Defending the vast majority of journalists and journalism means acknowledging that some of what our trade does is unacceptable

There are 80,000 of us in the UK.

That’s more than twice the population of, oh, I don’t know, let’s pluck a totally random and royally irrelevant place out of the sky….Windsor.

Journalists are all different.

We do different things, cover different stories, have different relationships with impartiality, and different relationships with accountability.

And yet there is an organisation that seeks to speak up for us all.

It’s one that has been a wonderful defender of the freedom of the press, a supporter of the regulator IPSO, a campaigner for better access to the courts, a fighter for freedom of information, and a passionate critic of those who seek to muzzle investigative journalism.

I’ve never quite got round to joining the Society of Editors, but I have long admired its work.

Until this week, that is.

Because in the last couple of days that passionate critic role has gone into an outrageous overdrive.

It’s done a great job in bringing together all those disparate groups of journalists – in condemnation of its actions.

As Chris Whitty and Sir Patrick Vallance updated MPs on the best way to beat covid, dozens of us were doing our own social distancing from a blunderbuss, tone deaf statement put out by the SoE in response to Meghan and Harry’s sit down with Oprah Winfrey.

That interview was packed with criticism of the British media, and particularly its barely-disguised hostility to the Duchess of Sussex and even more barely-disguised hostility to immigrants.

That way in which elements of the national media can pander to the lowest common denominators in our society in a corrosive and damaging fashion is a phenomenon that can be seen from space.

Everyone knows it happens. Few of us look it in the eye and challenge it.

Before the SoE issued a statement denying that the British media was bigoted and racist, plenty of journalists – particularly those in the regional sector – had already begun that distancing process.

‘Don’t tar us all with the same brush,’ was a common theme on Twitter.

The reporting – and particularly the commentators and headlines – that can be seen in the Mail and Telegraph is a world away from the whites-of-their-eyes journalism practised by tens of thousands of responsible writers and broadcasters. People who live with the consequences of their journalism, because they live in the communities they write or broadcast about.

But that indignant statement – bristling with bruised pride and confected anguish – provoked a whole new set of ‘not in my name’ clarifications from journalists from across the spectrum.

And confirmation of the society’s inability to read the room came a day later when its executive director Ian Murray endured a car crash interview with Victoria Derbyshire.

This was a whole new orchestra of tone-deafness.

A white middle-aged man shouting at a woman questioning him about the racist bullying of another woman.

He might have thought he was defending journalism.

But that interview – like the statement before it – has done a disservice to our profession and the majority of the people in it.

That penny now seems to be dropping, with a hard-hitting letter to the SoE from senior journalists of colour, and some internal soul-searching among the society’s board.

Defending the vast majority of journalists and journalism means acknowledging that some of what our trade does is unacceptable.

The SoE should be driving up standards, with a new tide of ethical journalism that lifts all the boats, and makes it impossible for anyone to keep dredging the depths.

Otherwise the very best of journalism in this country will forever be tarnished by the very worst.

What’s the point of an inverted pyramid?

It’s an instinct that’s as old as the human race itself.

The first people to walk the earth used stories to teach their children, to keep themselves safe – and to make each other smile.

Nine thousand years on, those ambitions are still at the heart of the BBC’s famous mission statement: to inform, educate and entertain.

And they were at the heart of an uplifting online festival that our media school staged this week.

Telling Tales 2020 brought hundreds of students together to be inspired by journalists, sports stars, film-makers, actors, writers, musicians and digital artists.

Each of them in their own way is a storyteller.

Yesterday we gathered seven of our graduates together to discuss their career journeys that have taken them into broadcasting, social media, PR, regional journalism, video-making and marketing.

They were all beautifully complimentary about the teaching and support they received here.

But are journalism tutors like us teaching the right storytelling techniques?

In the last few weeks – as I have done for the last five years, and as hundreds of journalism lecturers have done before me, I introduced our first years to the concept of the inverted pyramid.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

For anyone outside our eccentric industry, the phrase would mean nothing.

After all, what’s the point of an upside-down pyramid?

What indeed.

The argument is that a story should gently peter out. The argument is that it should pack its first few paragraphs with all the juiciest information. The argument is – often – that there should be argument, with the to-ing and fro-ing of a row woven into a story’s structure.

And the argument, finally, is that a sub – those unsung heroes of print newsrooms – should be able to cut the story from the bottom up without having to spend too much time checking that vital details weren’t being lost.

To a generation blissfully unaware of the other meaning of words such as stone, leg and hamper, this rightly sounds like madness.

And they’re not the only ones.

I spent an hour recently having my own instincts turned as upside down as the very best inverted pyramid by the inspirational Shirish Kulkarni.

He has incredibly wise and striking things to say about a lot of journalistic life, particularly about the media industry’s continuing complacency over diversity.

And it’s that tendency for monolithic, white middle-class male thinking to dominate news judgements that also fuels his desire to tell stories in different ways.

Ways which are more digestible, natural, accessible, and constructive.

Rather than stoking rows between politicians, can we shed more light than heat by downplaying their contributions to stories?

Rather than repeating the kneejerk, painting by numbers, coverage of annual fixtures like the Budget or the January rail fare increases, can we explore the issues involved in a more constructively challenging way?

