Every week, we must make our relationships with readers less weak

It wasn’t until I met a woman in the garden of a Bath café that I really appreciated the fragility and eccentricity of newspaper reader loyalty.
“Oh, yes, I used to get the Chronicle, but then the kids grew up,” she told me.
Ok, I thought, perhaps she’s turned off by our wall-to-wall schools coverage and avalanche of First Class, Last Day, Nativity and Prom supplements.
But no.
“Once they were out of primary school, I didn’t need to keep making stuff out of papier mache,” she explained.
A thread that snaps at the slightest gust of wind. That, if we’re not careful, is pretty much what newspapers’ relationships with their readers can end up like.
As we go online for our grocery shopping, as lunch hours disappear, as factories close and as the working day lengthens, the chances of us buying a paper diminish. Especially if it’s one that comes out every day.
That conversation on a sunny morning in suburban Bath came a few years after we had taken the Chronicle from daily to weekly publication.
It was the right thing to do – and it was the right thing for the papers on my doorstep in Gloucestershire to do this week.

Our industry’s fragile hold on its customers means that the number of daily regional titles which survive into the 2020s will be limited indeed.
Time poverty, age profile and societal changes all conspire against six-day-a-week consumption of all printed products, but especially against regional ones.
My children are 19 and 23, and have never bought a newspaper in their lives. I wonder if they ever will.
Smaller regional titles risk becoming caught in a destructive vicious circle of price rises combined with anaemic yet overblown content thrown together by teams battling to hit web targets.
Print is still where the majority of the money is, and there is some merit in Metro editor Ted Young’s arguments against it being given the last rites .
But regional print as we know it will not last forever.

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Offering a weekly rather than daily product gives titles a bit more of a fighting chance.
It ought to buy editorial teams the time for more analytical pieces, for writing that really sings, and for a decent sense of proportion that genuinely sees the wood for the trees.
It would be simplistic and patronising to characterise this as nutritious, home-cooked fare in contrast to the e-number-packed fast food that keeps the Chartbeat wolf from the door.
But it is the sort of coverage that stands the greatest chance of building loyalty, of strengthening those gossamer-thin bonds with potential readers.
I’m glad that my friends at the Echo and Citizen spent the first two days of their new weekly regime getting to know their readers at mini-roadshows.
Because, as I have said before, we fear what we don’t know.
If we can build both trust and loyalty, we can start to take our readers to new places, to challenge them to think differently and to consider fresh ideas.

In TV interviews where I’ve been asked to analyse the move to weekly publication, the question of the long-term future of newspapers has been ever-present.
I don’t know if my children will ever pay real money for news on bits of dead trees.
But that trust and loyalty will be needed to win their attention wherever we present our regional news. And building that has to be a daily task and a daily priority – however often you publish.

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Journalism: a marathon AND a sprint

I’ve been to two journalistic leaving dos in the last few days.

Both the departures were of reporters in their 20s, both of them leaving mainstream journalism.

Which might be seen as sad, particularly as I welcome 24 new students to our university journalism course.

There’s no sadness on my part, though. I know both are heading off to futures that they are going to embrace and enjoy.  And I know that in many ways they wouldn’t be on that journey without the experiences, training and confidence that journalism has given them.

I write this as my friends at Gloucestershire Live come to the end of a difficult process that will see jobs lost as the Echo and Citizen titles go weekly and the departure of Matt Holmes – an editor who has inspired scores of colleagues down the years, and who it has been a pleasure to have worked with.

At both leaving dos, as indeed happens pretty much everywhere I go, I was asked the same question. One, indeed, that I was also asked when I appeared on BBC Points West to discuss the Gloucestershire papers shake-up.

What do you say to your students? Are you honest with them about the state of the industry?

The answer is that we are very honest.

That candour involves an acceptance that media and journalism now cover a multitude of sins, and that the sorts of jobs which editors now need to fill have changed.

But, as I said in a recent blog aimed at new journalism students, there remains no shortage of work for people with the right ability, determination, emotional intelligence, organisation and enthusiasm.

