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 rolls the dice again, will the punch drunk regional press be able to get off the ropes and come out fighting once more to stay aLive?

 

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Trinity Mirror has decided to remove the names of newspapers from the title of its websites to create large Live sites, reflecting what Birmingham has already done.

So big is beautiful then? The unique selling point of most regional newspapers was about their affinity and closeness to the area.

They were small compact units with reporters, subs, advertising reps, and managing directors sitting in the heart of their communities.

But the survival package or new business model has changed.

It has been an extraordinary couple of weeks for Trinity Mirror, as it grows in size nationally while slicing its regional newsroom workforce.

TM bought Express Newspapers group for £127m, bringing into its stable the Daily Express, Star and magazines like OK!

Richard Desmond, who sold the Express gleefully told the Financial Times 
that there were huge opportunities to save some £20m and increase revenues.

He added that it was all about scale ie being big, and instead of the advertising agencies stitching individual titles up over price for ads, they would get a better chance of turning a few more coins by being a monster.

Trinity Mirror’s chief executive Simon Fox was equally upbeat about the new clout they had acquired and the chance of being in a better place to negotiate with advertising agencies.

The theme of big is beautiful carried on over the shuffling of the pack and redundancies in the regions.

The news that the excellent newsman Rob Irvine had stepped down from the role of MEN editor was a surprise (well, it was for me).

I worked with Rob many moons ago in the Derby Telegraph newsroom, he was an excellent operator highlighted recently by the way he masterminded the coverage of the Manchester bomb attack last year.

He has also done wonders in growing the Holy Grail for TM, the online audience.

But with Rob leaving it opened up the whole of the north east to Hull Daily Mail editor Neil Hodgkinson, an equally excellent editor.

It was revealed that he would take control of the titles in the Newcastle with the Newcastle titles editor, Darren Thwaites, heading to Manchester.

So, hang on, the editor in charge of the Newcastle papers is actually based in Hull, just, 147.4 miles away, or two hours 34 minutes in the car, as long as there aren’t any roadworks on the A1(M), according to AA Route Planner.

Meanwhile, it was announced that the Tamworth Herald editor, the talented, hard-working Gary Phelps was also to step down.

As I finally finish this blog, news of who is going to be put at the helm of his newspapers has not been revealed.

Facetiously, I could say any editor within 147 miles of Tamworth, which would leave the field wide open, but I guess it will come under Birmingham Mail editor Marc Reeves who is at least not 147 miles away.

Does it matter where the editor resides? I think I may have opened a can of worms, so let’s move on…

I worked with Gary for a number of years. I had the unfortunate job to tell him his whole production department was moving to Stoke when the original Northcliffe subbing hubs were created back in 2009.

He took it on the chin and didn’t bear any grudges against me (or didn’t say it to my face) for dismantling his operation.

Perhaps he knew that one day production would return to Tamworth, which it did, a slimmer version than before, but nevertheless a victory for returning subbing back to its hometown roots.

In latter years, with fewer and fewer staff to put together the Tamworth Herald and its beast of a sister the Sutton Coldfield Observer, Gary has managed to hold it together.

So he will be a big loss to these publications.

So we have editors in charge of huge regions, we have websites disappearing, such as Burton being swallowed up by its big sister in Derby.

Then there’s the name changes to the online parts of the business as TM divorces the newspaper from the website.

As all of us who trod the boards in the newspaper business will remember, some of the most heated debates took place in those redesign of the paper meetings.

Thankfully, we employed a top-class referee, the brilliant editorial guru, Peter Sands.

There was always only one conclusion, never touch the design of the masthead, or at least keep its integrity. It’s the thing that identifies you and offers comfort to readers, a symbol of trust.

But in a blink of an eye, TM has ditched those names for its online offering, the decree absolute moment, separating print and online forever.

Should we be concerned about a name change?

