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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Why following my leader on Twitter can be unhealthy for council press officers

In the corridors of power, Twittergate has sent a shudder down the backs of all those who work in the press offices of local authorities. Thanks to a Freedom of Information request by BBC reporter Phil McCann, an uncomfortable series of emails has been revealed.

Council staff composed and posted Tweets in the name of the council leader, Michael Jones.

The Tory councillor approved messages written by Cheshire East Council’s media team.

Of course the problem is that the poor old communications gang, which is required to be politically neutral, then posted the Tweets under Mr Jones’ name. Rightly so, there are allegations of misuse of public resources.

Wisely, Mr Jones has said that he no longer uses staff to draft and post Tweets. Nevertheless, the Tweets were published on Mr Jones’ personal account, which has a disclaimer to say the opinions expressed are personal and not on behalf of the council.

While some of the Tweets look neutral, it is clear that many are not. The BBC quote this as an example:  “Moribund Miliband talks of a national mission. A mission to economic disaster.”

This is not only an issue of neutrality. The poor old taxpayer has effectively been paying for Mr Jones to put over his political messages  via the press office, obviously not great value for the taxpayers’ hard-earned.

The Local Government Act prohibits authorities from publishing “any material which appears to have an effect on public support for any political party”.

Thankfully, the BBC has taken its investigation further and found that Cheshire East Council’s constitution specifies staff, “should avoid being drawn into discussions of politically contentious matters.” It adds: “Any input should be consistent with the requirements for political impartiality.” So all this is pretty clear.

Why the media staff didn’t object to Mr Jones’ Tweets is unclear, they had every right too.

The question to be asked is whether press offices of local authorities should have their own enforceable code of conduct, similar to the Editors’ Code? You could argue that there are rules set out as mentioned earlier in this article, but is it enough?

There is a thin line between political propaganda and quality unbiased information. If you have five minutes, the emails between the press office and Mr Jones are a bit of an eye-opener, they are attached. Members of the opposition are slightly miffed about what has been going on. No surprise there then.

The emails between Cheshire East Council media office and Councillor Michael Jones.