Rather than covering marginalised communities only when they launch photogenic protests, can we bring them into the centre of our conversations?

Rather than turning off younger audiences with our outdated journalese, can we enthuse and engage them to be more participative citizens?

And rather than offer predictable takes which only serve to reinforce polarised positions, can we gently provide better information to anaesthetise conspiracy theories?

Shirish is a master storyteller himself, and so there’s no better way of understanding his mission than reading it or seeing him talk about it yourself.

I’m still not entirely ready to ditch the inverted pyramid altogether.

There are some situations and stories – emergency incidents spring to mind – where it’s a useful way of concentrating the journalistic mind.

But it shouldn’t be the only news storytelling show in town.

Baby steps and eating elephants: how to help journalism students become employable

There’s a famous Chinese proverb that says a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.

On our uni course, we have our own version of this, which involves the only slightly less well-known concept of how to eat an elephant.

I regularly tie myself up in inappropriate knots at open days and interview days by asking this question of a room where I can guarantee utterly bemused vegans will be present.

It literally becomes the elephant in the room, until I explain what the hell I’m talking about.

Which is the importance of breaking big, intimidating things down into tiny, digestible pieces.

It’s about baby steps. It’s about the beautiful principle that small is beautiful.

It’s an approach we’re now having to apply to the challenge that is at the heart of everything we do: getting our students into a position where they can find work that will satisfy both their soul and their bank balance.

The environment into which we were about to release our oldest students has gone from slightly chilly in places to arctic wipe-out in the last four months.

Placements abruptly stopped, newsrooms have closed, publications and websites have been shut, and the number of media jobs now under serious threat is well into four figures.

We’ve laid on as much help as we possibly can for the resilient, hard-working, tech-savvy, lovely band of people who received their final results a few days ago.

One of the things we did was organise a Zoom Q&A session with employers and freelancing experts, which produced some really useful takeaway points.

We’ve now got a year before the Class of 2021 go out into the big wide world. And it’s a world that may not be a whole lot more hospitable.

The BBC won’t be offering placements again until next April at the earliest – a month before the formal end of our academic year.

There’s little sign of other mainstream newsrooms getting back to normal, with most non-production journalists expecting to continue to work from home for the foreseeable future.

I asked a friend in another part of the industry when he expected to have anyone other than non-essential staff back in his office.

“I don’t think anyone knows. We’re all waiting for a vaccine, aren’t we?” was his understandable reply.

Another friend told me of a regional reporting job vacancy that attracted no fewer than 60 applications. 

The conversations I would regularly have as recently as a year ago about smaller newsrooms’ inability to generate decent quality interest when advertising jobs are, I suspect, well and truly over for the moment.

So what’s to be done?

How do we break up this huge mammoth that stands between young people and a hopeful future?

How, equally importantly, do we ensure there are journalists and other communications specialists at a time when explaining the world to itself has never been more crucial?

I think the answer has to be by providing bite-sized opportunities.

Mini-meetings with key media employers. Micro-placements and projects, many of them internal or with charities. Tiny training blocks, working your way through the Google News Initiative suite of micro-courses. Gentle networking on social media, especially LinkedIn. 

Making the most of the webinars organised by great people such as the Freelancing for Journalists podcast team. Regularly and engagingly blogging. Finding news stories and content in every situation. Establishing targeted mentoring arrangements – something we hope to do for all our third years next year.

We’ve always told our students to treat every encounter as an opportunity.

Now it’s vital.

An industry contact told me this week that whenever he was emailed about work placements in the old world, he would always offer the chance for the hopeful person to have a quick tour of his newsroom, and meet some of the staff.

Most of the time – 19 times out of 20, in fact were his words – he never heard from that person again.

I’ve been helping one of our students today as she debates the best way to seek help and advice from some of the journalists doing the kinds of jobs she’d like to do.

Be brave, I said. Be brave, and interested, and interesting. And ask specific, knowledgable questions, rather than sweeping ones about general advice.

The help is there, even if the jobs may not be yet. 

Getting young would-be journalists to their goal is going to be difficult.

The opportunities won’t be so big and grand and conventional.

But vegan or not, they will eat that elephant.

Baby step by baby step, micro-opportunity by micro-opportunity, we will try to get them there.

(Picture: Denise PS)

No pictures: why editor was right to refuse to publish police appeal images after Colston statue removal

They used to drop into my newsdesk inbox several times a week.

Sometimes the pictures were dramatic and vivid, sometimes laughably bad.

Sometimes the information was detailed, engaging, helpful and comprehensive. Sometimes almost every question that any vaguely curious human being would have went unanswered.

Sometimes they were bang up to date. And sometimes they were a month old.

Those that fell in the last category were often the ones I never used.

But when it came to police witness appeals, it was rare for us to turn our noses up.

It was only annoyance at being expected to publish details of a crime that happened several weeks ago but which had only just been passed to the press office that stopped me from time to time.

It was the idea that actually informing the media about an incident should be some kind of last resort activity which stuck in my craw.

There are times, however, when there’s no sweeping an incident under the constabulary carpet.

One such event is the toppling of the statue of slave trader and benefactor Edward Colston in Bristol.

It couldn’t have been more public, or more extensively covered.

