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.

Editors, the great beasts of the newsroom face extinction as the desire for money replaces ethical journalism

Editors. Those great beasts of the newsroom. So often they have been misunderstood by those who work with them.

They are made out to be characters to fear, as if they are some peculiar villain from a Hammer House of Horror film.

Every newsroom I have entered had a legend about their editor and some terrible, dark deed.

The reality is that commercial pressures are so strong that many newspapers have buried or not reported stories involving some advertisers like the Daily Telegraph and HSBS.

The reality is that commercial pressures are so strong that many newspapers have buried or not reported stories involving some advertisers like the Daily Telegraph and HSBS.

Eccentric behaviour included throwing typewriters out of windows, threatening staff with violence, pulling a gun out on a senior member of staff or just snarling at journalists as they headed through the newsroom on their way to the pub.

Some were so feared you never spoke to them unless you were called into their throne room.

The stories all had an element of ‘brutality’ of the boss. As time went on this feeling changed to admiration as staff realised this psychopathic behaviour was all about creating an aura in a bid to protect the newspaper and its brand.

The editor needed to be bullet-proof to help them in the fights that lay ahead.

One of the main battlegrounds was editor v the advertising department.

Don’t get me wrong, all editors I have known were more than aware of the need for the business to turn a coin, indeed, many are more commercially savvie than their advertising counterparts.

However, the editor has always had to look at the bigger picture. Why sell your soul for a £150 quarter page ad if the brand would be damaged?

The battles over the horrific ad features were long and hard, as were the fights to stop ‘L-shaped’ ads on page one or full-page ads on the back page of paid for newspapers.

Why would you want to read about your local football team when you could view the latest ad for Virgin trains?

Why fight? Simply, readers mainly buy the paper for news, not adverts. Get the audience in to read the newspaper and the ads would be read. No-one ever said to me I can’t wait to pick up the newspaper for that half-page ad for double-glazing.

So the editor has always been there to protect the brand. Unfortunately, this often led to scenes which wouldn’t have been out of place in a sequel to the Godfather.

Ad reps could often be seen quivering as they presented the latest ugly ad feature planned for page five. The editor’s laser eyes would fix on the poor rep as they tried to persuade them to bend this one time.

What the editor knew was if they did bend the rules once, the floodgates would open and the next move would be for a full-page front page advert selling the delights of a local seedy massage parlour.

But life has changed, a creeping theft of space higher up the book is on the march, first pages two and three were surrendered to full-page adverts, then the back and the future of all front pages is under scrutiny.

Slowly, the power of editors has been removed, those in charge don’t believe they have a use and there are mutterings that all journalists should be editors-in-chief. How wrong they are.

The pressure is on to put ads in places which was usually the realm of quality stories.

As newspaper companies manage their decline, they are trying to bleed the business dry and accentuating the decline by caving in to the desires of advertisers.

Peter Oborne has already lifted the lid on the Daily Telegraph bowing to commercial pressure by failing to publish stories about one of its advertisers, HSBC.

What has surprised me is that everyone seems so horrified. For years there have been heated debates between editors and managing directors about whether a negative story about an advertiser should be published.

Rightly, the editor has stood their ground. But this breed of editor is being surgically removed from newspapers across Britain.

They are being replaced with journalists who, through no fault of their own other than they have diminished power, just say ‘yes’ to everything or face being black bagged.

Once again, I stress that editors more than anyone understand the principles of business and know cash is important, but they would never dream about not printing a court story about an advertiser.

This would be a rocky road for the so-called Fourth Estate which is meant to be independent of government and business.

Readers definitely want to know if there’s a crooked car dealer or butcher in town, but the likelihood of publication is now not a given as in a previous life.

There will be former editors who will be shouting at me over this statement, telling me that it’s time the new class of editors ‘grew some balls’, so to speak. This is not that easy when your opinion holds little or no weight in the business.

Nick Davies in his book Hack Attack says: “The commercial pressure in UK newsrooms is relentless, particularly for mass-circulation titles.”

His point is that journalists have to get that exclusive whatever it takes to ensure that a newspaper sells and revenue tumbles in from sales.

The problem is that with falling sales nationally and locally, great stories aren’t going to bring in massive sales so there’s a decline in revenues.

To make up for this revenue shortfall is the desire to sell space wherever an advertiser wants it, to the detriment of the entire product.

Peter Oborne is right to be outraged, but as we are finding out in this bitter spat between national newspapers is that, with a nod and a wink, newspapers have been protecting big spending advertisers for some while.

The truth is that similar decisions on what to and what not to publish about certain advertisers is going on all of the time, these are not isolated incidents.

The editors of old were right to stand firm, but like dinosaurs they are about to become extinct and the newspaper industry is a poorer, less ethical place without them.