Why inaccuracy could be killing newspaper sales

Some friends of my parents celebrated their diamond wedding recently.
It was a joyous occasion, involving four generations of their extensive family, virtually all of whom still live in their home city.
The happy couple have lived in that city all their lives, and have a wide friendship circle focussed on their church.
So it was nice to see the landmark recognised in their local paper, in what was probably their first appearance in its pages since their original wedding photo had been published 60 years earlier.
There was a lovely picture of the two of them, and it should have been a great keepsake for future generations.
And yet, halfway down, was a sentence littered with errors.
The report stated that they had been married by a minister in a social club in a holiday resort 100 miles away.
The writer had somehow conflated the church, reception venue and honeymoon destination into one jarring location.
My mum wasn’t impressed.
And neither, I suspect, were many of her friends.
I say suspect, because it emerged that increasing numbers of my parents’ friendship circle no longer buy the paper.
These are people in their 60s, 70s, and 80s – the bedrock of local newspaper readership.
And the reason so many have given up is heartbreakingly simple.
It’s not down to time constraints, the availability of news on the internet, a lack of community attachment in a transient age, or the unappetising nature of the paper’s content.
These heartland, fourth/fifth/sixth generation local people who have spent their entire lives in this city simply no longer trust its accuracy.
And we’re not talking about twisting the truth, sensationalism or bias.
We’re talking about an inability to get place names right, dates correct or even choose the right word.
I won’t name the paper – suffice to say, it’s not in the region in which I now work.
But it is a paper that I have huge respect and affection for, one with talented, dedicated and award-winning staff.
But we are in danger of shooting ourselves in the foot by neglecting the basics of proper journalism.
There are two ironies at play here.
The first is one I have long tried to make newbie reporters aware of, particularly those who are coming to work in a town or city for the first time.
Most papers are staffed by writers who – at least initially – know very little about their community. But they find themselves writing for people who know virtually everything about that area, its geography and history.
The second is one that has dawned on me only recently.
It is, I guess, a version of that rule which applies to local council debates, and sees hours of wrangling over the grass-cutting budget for a patch of land, while multi-million pound items go through on the nod. Everyone knows how much it should cost to cut some grass, you see.
Sometimes the stories to which we attach the least importance can be the ones that really matter.
To a hard-pressed reporter with a dozen stories to get through in a day, and web targets bearing down on them, that diamond wedding is a pain in the backside that ends up getting the least attention and the lowest priority.
To that couple, and their extensive family and friends, however, it’s the only story that matters.
Sometimes we do more harm in messing them up than we do by dropping a clanger in a carefully-checked splash about a £100 million shopping redevelopment that’s two years away.
When we write about real people’s lives in the here and now, there are real people who will judge us on whether we’ve got it right.
At the moment, too many of those real people are judging that we’re getting things wrong too often.
At a time when newspaper sales are being lost because of factors that we have little or no control over, it seems criminal that we are allowing income and readers to slip through our fingers in this way.
This is something we can all address, and another reason why right first time for reporters is such a crucial mantra.
That diamond wedding report went into the paper and onto its website nearly a month ago.
Today, as I write this, the error remains for all to see online.
I suspect the couple and others around them have simply shrugged and decided – like those refuseniks who no longer buy the paper – to accept a world in which papers get things wrong.
There were times as a news editor when I breathed a cowardly sigh of relief when no one rang in to complain about a mistake that we’d spotted after publication.
Times have changed.
The day that no one bothers to complain about a newspaper’s error is the day that we really do need to start worrying.

 

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One thought on “Why inaccuracy could be killing newspaper sales

  1. So the moral of the story is hire more staff, so reporteres aren’t writing 12 stories a day and worrying about web stats, and have the time to give each story the respect it deserves?

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