And I also point them towards a building that remains a potent and poignant symbol of journalism’s potential – both for good and evil.

I worried when Grenfell Tower fell out of the news agenda.

We should never allow the lessons of that watershed moment to be forgotten, or eclipsed by new concerns.

I will be spending a lot of time talking about the implications of Grenfell Tower with our students this year.

Because every challenge that currently faces journalism is writ large here.

From the trade-off between speed and accuracy to the balance between wall-to-wall coverage and intrusion, along with the recognition that most journalists do not reflect the demographics of the areas they cover.

And above all else, the failure of media organisations across the capital to be in touch with their communities – to see and hear the writing on the wall of residents’ association blogs and cynical council cost-cutting.

It’s been hugely refreshing to see Newsnight’s incredible storytelling this week, focussing on presenting the tower’s tenants as fascinating, engaging people whose lives shouldn’t be defined by tragedy.

My overarching message to our first years, to all journalism students, and all journalists everywhere is this: Get it right, and we stop Grenfell Tower happening again. Get it wrong, and such tragedies recur time and time again. It’s as simple and as serious as that.

There’s a hint of this in a hard-hitting valedictory piece by an editor whose paper is being shut, Sarah Cox.

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It includes a wonderful description from literature of what journalism should do:

‘The job of the newspaper is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable’

We talked at those leaving dos of how knackering journalism is. It’s relentless, it’s exhausting. But it’s also deeply exhilarating, and addictive.

I now like to think of journalism as a little like one of my other loves: running.

There are parts that have to be a sprint: the reaction to breaking news, of course, but also the content that gets written to meet search criteria, and for short-term web target gains.

And there should be no reason to fear software such as Chartbeat, which gives us more information than we have ever had before about our readers’ habits and behaviour.

Why would we not want to write stuff that people want to read?

But there must be some marathon journalism as well.

I was immensely cheered when those friends at Gloucestershire Live found the time and space to tell the story of the devastating floods of 2007 ten years on recently.

It was superbly executed, with stories beautifully told.

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When I spent a week with them in the summer, I also heard a phrase that brought joy to my heart: ‘Let’s play the long game.’

That was a decision not to use a social media picture of a crash victim to avoid upsetting a bereaved community, and to build up goodwill for the future.

As long as phrases such as long game are still being used, there will be a long term for journalism.

And there will be a bright future for journalism students trained for both the marathon and the sprint.

PS: That picture is me, by the way. I’m not proud of myself.

Eight tips for new journalism students

I’m looking forward to Monday.

I’ve been looking forward to it for weeks, if the truth be told.

I’m hoping 25 other people share my sense of anticipation and excitement.

Because at around 10am, they will officially become first year journalism students with us.

Over the next couple of weeks, at other journalism courses around the country, a few hundred more students will join them on similar adventures.

So what will we be saying to our new friends? What advice is there for all these folk setting their sights on an industry facing such massive challenges?

1. Make the most of every opportunity

Our course mantra is Say Yes To Everything. You will be offered all manner of chances to go on trips, get involved in event coverage, help with projects, hear from expert speakers and complete work placements.

Try to adopt a default setting of having a go at everything. You never know what doors will open, what connections you’ll make and what new insights you’ll get.

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2. Plan ahead

One of my personal gems of wisdom is Let Planning Be Your Friend. Planning sounds deadly dull – but it allows you to do the really interesting things you want to do. In most cases, there is no new information coming along about the timing of assessments; at the start of term you will know all the dates of all your hand-ins for next few months, as well as the details of your academic timetable. Put all these in whatever calendar you use, and start plotting now when you’re going to work on essays, blogs, projects and so on. Then there should be no surprises, with every piece of work having its allocated slot. Get this right and you will be developing a journalistic skill that will be invaluable in a real newsroom. Plus, you’ll be able to pinpoint the days and nights when you’re free to do your own thing.