Rightly at the time, the police commander at the scene let events take their course, allowing the statue that was an insult to generations of black people in the city to be knocked off its perch, dragged to the waterside and pushed into the harbour.

But there was always going to be a reckoning. That same officer acknowledged that an offence had been committed, and that the police would want to try to bring the people involved to justice.

And so it was that earlier this week, Avon and Somerset Police released a collection of images of those people, after the city council confirmed it believed a crime had been committed.

You’d have seen them on BBC Points West, and in the Western Daily Press.

But you wouldn’t have seen them in the Bristol Post or on its Bristol Live website.

Not for the first – or last time – editor-in-chief Mike Norton has proved himself the thinking person’s editor.

As far as he was concerned – and coverage of racial issues in the city is never far from the top of his in-tray – he had no duty to help police find those responsible.

In a piece for the site he said the investigation into the statue damage was “at odds with what the majority of Bristolians believe should happen.”

Clearly neither he nor any other media have any obligation to publish any police appeals.

I don’t know how much soul-searching other media did before deciding to use the images.

I hope there was some, because this was a highly unusual crime.

So is it for the media to pick and choose which incidents it decides to help the police with?

Or is that principle already well established?

I think the answer to both questions has to be yes.

Every hour of every day, media organisations make decisions about which stories to cover, which sources to turn to, which issues to prioritise.

And there is a rich and noble tradition of editors refusing to act as agents of the state or the police.

It’s a fascinating debate – and one which pitted former colleagues of mine against each other.

But news websites and their editors have to read the rooms of their audience.

Mike has publicly admitted that there have been times when his paper has been on the wrong side of history when it comes to its reporting of the city’s BAME community.

This time, I think, he was quite firmly on the right side.

How to find work in a hopeless time

Scour the current vacancies sections of most major publishers today, and you’d be done before the kettle’s even boiled for the cup of tea you were going to have while job-hunting.

On the Reach site this morning is one editorial vacancy – for a local democracy reporter in Surrey: a role funded by the BBC. And on the Newsquest site: nothing. Nada. Nowt.

And the picture isn’t hugely different in broadcasting, where there is still uncertainty over at least 450 jobs at the BBC, along with today’s request for voluntary redundancies, and the magazine sector, where firms such as Dennis and Bauer are tightening their belts.

This time last year, more than half of our graduates had found work in the media by now.

This year, none have.

The pandemic has crippled spending on advertising, played havoc with buying and shopping habits, and turned many assumptions about working life on their heads.

So what can our newest graduates – and our existing students – do to put themselves in the best position to get work?

We hosted a Zoom session with some of our key regional media employers – and dozens of our students – yesterday to find out.

Here are my main takeaways:

Be resilient

Editors from online, TV and radio all spoke of a rise – well documented elsewhere – of abuse against them and their staff. On Facebook, in the streets, and beneath their own stories, reporters are at best being questioned, and at worst threatened or physically attacked.

Newsroom leaders are now rightly trying to call time on much of this, but there’s no getting away from the fact that you do need to develop a thick skin in this job.

And that’s not just for protection against the audience you’re trying to serve; it’s also to deal with a whole range of other knockbacks, from the battle to get work in the first place to unhelpful press officers.

Now, more than ever, the ability to pick yourself up and try again – preferably with a smile on your face – is crucial.

Be versatile

All our editors and freelancing experts agreed that the ability to tell stories across multiple platforms was key.

So it’s not enough to be a good writer: you need sharp video and editing skills, and an understanding of what’s going to work for different social media platforms.

One advised our students to spend their summer ‘honing their skills’: filling the gaps in their skill set. Look at job adverts – if you can find any – and see how you match up with the skills and abilities being demanded. Whether it’s finally crossing the shorthand line, developing your confidence with InDesign, or practising Facebook Lives, it could be time very well spent.

Be productive

One of my mantras has always been to keep writing, to keep the muscles active and the words flowing.

No journalism student should be without a blog.

And my heart is frequently touched by the emotional honesty – and neat turns of phrase – in some of our students’ first person pieces.

But our panel was clear that this is base level blogging.

What’s more valuable is blogging that brings in expert sources, new voices, and fresh insights.

Unless your experience or situation is really unusual, the personal sort of blogging is unlikely to be your passport to commissioning or employment success.

It goes without saying that good ideas – ideas that no one else has had – for content are gold dust. Always. So keep thinking, keep riffing, keep talking to friends and family about what’s on their minds.

Which perhaps is a good place to mention pitching: our magazine friend stressed the importance of answering the question ‘why should I write this piece?’ You should also answer that other hugely significant one: ‘why would anyone else read this piece?’

And stress-test your idea by coming up with your own headline. Never mind how would you tell this story, make sure you understand how you’d sell it, too.

Be prepared

We spent a good amount of time discussing how to prepare the ground for success at getting work – whether that be landing pitches or getting jobs.

These were the key thoughts:

social media: clean up your accounts, or have professional ones. All employers will audit your Twitter and LinkedIn accounts – so make sure they shout ‘engaged, interesting but impartial professional’ from the digital rooftops. It’s obvious that Ofcom-regulated organisations such as Sky are now cracking down on what their staff can tweet about, while the BBC has launched its own review of its staff’s social media use.