Certainly, a site like The Sentinel in Stoke has had different titles on its journey such as thisisstaffordshire and latterly thesentinel.co.uk before its new reincarnation Stokeontrentlive, to go with BirminghamLive, BristolLive, DerbyshireLive and so on.

The unanswered question is whether readers go to the online sites of regional newspapers because they are a trusted brand with their traditional title or do they simply not care?

I would think that the generation who no longer read newspapers will not be bothered or understand the significance of whether the website was a Mail, Sentinel or Post, their trusted brand will become Live.

So, this is the old line in the sand moment. It splits print and the web and creates new boundaries with larger audiences and increases the advertising potential.

I have said before, that I firmly believed the web sites and their content should be separated from newspapers.

Over the last few years I have watched as those few print production journalists left have had to copy and paste off the web and squeeze that content into the newspaper.

In so many cases, the online content simply doesn’t match up to the requirements of print.

Online has so many variations when it comes to telling a story such as video, audio, slideshows and being able to aggregate social media via software such as Wakelet.

It has always been clear that the audience for print and online is different. My own little straw poll recently proved that.

I asked an audience at a lecture of the Leicester Literary and Philosophical Society if they still bought a newspaper, there was a forest of hands raised.

The following day I asked a group of students, not one twitch, no-one bought a newspaper.

This is the changing face of the media landscape. If TM or any other newspaper group are to secure their future, they cannot rely on print.

Similarly, newspapers cannot rely on online content. There is simply too much content which appears online which is not any good for newspapers.

Is this the brave new world then of the regional press? No-one likes to see job cuts, so many of us have felt the pain.

But, it’s all about preservation, so should we be thankful that still a lot of journalists are employed, despite there being fewer jobs?

The regional press has become like the punch-drunk boxer, wondering around trying to find away back into the fight.

Maybe, the re-shaping of the business will be the key. It’s another big gamble.

What it will achieve is a huge online audiences across the TM titles. This power will give it space to negotiate with advertisers while on the front foot.

As for print, the ability to run newspapers as standalone businesses is fine in principle, however, you need the staff to allow that to happen and it does look a bit thin on the ground.

STOP PRESS: Back to big is beautiful…family-run newspaper business Carlisle-based CN Group, sells to Newsquest.

Another move by a media giant to swallow up a minnow. Is it good for the newspaper business to have fewer owners? The argument again is, better to be big than not to be around at all…discuss.

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.

Why Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press editors have embraced pleas by The Samaritans to report suicides with greater sensitivity

Conference

Keith Perch, Head of Journalism at the University of Derby, opened the conference which tackled the issue on how best to report suicides in the media.

The editors sat quietly and pondered the question from the back of the room. ‘Why’, said the man ‘do you have to report suicides at all? You don’t report the fact that someone has died of a heart attack’, he added.

It was an uncomfortable question for many journalists, do we really need to tell the story of someone who takes their own life?

One editor I know has already decided not to cover all suicide inquests, but only the ones he considers are in the public interest.

Of course, public interest can cover a multitude of sins, but at least there’s an acknowledgement that there’s an issue in reporting suicides and this guidance allows time to consider publication or not.

This week I attended a conference at the University of Derby, there were around 30 editors there from Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press.

The point? To raise awareness over the dangers of reporting suicides, which can often lead to copy cat incidents.

Obviously, the media is not being asked to stop reporting the deaths, just be careful.

The Samaritans offer a best practice guide to the media and it has a hotline where its staff are willing to discuss the content of a story prior to publication.

Similarly, the Editors’ Code offers advice to journalists when reporting suicides which is based around not putting in too much information about method of death.

As Editor-in-Chief and deputy editor of the Stoke Sentinel I was faced with numerous issues surrounding the reporting of suicides. Two stood out.

One inquest involved the death of a man from carbon monoxide poisoning. The paper was reported by the charity Papyrus to the defunct Press Complaints Commission for breach of the Editors’ Code by giving too much detail.