3. Attend lectures

One of my bosses uses the analogy of gym membership when persuading students they need to squeeze every drop of value out of their £9,250 annual investment. You won’t get fit just by signing up to that standing order. The more you engage with the timetable and your lecturers, the healthier your academic life will be, and the more we’ll want to help you.

4. Consume news

Read websites. Watch TV. Listen to radio. Immerse yourself in social media. Be aware of current affairs and get used to critically evaluating content and coverage. Above all, appreciate great storytelling, brilliant writing and incisive interviewing.

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5. Think like a journalist

Your uni life isn’t just about assessments and marks. Keep your eyes and ears open. See story and content potential everywhere. Write (see below). Take a real interest in people and their lives, and make every contact and connection count. Everyone you meet potentially has a story to tell.

6. Write

Blog. And keep blogging. Make sure your writing muscles get regular exercise and that your work is seen by other people. Get involved in student newspapers and websites, like   the one run by our students.

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7. Ask for help

Don’t suffer in silence. Don’t assume. Don’t think your problem or question is silly or trivial. Don’t let feelings of anxiety overwhelm you. As in journalism in what we might call the real world, one of the most important questions you can ever ask is: Can you explain that again? There is no shame in not understanding something. The shame is in pretending you do.

8. Count your blessings.

You are on the threshold of what could be the best three years of your life, taking your first steps towards what I still believe can be the best job in the world. Whether or not you end up in what we might call traditional journalism, you are acquiring skills which are beautifully transferable. There is no shortage of work on offer for someone with the right mixture of determination, ability, emotional intelligence, organisation and enthusiasm.

The economics of journalism have never been more challenged. But the need for journalism has never been greater.

There are stories to be told, injustices to be exposed and communities to be galvanised in every corner of the earth.

Go to it – and enjoy yourselves.

 

Why Marc’s Brummie newsroom plan might mark the way ahead

We journalists do like a bit of extreme weather.

Perhaps not as extreme as Hurricane Irma, and certainly we don’t want to see death and destruction.

But the threat of blizzards, floods and high winds can galvanise a newsroom, satisfying the heart with the warm glow of public service journalism and the head with soaring web figures.

Having said that, I always wanted there to be a bit of longevity to my weather crises.

A few years ago, we had a one-day snowstorm. For around 24 hours, there was the sort of mild havoc that turns Britain into a nation of hyperbole and mess when Mother Nature departs from the norm.

And the next day, it was over. Gone, forgotten, move along there’s nothing to see.

Which as a weekly news editor with a default setting of exasperated grumpiness, I found hard.

For a day, I’d thrown my admittedly fairly meagre newsroom resources at our website, reflecting the overwhelming priority of the day for our audience.

But that meant a day of doing nothing to fill the yawning chasms of the print product.

By the time the paper came out, my one-day White Hell was nothing more than a melted snowflake, barely worth even a piece of down page fill.

That was a few years ago, and the situation would be even starker now, with far higher web targets, and possibly even fewer reporters.

But there’s a man with a plan to square this ever-decreasing circle.

Step forward Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Mail and its website, Birmingham Live.

He has unveiled a vision for his newsroom that sees that website stand on its own two rapidly-moving feet.

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There will be a team of journalists who will be solely writing for Birmingham Live.

And here we are….

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As Marc acknowledges in his vision – and that weblink above is well worth clicking through to, once you’ve finished here – print still provides the majority of the cash flowing into Trinity Mirror’s coffers.

So we’ve been in the slightly mad situation of throwing the kitchen sink at a product which no one pays for, and which has generated relatively small income, to the neglect of the one which has been paying the bills through advertising and print sales.

But as Marc rightly says, we are living on borrowed time.

Digital income is rising. But the angle of that rise is still not as steep as that of the print income decline.

We’ve already lost some big name titles this year, with the Oldham Evening Chronicle the most shocking closure. Dozens more print products are staring down the barrel of double digit decline with only the default setting of self-destructive price rises in the owners’ armoury.

If I understand him rightly, Marc’s solution to this is to reimagine his newsroom as if it is funded only by digital revenue streams.

