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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The sad demise of the monsters of the darkroom…do you really need newspaper photographers anyway?

Quietly, under the cover of darkness, newspaper photographers, those wonderful beasts who used to prowl the dark rooms, are slowly being picked off.

Even as I write this, photographers have lost their jobs at my old newspaper, The Sentinel, Stoke-on-Trent. This manoeuvre to give snappers the red card has been replicated across the country for sometime.

For Local World newspapers, like The Sentinel, once they were swallowed up by Trinity Mirror the writing was on the wall that cost-cutting was round the corner.

This was back up by TM’s chief executive Simon Fox announcing £12m would be cut from LW’s costs through synergies.

The trauma for anyone who has been through the process cannot be under-estimated, particularly as you go head-to-head with your friends and colleagues as management pull-out the much-maligned skills audit.

It is a particularly unpleasant process, relished only by those who don’t have a heart.

Then there’s the guilt felt by those who aren’t in the firing line this time, guilt that they feel relieved, but fear, that they could be next.

In this day and age when everyone has a camera and editorial departments can harvest content, do you really need fully trained photographers?

In this day and age when everyone has a camera and editorial departments can harvest content, do you really need fully trained photographers?

As I scanned the Sentinel’s latest bygone offering, I wondered whether in years to come a publication like this could be produced, with fewer and fewer snappers around to take those essential photographs, marking history, telling great stories.

I was moved by the thought that the problem was starting to emerge already with photographs which had already appeared in numerous publications reappearing again.

It’s called re-purposing content, but how long can this be maintained? There’s hardly a reader out there who have never seen the photos before and if there are fewer staff photographers, where is the content coming from for future publications?

But then again, if you are just after some quick income and a few sales, this is the way to do it.

Of course, you will argue, you don’t need photographers any longer do you? Everyone is a photographer…really?

Today, we all carry a camera via our phone and in an instant can report a story and upload it online for all to see. All journalists of the future have to be multi-skilled and that includes the ability to take photographs.

It’s easy isn’t it?  You don’t need quality photographs because there’s no need for that pinpoint focus if the pictures are going online, no artistry here, just one click and away.

Then there’s the other reason for the demise of the togs. Depending on which media empire you sit in, it’s called harvesting or curating content, which in layman’s terms means beg and borrowing pictures from elsewhere, that usually means you, me and anyone else who picks up a phone to capture a moment.

Look at the recent attacks in Belgium. How many messages did you see on Twitter with reporters pleading for pictures and video? So if everyone else is taking pictures, why do you need a professional snapper?

In a way, I can’t disagree. If you are going to make cuts to appease your shareholders, desperate times bring desperate measures.

It started with slashing and burning the editions, getting rid of those great copy takers and newsdesk secretaries and then onwards to the grey cardigan brigade in the subs department and the odd editor or two who had the nerve to stand up for his staff.

For photographers, there has been a bit of trimming around the surface over the years, some newspapers got rid of all their full-time staff and re-employed some of them as freelances while others have just cut to the flesh.

So what about photographers? Do you love or hate them? I have nothing but fond memories of these editorial heroes. I accept their deficiencies in the caption spelling department or their artistic rants when the wrong picture went in. I accept that one of my most common rants was over the quality of the pictures and that a certain photograph wasn’t good enough, I phrased it in harsher tones at the time…

However, they offered a lot more. Photographers are great story finders, better than many reporters because they were always out on the streets, listening, watching and talking.

A good photographer would be gone for a day before they would return with a clutch of great pictures and a ‘must’ for Page 1 and, by the way, here’s a great story I just picked up.

Often, as a reporter they saved my bacon. With a camera weighing a few pounds and a bag the size of a baby elephant, I always felt secure knowing that a photographer was one my shoulder riding shotgun while covering a difficult story.

Working with them was often a joy, particularly on the great snatch picture stories. As the tog hung around hidden in the bushes, I’d knock the door, wait for it to be answered, move slightly to my left or right and boom, snatch picture in the bag.

I remember going to Wolverhampton Magistrates’ Court once for a bizarre case involved a man dressed as the Lone Ranger who dropped his trousers in public.

It was going to be difficult to get a picture so the idea was that I walked in front of him as he left court to slow him down and sway left or right for the tog to get the picture. It worked a treat despite some comedian shouting out, ‘where’s Silver?’.

There was always tension between photographers and newsdesk. The news editor sitting on stories and pictures for days much to the disgust of the photo editor realising that there was a front page picture in the building, but they couldn’t use it until the news editor released the story.

This relationship worked in reverse. As a senior member of the editorial team I was sometimes presented with a half-baked front page story and needed something else to make it work.

So often, that was a brilliant photograph. I will go as far to say that my best-ever front pages were because we had great photographs.

Of the awards won by newspapers, more often than not it was the great design that won the day and the design was made by a brilliant picture.

As for the communities local papers serve, it was always a highlight when the photographer popped in, much of this is now gone. The world is a poorer place.

So I may have moaned, groaned and fought with photographers, but their diminishing presence in a newsroom is a significant blow, they will be sadly missed, but then again, we can all take pictures, can’t we?