CVs: make sure you tailor your CV to the role or part of the industry you’re targeting. But have your own website or blog as well, and make sure it’s up to date.

networking: the editors on the call stressed they were always prepared to give up 20 minutes of their time to talk to students to help them get into the industry. But there are some ground rules. Be clear on exactly what you want advice about. Make sure you’ve researched the brand, station, or publication. And make sure they remember you for the right reasons. And then gently follow up, to keep reminding them of how good you are. Join Facebook groups for freelancers, and follow people such as Sian Meades-Williams and the Freelancing for Journalists podcast on Twitter.

Be optimistic

Good luck to anyone looking for work at the moment. Don’t give up. The qualities you’re now having to show are precisely the ones needed in the job itself. And of all those qualities, optimism and positivity are the ones we all want in the people around us.

Trump, Johnson and the Barrow thugs: When journalists are threatened, the blame goes right to the top

It’s nearly 3,500 miles from Washington DC to Barrow in Cumbria.

And they’re very, very different places.

But, for one journalist in the industrial town famed for its nuclear submarine production, there’s a clear line between her community and the White House.

For there in the Oval Office, sits a man who daily seeks to undermine trust in objective and responsible reporting.

A man for whom truth is a fluid, malleable concept, and who has at every turn attacked any media organisation which dares to even mildly hold him to account.

Trump makes it his business to whip up hatred of journalists, to encourage his voters to treat all reporting, any reporting, with at best suspicion, at worst contempt.

Slightly closer to Cumbria, in Britain’s own version of the Oval Office, Trump’s equally eccentrically-coiffured mate Boris Johnson is now pursuing a very similar path.

Neither Trump nor Johnson have cast doubt on the reporting of Amy Fenton of the Mail in Barrow.

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They haven’t directly whipped up the crowds of protesters who have demonstrated outside the Mail’s offices.

And – devoted Twitter user though he might be, Trump hasn’t been posting evil social media messages about Amy and her family.

But I do think we can draw an arc from Trump’s cynical undermining of honest reporting to the horrendous agony now being suffered by Amy.

This is a professional reporter who has been forced to move out of her house purely because of her dedication to chronicling the truth on her patch – and her publication’s refusal to break the law.

The Mail is under fire for not writing the sort of story that bigots want to read.

Talking of bigots, Boris Johnson clearly has form in encouraging really nasty behaviour. Leaving aside his willingness to supply information which would have helped his mate Darius Guppy get a journalist beaten up, his comments likening women wearing the burka to letterboxes  have been blamed for fuelling racist attacks.

His Downing Street regime has been ramping up – to use one of its favourite phrases – a war on challenging and investigative journalism.

Whether it’s the Guardian, the Sunday Times, the BBC, Good Morning Britain, Channel 4 News, or the brilliant Jen Williams of the Manchester Evening News, Johnson’s press office has been willing to sweep aside convention to launch lengthy but flawed rebuttals, and to personally target individual reporters.

All of this has come to a dangerous head with the Dominic Cummings affair, where the Number 10 press office chose not to respond to requests for a comment for weeks on end, and then attempted to grab the moral high ground over the very limited areas of the storytelling where speculation had got the better of the facts.

That wasn’t their finest or most transparent hour.

But on Monday, Cummings had the chance to give his account of events, direct to the British people, unfiltered by the media.

Those British people were not, by and large, impressed, with 71 per cent of them concluding he had broken the lockdown rules.

Let me just repeat that. After hearing directly from the horse’s mouth, rather than from the media, most people came to the conclusion that Cummings had behaved wrongly, and more than half decided he should leave his job.

And yet on Wednesday, his alleged boss went specifically out of his way to labour the claim that much of the reporting had been false. Two days after Cummings had set out his case, Johnson was still trying to undermine reporting from five days before, still trying to shoot the messenger.

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On the one hand, it was like some ham-fisted attempt to rewrite that Two Ronnies sketch where the contestant answers the question before last.

The comments came as Johnson appeared before the Commons liaison committee in a performance that could quite easily be portrayed as comedic.

But, leaving aside the fact that these are matters of life and death, Johnson’s media strategy is also far from a laughing matter.

It is straight out of the Trump playbook: a deliberate attempt to muddy the waters so that the public feel that no reporting can truly be trusted.

Nothing gives Johnson and Co greater pleasure than hearing the public say: ‘I don’t know who to believe.’

For them, that’s job done. That’s earth thrown in the face of scrutiny, compromising clear vision and thought.

It becomes, as Paul Lewis of the Guardian has described it, government-endorsed trolling, and it’s a slippery slope that leads us to the rather more savage version conducted by thugs in Barrow.

However much some of us despise this country’s leadership, we take our moral tone from the top.

If the word in Downing Street is that it’s ok to attack journalists for telling the truth, we shouldn’t be surprised if on the streets of Barrow, that message is taken literally.

 

Be busy and be positive: how journalism students can best survive this crisis

This time last year, the first of our third years had found themselves jobs.

They’d all pretty much completed placements, emerging from their work experience in newsrooms, broadcasting studios and PR offices with renewed confidence and focus.

They were tying up the loose ends of their studies, cracking on with final year project features, surviving the odd wobble, and getting us to review their CVs and career plans.

