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 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.

Are free newspapers dead and buried? As Trinity Mirror newspaper managers ‘quietly’ close another title, is there a future for the poor old free ‘rag’

advertiser

The Sentinel Advertiser is one of a number of free newspapers which have bitten the dust in recent months.

Is the free weekly free newspaper on the endangered species list?

In the late 70s and throughout the 80s and 90s the free newspaper was a must-have and must-be seen to have toy of every newspaper group.

They were a cash cow, free to thousands of more readers than their paid for chums, hitting thousands of homes a week, even if readers didn’t want them.

Often cheap to run with cheaper advertising, they were the ugly sister, but effective in bringing in revenue.

Advertisers loved them with their large distribution network.

Hacks were not so kind and laughed in darkened corners of pubs as they described using them for their cat’s litter tray.

Free newspapers were like border guards, making sure no other newspaper group was tempted to set up a paid for or free newspaper in their area.

Quietly, before Christmas, one of my old newspaper’s, The Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, closed its free newspaper, The Advertiser.

A bit of a pauper’s funeral for this once hallowed piece of newsprint.

This newspaper was a beast at its pomp with multiple editions and a vast distribution, up to 80,000, if my memory serves me right.

It took the title from the original Sentinel newspaper which used to be called the Staffordshire Sentinel and Commercial and General Advertiser — which hit the streets on January 7, 1854.

As I remember, it used to bring in more than £20,000 a week but slumped to around £5,000.

Its death knell was sounded long before it finally closed with distribution slashed without hardly a word to anyone outside the building.

When they first started, free papers had their own staff, but as time and cost-savings gripped the industry they were put together by the same staff as the main paper, as an after-thought.

While I was at The Sentinel , the Advertiser was reinvented on at least three occasions. It used to be full of all the local stories the news editor didn’t fancy.

Then an edict from on high went out from Northcliffe HQ that the newspapers had to be filled with the best of the stories from the paid-for title.

This sent editors into despair. Already under fire from falling circulations and the demands of the internet, the free paper was now in direct conflict with the main title.

But this idea quickly hit the rocks and the next reincarnation came when it was decided that free newspapers should just have trivia and gossip with little or no real local content.

I redesigned The Advertiser into a modern ‘i-style’ newspaper with a load of short gossip stories, no real leads, big pictures and wall-to-wall trivia.

Editors sighed collectively, no more local content and one of the thorns in their circulation woes removed.

At another time, withdrawing your border control newspaper would be tantamount to letting a rival onto your patch.

But these closures just keep coming, Trinity Mirror  recently announced closures and merges of four free newspapers.

Trinity Mirror is not a lone in closing titles. Research by the Media Reform Coalition and the Press Gazette showed that Newsquest, Johnston, Archant and Tindle have all been forced to close titles.

Some of the closures have been due to mergers and having two titles on one patch when only one is required, some others have been due to cost-cutting because the title wasn’t making enough cash.

Since 2005, 198 newspaper titles have perished.  It’s not all bad news, a snap-shot by the Press Gazette shows that in 2015, 46 local and regional newspapers closed with 29 opening, a net loss of 17.

Despite the fact that some people have the guts to set up a new title, the feeling is that you don’t really need a free newspaper to protect your daily because you would need blind optimism to set up a newspaper in these troubling times.

On the other hand, a niche magazine might work nicely, but that’s for another discussion.

So, does this mean the free newspaper is dead? Far from it.

The endangered species tend to be those attached to a bigger paid-for title or in an area where a takeover has happened and multiple titles from the same group are fighting over the same ground.

Soon, when cover price fails to bring in a good chunk of the profit like it did for newspapers such as The Sentinel, the inevitability is that paid for titles will follow the path of some newspapers and become free or part-free.

The London Standard is already free and papers like the Manchester News are free at certain times of week, many other papers are in a similar position.

Just check out the ABC sales figures and look at the last column which shows actively purchased sales, or the percentage of pure sale, for example, the MEN is just over 56 per cent.

Others will follow this trend as the cover price income drifts into oblivion.

It has been interesting to watch the cover price philosophy of late. I have always believed that newspapers have been too cheap.

This meant there was a culture of keeping the lid on the price and rises were one or two pence at a time.

Now, as circulation drops off, the newspaper groups in their wisdom have kept hiking the prices up. The policy seems somewhat flawed.

If a product is doing well, add a few pence on and hope sales are not hit too hard. Now the policy seems destined to bleed the paper dry, whack up the price, and watch the sales decrease at a faster rate.

The cocktail for decline is greater than just everyone is going online. Higher prices, poorer distribution, cheaper paper, poor print quality, far fewer staff, fewer editions have all helped to stick the knife in.

But whisper it quietly, despite the decline, guess where most of the cash comes from? Yep, print…for now.

P.S Did you see the study by Munich and City University academic Neil Thurman which describes how online readers spend 30 seconds a day on the national newspaper web sites compared with 40 minutes in print.

This is surely the reason advertisers will never spend the same amount of cash online as they do in newspapers, they simply have the audience for longer in print.