This will be a newsroom without cross-subsidy from print, and one not beholden to what  leaders at Trinity Mirror’s predecessor Local World used to describe as ‘the tyranny of print’.

There will still be people working on print, although for the most part they’ll be designers and those ‘filling in the gaps’. I’m sure some love will still be going into the version of the Mail you can actually fold up, but – in the absence of the sort of premium, added value journalism that powers subscription models such as The Times – I can’t see much that’s going to win new print business.

The announcement of the new lean, mean Brummie news machine has ended up in a bit of an inadvertent diary clash with the revelation that Trinity Mirror wants to spend £130 million on buying the Express and Star titles.

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Undoubtedly, Trinity Mirror will say the funding of such a deal is very different to the economies of its day to day regional newsroom operations.

But, to workers such as Ex-sports hack, those £130 million still have the Queen’s head on them in the same way as the extra few quid that could be in his or her bank account do.

It’s clear to me that dividend-hungry shareholders and historic loans will almost always be a hurdle in the way of imaginatively-funded journalism.

But that’s a debate for another time.

What’s difficult about Marc’s plan is that it involves job losses. He’s trying to produce more news, better news, with fewer people.

That prospect still fills me with a degree of horror and disdain.

But there’s an honesty to his vision that I admire.

And I am hugely encouraged by his decision to involve the American organisation Hearken in work to ensure readers feel genuinely engaged.

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It’s not often that interesting, refreshing, and logical ideas come along in regional journalism.

I saw Marc speak a year ago and I liked the cut of his jib.

Having read his words, I like that jib still more.

I wish him luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why we can’t go on together with suspicious minds

I saw a sight which took my breath away this week.

The view from the top of Cheltenham’s tallest building is nothing short of amazing.

It was well worth the effort.

But it wasn’t just negotiating the lifts and stairs that got me to the top, and to a really satisfying piece for GloucestershireLive.

I had to overcome a few suspicious minds along the way, too.

The manager of the building said she had always been wary of journalists. And she was keen for one of her colleagues to sit in on all my interviews with the building’s tenants.

I found myself explaining my motivation several times over.

I simply wanted to write a through-the-keyhole, behind-the-scenes feature on a landmark that everyone in Cheltenham knows from the outside, but few have ever seen from the inside.

It’s not quite GCHQ, but the Eagle Tower is intriguing.

I wasn’t interested in minor gripes over leases, and I wasn’t there to do a hatchet job.

And, by the end of my two visits spread over three hours, everyone had relaxed, and I was an old friend.

I didn’t take the initial suspicion personally.

But there were clear signs that the image of journalism is too often one of glasses being half-empty rather than half-full, and of a profession looking for trouble that isn’t to be trusted.

And here’s the thing. The less people feel the benefit of journalism, the more that perception will grow.

There is a real risk of a disconnect between journalists and the people they write about. We fear the unknown, and journalists have become the unknown.

Somehow we need to be talking directly to more of our community.

There are some beautiful and telling thoughts in this analysis by American journalist Ross Barkan on the future of the regional media.

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We have the quantity of communication, with more ways of getting in touch with audiences than ever before, and online readership numbers that theoretically dwarf any print record highs. But do we have the quality?

If people see, speak to, and know their local reporters, they’re going to be more ready to trust and value their work.

When I was a news editor, I used to spend most Thursday mornings with a reporter in a café or pub somewhere in Bath. Our ‘surgeries’ weren’t just a means to get stories, they were also a great way of meeting readers, and persuading them that journalists didn’t come with horns on their heads and cloven hooves.

The dangers of that gulf between journalists and their communities are all around us.

They’re writ large in the horror of Grenfell Tower, where newsroom cuts meant journalists were looking the other way as residents issued stark, prescient warnings over fire safety.

They’re there in the gut-wrenching bombshell closure of the Oldham Evening Chronicle: an 163-year-old daily paper that’s there one minute and gone the next.

And they’re there at the bus stops of my home city of Plymouth. It’s relatively trivial stuff in the great scheme of things, but my mum and dad are losing a bus service they rely heavily on.