We were laying our own plans, for one of the best weeks of the year: a final news week, culminating in a One Show-style TV programme, online magazine, and podcast, followed by a gloriously emotional end-of-course celebration.

It felt good. We’d brought them as far as we could, and we were sending them into a world where we had confidence they’d be able to stand on their own two feet.

Things look very different 12 months on.

Our latest final year students will be graduating into an economic recession the likes of which most of us have never seen before. Placements suddenly ceased just before Easter, and some final year projects have had to be hastily redesigned as face-to-face interviewing became largely impossible.

There has been no lack of support for that unlucky cohort: we’re doing regular video personal tutor calls and advice workshops, and we’re lining up plenty of industry guests via Zoom.

But it’s not quite the same.

Our final news week will, we hope, still offer our students the chance to showcase their journalistic skills and instincts, but it won’t quite have the same magic. And that end-of-week, end-of-year, end-of-course, celebration will be a virtual one, where my mission is to recreate that very special and heady cocktail of mixed emotions on Zoom.

And then what?

I always tell students they have life membership of the Paul Wiltshire Support Service. We’re there to advise on job applications, office wobbles, and careers crossroads for as long as graduates need our help.

And this year, that after-care will be needed like never before.

So, what advice is there for those third years – and for all our students at the moment?

The biggest danger is to put yourself into some kind of deep freeze, to go into summer hibernation.

The real world is so difficult – particularly if your travel plans are also on hold, if you’re worried about family members, or if you’re apart from a girlfriend or boyfriend – that hiding under the duvet for the rest of the year seems like a decent plan.

My mantra has been to encourage all our students to cast off those duvets, and to be as creative and productive as they can for the next few months – at least.

SO:

  • Write – blog about life in lockdown, review stuff you care (or don’t care) about, and find news stories about the impact of our new ways of living in your area.
  • Create – make video shorts, launch podcasts, and produce radio shows.
  • Consume – read, watch, and listen to journalism. The more you read, the better your writing should become.
  • Keep your skills fresh – get that shorthand speed, really get to grips with those InDesign short cuts, master that video-editing technique. Even, and I know it’s a cliche, learn a new language.
  • Network – keep in gentle touch with people you’ve met on placements or news days, interviewed for features, or heard from as guest speakers. Tell them what you’re up to, send them links to blogs and videos. Take an interest in them and their work.

That might involve offering some work or time for free for the moment: it’s not something we’d normally recommend, but these are indeed unprecedented times.

I’ve asked Twitter and Facebook to help with some advice, too, so here goes…

 

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In short, then, be busy, and be positive.

When someone asks What did you do in the lockdown?, you need to have stories to tell.

As always in job interviews, you need those little stories that, just as in the best features, can be employed to tell bigger stories.

This crisis will change the media industry, and not always in a good way. Offices are likely to shut and products will close.

But there will be jobs again.

More than ever, the need for people who can tell stories clearly, and who can connect and communicate, is crucial, and it will be in future. That’s certainly true in public sector PR, but it will be true in many other media fields, too.

When an employer looks for someone to join their team, you can be pretty sure of some of the qualities on their wish list: emotional intelligence, resilience, creativity, determination, resourcefulness – and a sense of humour.

Those are the attributes I’m encouraging our students to show now. These are the muscles that need their own daily exercise regime. They also happen to be the qualities that all of us need to get through this madness.

We don’t know what the future holds, and it’s not healthy to dwell too much on the long-range forecast at the moment.

None of us knows what that awful – and increasingly inaccurate – phrase ‘the foreseeable future’ means.

But one day, one week, one month at a time, we keep going.

And one day, it will be better. 

Winning the journalism trust battle: one day, one story, one person at a time

“You never know when you may need a professional journalist.”

On the face of it, it’s a slightly strange phrase. Plumber, yes. Chiropractor, perhaps. But journalist?

And yet those words from Press Gazette editor-in-chief Dominic Ponsford in defence of journalism and its hugely important public service role are among the most striking I’ve read in these last very unsettling couple of months.

And they hint at an unfortunate truth which I think is at the heart of the angst being felt by a lot of the journalists I know at the moment.

Most people have never met a journalist: never been interviewed by one, never heard one speak in real life, never seen one face to face.

And it’s that face to face element that’s never been so important – and yet also never been so difficult.

Every day seems to bring a different editor expressing absolutely justified and absolutely heartfelt concern at the abuse directed at his or her staff online – on Twitter, Facebook, or below the line on stories.

One that caught my eye was a tweet from Jenni Phillips, who is currently leading the herculean online efforts of Gloucestershire Live, and who questioned whether some of her site’s critics would say to her staff’s faces what they’re happy to say from behind a keyboard.

Traffic to her site – and virtually every news site up and down the country – has soared during the coronavirus crisis, mirroring the surge in audience for traditional TV bulletins.

But appreciation of those sites’ efforts doesn’t appear to have shot up in the same way.

Here’s Jenni again (and again, and again):

One of the stories Gloucestershire Live has taken some stick for is its report of some leaked figures for virus cases in the county .

I can understand the basis for some of the criticism – that the hotspots around Cheltenham merely reflect population density, rather than proximity to the town’s world-famous racecourse, where the festival went ahead as other countries began tentative steps towards lockdown.