Did we overstep the mark? Debatable. I argued and proved that we had not printed a huge amount of information which I detailed to the PCC, but what I still ponder today is perhaps whether there was too much information in the article.

Now, I’m sure that I would have removed even more information from the original article because the ground has shifted.

I wasn’t proud of being accused of putting in too much detail, this wasn’t a gung-ho attitude from me or the editorial team, but the matter did make me think twice when faced with similar dilemmas in later years.

There is a line in the sand as to how much can be reported, but drawing it accurately can be hard. There is a grey area between putting enough information in to tell the story fairly and putting in too much detail which could have repercussions.

Another issue I had was a number of suicides on a rural section of railway. We had what would be described as a cluster. For me, five was too many in a short space of time.

This figure rose to nine deaths in under two years and The Sentinel came in for a lot of criticism for reporting the deaths.

At first we reported the inquests, but as concern grew and local communities started to feel unhappy at the situation, we asked for something to be done to prevent what was happening.

It was through this campaigning that the Samaritans became actively involved within the communities and with the newspaper and certain safety measures such as new fencing and CCTV cameras were put up on the stretch of line.

The result is, as far as I know, that there has not been a suicide on this stretch of line for several years. If we hadn’t raised the issue would more people have died?

On the flip side, was it because of the reporting that there were nine deaths? Reflecting on this time, we were careful on the reporting and despite this the incidents continued to happen.

It was only after we took action with the help of the railway authorities and the Samaritans that the deaths stopped.

However, one of the growing issues today is the response on social media to suicides, particularly the death of a teenager.

The outpouring of grief is difficult to report. Sorry, that’s wrong, it’s not difficult, the difficulty is getting it right. It is all too easy to lift the social media quotes and build a story around that.

How often do you see words like ‘another angel in heaven’ followed by ‘we’ll be with you in heaven soon.’

The sentiment that someone will join their friend in heaven soon shouldn’t be taken literally, but often impressionable children may just do that.

Also, a lot of social media almost glamorises suicide, this is a long distance from the reality.

The response on sites such as Facebook look easy pickings for journalists attempting to get a reaction to the death, but the media has to be careful how it uses this information and reflects the outpouring of grief.

Simple phrases like ‘another angel in heaven’ pulls on the heart-strings and can entice vulnerable people to believe that suicide, wrongly, has some sort of romance about it. It hasn’t.

Most senior editorial staff believe more than ever that they have to be careful in reporting suicides.

One of our journalism students at the University of Derby, Eleanor Crone, in her research on reporting suicides in The Sun and the Nottingham Post ,showed that the press has become more alert to its responsibilities.

But being careful in reporting suicides and the drive to get page views, provides editors with dilemmas.

Editors know that they have a responsibility to report some suicides that are in the public interest.

But the pressure to ensure they fulfil their requirements in getting an audience will inevitably lead to them having to make difficult decisions about pushing the boundaries to maximise page views.

Some of you reading this may gasp in horror, but the reality is that good court copy, whether from an inquest, crown or magistrates court does well online.

And undoubtedly, in the pressure cooker world of an editorial room where staff are forever watching the audience stats, that fine line of reporting responsibly or chasing audience may become blurred.

This isn’t just something I believe, it is also what a number of editors talked about on the day of the conference.

On the flip-side, the other point made to me was that often the reason for not covering inquests was not based on a moral opinion but more down to lack of resources.

There is also real audience pressure, not just the stats.

With the world in conversation it is impossible to control certain web platforms from having a full and frank discussion about a suicide.

They are not governed or feel responsible to abide by the advice on reporting suicides.

This often leads to criticism of the main media for failing to report as much information and accusations of a cover up.

Once again, more pressure for an editor to decide how much can and cannot be written.

What we do know is that at least the debate is ongoing and this can only help editorial staff to make better, more informed decisions in the future when it comes to covering suicides.

Just one last thought, it seems this is often forgotten. Only the coroner can decide if a death is a suicide, the press should not speculate.