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.

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

I digress.

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

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

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

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

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

He gathered all his news online, he added.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We worked really hard, we played hard as well.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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