But there’s a legitimate debate to be had – one that now involves serious figures such as former government chief scientist Sir David King and renowned academic Anand Menon.

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More worrying still is a situation my friends at Plymouth Live found themselves in.

They picked up on an appeal from Paignton Zoo for financial help from the public, amid fears that the future of some of the attraction’s animals could be threatened unless it could find new sources of funding.

When Plymouth Live reported this, the zoo effectively accused the site of making the story up – in comments that have now been withdrawn.

Up the M5, Bristol Live is also feeling the pain.

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The Daily Express hasn’t exactly helped itself in the past, but it was shocking to see just how ready serious people were to believe – wrongly – that it had used a pre-lockdown picture of a busy sea front to illustrate abuse of the government’s essential travel and social distancing rules.

There’s always a debate about the extent to which the country takes its moral lead from its corridors of power – one that has been played out over Boris Johnson’s flurry of inappropriate comments down the years, especially that one about letterboxes.

But I do wonder if some PR teams have felt emboldened by the double whammy of lengthy rebuttals from Downing Street in the face of critical stories from the FT and Sunday Times – and that extraordinary last line in Number 10’s response to the Guardian’s story on SAGE membership.

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As an aside, the tactic seemed to be to focus on convenient details which might be easy to challenge in the hope that the credibility of the whole enterprise would be massively dented.

And, from the government’s point of view, it seems to be working.

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Trust in its message seems to be holding up, as trust in journalists stays rooted towards the bottom of the league table.

Or trust in ‘the media’.

You know, that great, monolithic entity, where everyone is the same – from the dodgiest phone hacker to the most ethical and detail-driven science editor?

This, from so-called comedian Frankie Boyle, wasn’t helpful, as Yorkshire Post editor James Mitchinson pointed out.

There is slightly better news in a more recent study, for the authoritative Reuters Insitute for the Study of Journalism.

It’s not surprising that broadcasters came off much better in this survey – as they always tend to.

They have two advantages: the audience can see and/or hear the journalist, and can see and/or hear that people are actually saying the things they’ve been quoted as saying.

And when you have Ofcom breathing down your neck, as well as huge public expectations, the stakes are suitably high.

Some of my students and I had a fantastic Q&A session on Zoom with a regional TV bulletin director this week, in which she told us: “The pressure to get it right is incredible.”

I was also really struck by a key part of an interview with one of the heroes of this crisis, the BBC’s medical correspondent Fergus Walsh, who said he ‘agonises over every sentence’ in his pieces.

The efforts that all the Jennis and their teams up and down the country are putting in aren’t just in the face of mindless abuse and cynical confected challenge.

If you work for a commercial news organisation, you’re also battling with a financial crisis that has felt almost existential at times, as advertising collapses.

That’s not to say there aren’t signs of hope, as editor Polly Curtis was keen to home in on during an otherwise massively sobering session organised by the ‘slow news’ site Tortoise on the future of journalism last week.

And the brilliant journalism keeps on coming.

At a local level, Jenni’s weekly threads of Gloucestershire Live’s best stories are a constant joy.

The work up and down the country is celebrated on a regular basis by the marvellous industry partnership Behind Local News, as in this uplifting piece.

And on TV, Fergus’s work, and that of many others – from the sensitive interviewing of Charlie Stayt to the forensic analysis of Lewis Goodall and the beautiful wordsmithery of Alan Little and Fergal Keane – take us on a much-needed emotional and intellectual rollercoaster every day.

There have been some splendid defences of journalism, from Simon Jenkins and Mark Austin, for example.

But there still seems to be a disconnect between our industry and the people it seeks to serve, as my fellow journalism lecturer Paul Bradshaw has pointed out.

At times, a kind of Falklands mentality seems to be in the ascendance.

The journalists are the naysayers, the critics, the pullers of threads, the destroyers.

I think we all accept that this is an utterly unprecedented crisis, and one which politicians are trying their best to deal with, working around the clock and having to think through thousands of different projects, policies, solutions and scenarios.

But there are still legitimate questions to be asked, on behalf of all of us.

Hugh Pym doesn’t put Matt Hancock under pressure over PPE for the fun of it. He does it because he and his colleagues are inundated with heartfelt pleas for help from frontline health and care workers.

As always, Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall puts it best.

Significantly, the first question from a member of the public this week was about when the lockdown would end and she could hug her grandchildren. The sort of line of questioning journalists had been criticised for.

Yes, journalists should – and do – accentuate the positive.

But there are politicians at the heart of this battle who allowed decisions to be made on their party’s watch in the last ten years which are now coming home to roost. Decisions (or lack of them) on social care, on local government funding, on pandemic planning, on immigration policy planning, on NHS spending – and on Brexit.

They cannot suddenly pretend those decisions don’t have real consequences in the here and now, and they deserve to be reminded of them. If not now, when, and all that.

Some of them treated politics as a game. They now know it most agonisingly and tragically isn’t.

The danger is that people no longer recognise the truth when it’s right in front of them.

Instead of believing trusted news outlets with – in some cases – hundreds of years behind them, they choose to give credence to made-up stories about ICU nurse deaths and dead vaccine pioneers.

There’s been a spate of slightly cheesy TV adverts by many big brands, stressing the ‘we’re all in this together’ theme and promising to stick with us all on this difficult journey.