They knew the axe was falling, but they’ve had to spread that news to many of their friends and fellow bus customers.

They knew because my mum gets the Plymouth Herald virtually every day. But she’s in a minority. Too many of that service’s passengers get on with their lives in blissful ignorance of community life, even though they may have called Plymouth home for decades.

We need a strong local media both to expose the kind of strategic complacency, cynicism and cackhandedness that lay behind Grenfell Tower, as well as to highlight minor but significant attacks on our quality of life such as bus cuts.

Never is the regional media’s role in binding communities together more important than in times of citywide crisis.

That might be the Manchester Evening News rising brilliantly to the challenge of covering terrorism tragedy on its doorstep. Or it might be the inspirational work of the Houston Chronicle over the biblical floods in Texas. There’s a nice line in this Washington Post piece on such coverage, too.

Think about finding a way to support local journalism. You never know when you might need it yourself.

If we’re not careful, more towns and cities will follow the depressing example of Oldham.

We must fight to stop newspapers and their websites joining post offices and churches as community assets that everyone wants to stay open but few will actually tangibly support.

There is no magic bullet here. We are in very difficult demographic, financial and cultural territory. And former South Wales Argus editor Kevin Ward isn’t wrong when he questions the default setting of cuts and more cuts adopted by the boards of directors of some regional media firms.

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But I’m not giving up.

There is hope to be found, with the example of a site in Denver in the USA one such beacon.

And the one thing I know is that the most successful and sustainable journalism is the journalism that is closest to its people.

The kind where journalists are so much more than faceless bylines, disembodied phone voices, and robotic Facebook posts.

Face to face, eyeball to eyeball – as well as on every social media platform – we have to keep on keeping on. With charm, with humour, with determination, with sensitivity, and above all, with a shared sense of community and humanity.

When it comes to our audiences, we need to move from Suspicious Minds to Always On My Mind.

And It’s Now Or Never.

The microwave reporting that’s no substitute for real journalism

I had a heart-warming email from a student with only a year under her belt at our uni this week.
She was one day into a work placement at a high profile national magazine.
Her verdict: “It’s so fun, and I don’t want to leave.”

Having spent several days last week visiting newsrooms and other media contacts to discuss work experience and generally keep our industry links warm and fruitful, this was music to my ears.
Now that I’m on the other side of the work placement table, a key priority is to ensure that our students’ stints in newsrooms fan a flame rather than snuff one out.
There’s another blog in that, for another time.
But that email also delighted me because it confirmed there was still fun and satisfaction to be had in journalism.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never really doubted it.
But a wave that has been building for a few years has finally broken in the last couple of weeks.
In days gone by, the phrase ripping yarn would have been one of the highest forms of praise for a reporter, as well as a reference to a damn fine Monty Python spin-off.

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Now Ripping Yarns is more likely to be a job description.
Staff in at least two London newsrooms have complained that the joy has been sucked out of their working days by a cut and paste culture that sees them rewriting other outlets’ stories to the virtual exclusion of original journalism.
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Of course, newsrooms have always given fresh life to their rivals’ revelations, and there will always be a place for getting extra angles on other folks’ stories. But we have now moved into a whole new ball game.
The issue was given a decent airing on Radio 4’s excellent The Media Show, where Press Gazette editor Dom Ponsford hinted that more revelations were to come. Now his website has pointed the finger at International Business Times, where it is claimed a change in Google algorithms which punished the IBT has led to a new derivative and target-driven regime.
The granddaddy of industrial-scale news story production is, of course, Mail Online.
I know enough people who’ve worked there to be in no doubt how soul-destroying following up – if that’s not too generous a phrase for it – other titles’ work can be in that sort of factory farm environment.
Journalism professor Roy Greenslade has also weighed in recently, with tales of woe from his City University graduates about life on the online frontline.

