ever before”.

David Higgerson, Reach’s Digital Editorial Strategy Director, entered the debate.

He set the cat among the pigeons by daring to suggest that you don’t have to be at a match to produce credible coverage.

Bringing in my first point at the start of the blog about making journalism pay for itself, David argued that the audience was not big enough to cover the costs of sending a reporter to the game.

He didn’t say Reach wouldn’t cover Brentford, but they would cover them in other ways, which is what has happened.

Of course, other journalists were a bit steamed up by David’s stance.

In defence of David, he clearly states that he is not against reporters being at games, far from it. However, big decisions have to be made when considering whether a match/event should be covered.

Simply, because something has always been done it doesn’t mean it has to continue this way.

Journalism has to find a way of financing itself. Today, I know some of you won’t like this, but it is through gaining the best audience possible.

If there is no audience, then you are leaking money to send a reporter to a game. Would Tesco sell a product no-one wanted?

OK, it’s not what most journalists want to hear, but for the first-time ever journalists can help the company they work for by providing the right content which brings with it the vital cash to pay for the work.

It makes economic sense, even if it is a little unsavoury to some.

What some, dare I say older journalists, also forget is that technology does allow coverage of games without actually being at the ground. Many organisations already watch games in the office before producing content.

This may be unpalatable to some, but this is the way of the new world.

General news reporters often don’t have the time to cover stories by going out, but can use other tools to get the story, such as social media.

The worry for journalists is that stories which hold authority to account will not be covered, because they maybe deemed not cost-effective.

But this leads us full circle. The stories that get an audience and therefore ad revenue should help pay for journalism which is not necessarily audience grabbing, but important.

I’m not saying this is easy, but in principle, it could work.

I want journalism to survive, but it can’t on a wing and a prayer. There has to be some sense of realism and expectation that reporters understand that what they do brings in money.

There also has to be an understanding that a business has to make money and if it doesn’t, it has to move to the place where cash can be made.

It doesn’t mean that journalists have to prostitute themselves to turn a coin, just produce top-notch quality journalism which has an impact on the lives of the communities in which they serve and it is read by a large audience.

It all sounds so simple…

P.S This isn’t the first time I have written about the outrage over football coverage, here’s another story which stirred up emotions, click here

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Unlucky number that 49.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4. Intrusion into grief or shock

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here are the stories for comparison:

West Midlands police version:

Sutton Observer:

Birmingham Mail: 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The beginning of the end or good commercial sense?

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

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

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