One of the best – yes, a little cheesy, but also hugely heart-warming – has been the BBC’s trailer featuring big names such as Huw Edwards and Sophie Raworth.

The risk is that not all journalists and media outlets will be there for that journey, and that some might not emerge on the other side.

In future, Thalidomide scandals may go uncovered, Windrush cynical cover-ups unreported, Rotherham abuse negligence uninvestigated and Stafford Hospital horrors swept under the dirty lino.

In future, more politicians may be able to outrageously rewrite their own pathetic personal history on the hoof in the way that Donald Trump has astonishingly attempted to do in the last few days.

In one sense, it’s never been more difficult for journalists to meet their public, to prove their humanity and honesty face to face.

But perhaps the technology that is now allowing us to do journalism could also be a way of saving that journalism.

I wonder whether there isn’t an opportunity to put our faces in front of more people than we could ever dream of doing in the old world.

As I was writing this, this morning, James Mitchinson posted a link to exactly the sort of thing I had in mind: a wonderful video made by his staff appealing for people to take out subscriptions to the Yorkshire Post or its sister titles.

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The message – from journalists in bedrooms, dining rooms and kitchens across Yorkshire – is exactly the right one: we’re human, we’re going through what you’re going through, we care, and we’re doing the best job we can.

Tortoise has shown a model – perhaps a privileged, slightly middle class elite one – of engagement with an audience, of inviting the people into your newsroom and your thought processes.

It’s the kind of lifting of the curtain that fuels enterprises from Hearken to Behind Local News.

So, could we lay on Zoom sessions for our readers and web users?

We might end up preaching to the converted and we’ll perhaps never have the conversations we wish we could have with the most cowardly of our trolls.

But as long as journalists can be depersonalised, as long as they can be lumped into one amorphous, grey, faceless mass, journalism will suffer.

And that means democracy and society suffer.

It’s easy for me to come up with wise words and ideal world solutions because I’m not having to deal with the kind of abuse that Jenni and thousands of others are subjected to every week.

My final thought is this, though.

The temptation is to put up the barricades and withdraw into our steel-lined bunkers.

But we have to show our faces and stare, charm and brazen our critics out.

No one else is going to make the argument for journalism for us.

We have to keep making it all over again, one day at a time, one story at a time, and one person at a time.

The future of home working: what gets journalists out of bed when the desk is just a few feet away?

The garden’s looking nice today, washed by much-needed rain. The washing’s on, I’ve made my hard-working uni student daughter a drink, and I’ve distracted myself a bit on YouTube.

 

My dining room table now doubles as my office, as well as the venue for virtual pub quizzes, Zoom drinks and family Facebook Messenger video catch-ups.

As I write this, I’m consciously pushing my back into the dining room chair to adopt a better posture.

The move to home working happened pretty quickly. One of my colleagues left his glasses in our office – but luckily I was able to post them to him. I didn’t think to put my office chair in the boot of my car – I just overwatered my massive pot plant, locked the door and hoped for the best.

But one of my friends who news-edits a daily paper and website did – and it wasn’t just the chair. His monitor and keyboard went too.

A question now playing on the minds of almost every journalist I know is whether my friend’s chair – and thousands of others like it – will ever return to their original homes.

Most non-broadcast news organisations have been completely #wfh for around a month now – and there’s increasingly plenty of radio and TV people now operating in the same way.

It’s not the same, clearly.

Anyone’s who’s ever been responsible for district office reporters will know the tricky choreography of keeping in contact with staff that you can’t just chat over the desk to. Minor requests can suddenly seem like a big deal, misunderstandings creep in, and a them and us mentality can take hold in the absence of making-the-world-go-round natural office chat.

Those virtual team chats can be disjointed and superficial if we’re not careful.

And yet, there are upsides. Another friend, working for another daily publication, is loving the fact that his commute is now measured in seconds rather than hours.

And I don’t think I’m going all ridiculously and naively hearts and flowers when I say that, with the right effort, video chats can be just as warm, bonding and satisfying as some face-to-face exchanges. Perhaps it’s because you’re consciously setting aside time for them. I certainly don’t feel any less connected with colleagues and – more importantly – my students. Video personal tutor catch-ups are for the most part a complete joy, and I’ve never yet clicked the phone icon to close a call without feeling better about life.

One of the most heartfelt but ultimately meaningless phrases we now use is ‘when this is all over’, or ‘when we get back to normal.’

It’s crystal clear we’re not going to be able to flick a switch and return immediately to the old world. It’s going to be messy, it’s going to be long – and it’s going to be painful.

Press Gazette today reports that 2,000 media jobs have already been affected by the coronavirus crisis, with advertising income in tatters, and huge segments of journalistic life closed down.

The jobs that have been cut, the publications that have been suspended, and the staff that have been furloughed will not simply bounce back in three months’ time.

I’ve often said that – from a loss of titles and coverage point of view, the public never know what they’ve got till it’s gone.

But it’s equally true that, from the point of view of managing a business, you can only really judge how vital some things are when you have to live without them.

I’ve long been concerned at the erosion of newspaper offices, and was initially alarmed at the acceleration of closures in some parts of the south west.

There’s something hugely special about newsrooms, particularly those in quaint buildings at the heart of town or city centres.