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As he so rightly says, to see young journalists at the start of their careers have creativity purged and dreams shattered as they’re broken on the ripping newsroom wheel is nothing short of heart-breaking.
It’s microwave reporting – bunging something someone else has slaved over into your formulaic machine, giving it a stir and then serving it up four minutes later.
And it’s the sort of writing that NCTJ examiners are beginning to wring their hands about in their feedback over the latest NQJ exam today, with concerns that reporters are getting out of the habit of detailed reporting.
I have spent my life talking to journalists about why they came into this fantastic profession – and about why they decided to leave.
The answers to the first question can vary. They might want to make a difference. They might want to hold power to account. They might love writing, and telling other people’s fascinating stories. But at the heart of it will be a desire to open the world’s eyes to something new.
And when that desire becomes unfulfilled, the love affair with journalism ends.
In too many newsrooms, there is a disconnect between the needs of the employer and the needs of the employee. The business model is in direct conflict with the instincts of the people being asked to make it work.
There may be a way to make money from secondhand storytelling.
But the people doing it won’t feel like journalists. And we shouldn’t call it journalism.

Could student-run news sites challenge the regional media?

It’s on days like these that I remember what a very senior editor said to me when I told him I was becoming a university lecturer.

“You know what the three best things about being a lecturer are, don’t you? June, July and August.”

And there’s an extent to which he’s right. I’m working today. But from home. I started at about 9, after taking my car to the garage, and I’ll knock off around 4.

When I was a news editor, my typical Tuesday would have seen me getting into the office at around 6am and leaving 13 hours later.

I still put in some 12-hour days, but they’re few and far between, and they usually involve some sort of trip. Mostly I’m a 7.30 to 4.30 guy these days.

So I acknowledge that the relationship between the media industry and our area of academia can be like a bad marriage: characterised by suspicion, jealousy and arguments over divisions of labour.

We don’t always help ourselves, and I occasionally cringe at the holier-than-thou ‘research’ outputs of one or two of my journalism department counterparts from around the country.

But I do my best to be a friendly face in as many newsrooms as possible. I’m visiting three next week (including that editor’s), and I’m working in a fourth later this month.

Essentially, we’re on the same side here. We’re fighting for good journalism.

So how can we improve relations still further?

Former editor Neil Fowler knows what he’d like to do.

In a piece for InPublishing, he’s floated the idea of universities incubating new not-for-profit news organisations.

Students would be the journalists, providing output for a printed weekly, a website, TV and radio, with a paid manager and potential for commercial advertising.

It’s an intriguing idea, and one which provokes conflicting thoughts.

One is that organising students can be like herding cats.

But no matter.

Another – and the one that has so far been the main stumbling block for Neil’s idea – is that it would require courses like ours to be delivered in two rather than three years, and for students (and people like me) to give up some of those long holidays.

We could go down all kinds of fascinating side streets debating the pros and cons of two-year degrees – and this Guardian Higher Education Network piece is a good start for that.

But it’s far from simple.

The success of the relatively new Cambridge Independent weekly suggests that launching a new print product might not be completely barking mad.

You’d have to pick your location well, though. Certainly in our neck of the woods, the market is pretty crowded. And TV and radio? I’m not so sure.

But there is something in what Neil says.

The one thing that is crystal clear to me is that the regional news organisations that are most likely to survive are the very local, and the very small.

The continued expansion of the Bristol-based Voice publications – which now involve a couple of friends of mine – makes a compelling case for universities to do more to encourage entrepreneurial journalism.

It’s something we do reasonably well, but there must always be room for improvement.

I can see a role for universities in supporting second and final year students in setting up their own website or websites.

But they must be organic, slightly anarchic – and real. They must reflect passion.

As one of my Twitter heroes, Dr Dave Harte of Birmingham City University, has found, running hyperlocal news sites can be a labour of love.

And they must be sustainable – either growing into independent businesses, or being handed down between year groups.

There’s no doubt that developing business nouse isn’t seen as a top priority by too many university journalism departments.

More and more of our students are going to be working for themselves in future.

Neil Fowler’s idea could just be a very useful reminder that we need to prepare them for that.