There’s also something magical that you can’t put a financial figure on about the craik, the camaraderie and the creativity that comes from forcing journalists into the same room.

Journalism is a team game – and I’ve always thought it’s played best when you’re literally standing (or sitting) shoulder to shoulder with your team-mates.

But in a once-in-a-century earthquake like this, can we afford all that bricks and mortar?

I’ve been intrigued by the work of a business called Fathm, which helps newsrooms adapt to what it calls distributed working.

The argument is that, done correctly, having your workforce operating semi-independently from home can boost both creativity and audience engagement, and perhaps get people closer to their communities and readers.

In an uncertain world, one of the few things of which we can be absolutely sure is that life is never going to be the same again.

The industry – and not just the media, but the PR sector, too – will be looking for ways of saving money.

As always, I’d rather those ways involved buildings than people.

This is the acceleration of a sea change in the way journalism is organised.

It’s important that the captains are looking in the right places for ways to ensure that the things that get journalists out of bed in the mornings are still there when that bed is a matter of yards from the office rather than miles.

To continue my messy mix of maritime metaphors, we must make sure that the babies of camaraderie, community and creativity aren’t thrown out with the bathwater of any move to greater home working.

Journalism has become a matter of life and death

It’s the biggest story any journalist is likely to cover in their lifetime.

You are quite literally writing words which will be part of history.

That’s a huge responsibility. But it also ought to be exciting and exhilarating.

And yet, and yet.

This is also likely to be the most traumatic set of events any of us will ever face, the biggest emotional rollercoaster of our professional lives.

One moment, there’s the warm glow of reflecting the best of your community, the next the horror of covering a family’s raw anger and anguish at the lonely death of a loved one snatched away far too soon.

In our wider lives, there’s the comfort of bonds with family, friends and workmates that have suddenly taken on a new and very real importance, be they ever so virtual. But also the terror of losing them to this silent, invisible killer.

And all this against the grim backdrop of an industry going into financial freefall.

The contradictions are all around us.

Never has there been a greater appetite for journalists’ work. But never has it been harder for the industry to fund that work. Let’s not even use the word monetise.

Never have politicians and senior medical experts been more available, and theoretically accountable, to the media. But rarely have some of the answers to journalists’ questions been so unenlightening, so unhelpfully scripted, so full of empty language. As an aside, those medical advisers are – as many have said – increasingly being used as human shields by politicians who have run out of excuses in the face of a crisis that is simply beyond them. Only Rishi Sunak has appeared up to the once-in-a-lifetime challenge of coronavirus, and – not the first time in recent years – I have longed for the backbone and heft of serious folk like Blair, Brown and Major.

As the wheels begin to fall off the government’s response to this crisis to end all crises, and as all our lives shrink, relationships change and new paradoxes emerge. I haven’t seen a student or a colleague face to face for more than a fortnight. But in many ways I feel more connected – and more emotionally attached – to my university second family than ever.

How, then, will we square these many circles?

As far as the virus itself goes, we clearly have to stick to the rules, but more importantly look for reasons to be cheerful every day – and take our new lives one day at a time.

For parts of the media industry, living from one day to the next has become the only way forward.

There are few media companies which haven’t had to take rapid and dramatic action in the face of this grim reaper.

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My fellow journalism lecturer Paul Foster has outlined some of the tensions in a well-worded Twitter thread.

Advertising has been decimated because of customers’ unwillingness to have their brands appearing alongside coronavirus stories, and because so many businesses are closed.

The core readers of many regional print products are under effective house arrest – shielding, self-isolating, or suffering in a far worse way.

I was explaining all this to my dad last night.

But he assured me that he was still popping down to the shop each morning to pick up the Plymouth Herald.

“It keeps us up to date with it all,” he said.

We have to hope that this unprecedented crisis has whetted more appetites for impartial, incisive and informative news.

As our NCTJ industry adviser and BBC regional head Stephanie Marshall says, people are searching for answers, for someone to trust.

Which brings us to those press conferences.

As Alistair Campbell so wisely wrote last night, they have suddenly become a frustrating ritual, with ministers failing to deliver the straight talking we need.

Across the country, and across the world, we’re all having to find new ways to work together. On a very modest scale, I and lecturers at other unis are now swapping some of our online teaching materials and webinars in a way we might never have dreamed of a few weeks ago.

Laura Kuenssberg, Beth Rigby, Robert Peston and their fellow correspondents need to unite in the same spirit.

 

They need to stick to one, simple, question that can’t easily be evaded – and keep on passing that baton between themselves, listening to the previous answer and thinking out of their videocam boxes.

We’ve had two weeks of largely supportive press coverage, with a co-operative opposition giving the Government the benefit of the doubt.

As the deaths mount up, but the number of tests don’t, that honeymoon period is over.

Today’s front pages make difficult reading, as Boris Johnson no doubt anticipated as he posted his slightly desperate video last night.

The Government needs to explain what exactly its exit strategy is.

With an opposition that is leaderless, and a Parliament that isn’t sitting, there is only one part of our society that can get those answers.

If journalism is to survive, it must prove its worth now – and keep proving it.

In the future, jobs will depend on how the media held power to account at this moment in history.

For the moment, lives depend on it, too.