By George, my old MD was right about editorial integrity

He wasn’t the biggest of men.

But he had a presence and a sense of authority that made you take notice.

So when George Higgs said editorial integrity was far more important than short-term advertising revenue, his word was law.

He was the managing director of Wiltshire Newspapers – a company not named after me, but rather the one which in the late 80s and early 90s owned the Evening Advertiser in Swindon.

I can clearly remember, 25 years on, some kind of gathering of employees at which the indefatigable George left people from all parts of his business in no doubt about the way in which commercial considerations should play second fiddle to straightforward news judgements.

It was refreshing to hear even then, and it’s been equally gratifying to hear since at various times – especially when the mantra has come from national leaders of newspaper businesses.

I was reassured to be told that a senior commercial person in our company had said something similar this week, too.

The faultline between editorial and advertising is much like its geological equivalent. It’s always there, but for long periods, life goes on regardless.

Then, an issue such as the Telegraph’s coverage – or alleged lack of coverage – of HSBC’s tax affairs blows it open again.

The regional media is well used to far-fetched accusations that it is in hock to all manner of organisations – particularly local authorities – because of advertising contracts.

But in 30 years of journalism, I haven’t witnessed a single, watertight story shelved because of pressure from an advertiser.

There has been the odd press release from a business offering to sell your house without the need for an estate agent that hasn’t quite generated the level of coverage that firm would have liked.

But has the ‘I’m going to pull all my advertising if you run this story’ threat ever led to a last-minute change of splash?

Not in my experience.

Of course, when we go searching for experts to quote in the property, retail or widget-making sectors, we’re likely to prioritise the firms that support our own business.

That seems to me to be common sense.

And that is all about what we do do, what we do cover.

The more sinister question is what we don’t do, what we don’t cover.

And I’m pretty confident we can answer that one with a clear conscience.

In fact if we can’t, we might as well all pack up and go home.

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How can our newsrooms look more like the communities they serve?

They were bright as buttons, sharp as tacks and bristling with energy, enthusiasm and commitment.

The classroom of students on one of the UK’s very best journalism courses offered great hope that the talent, spark and skill that our industry needs is being nurtured well.

But there was one other thing that shone out on an NCTJ accreditation visit to assess how well the journalists of the future were being prepared for the world of work.

They were all white, and they all appeared to be fairly middle class.

In that, they exactly reflect the make-up of our profession.

The most detailed recent research, three years ago, revealed that 94 per cent of journalists were white.

That research also found that the social demographics of the average newsroom bore little resemblance to those of the community around it, with an increasingly middle class skew.

Columnist Owen Jones has gone as far as to describe journalism as a closed shop for the well-to-do.

On the face of it, this can’t be healthy for all kinds of reasons.

Not least of these is the need for reporters to reflect the people they’re writing for, ensuring they build the right relationships and strike the right tone.

Ten years ago, the industry set up the Journalism Diversity Fund to help people from backgrounds other than very white and very middle class to get onto an NCTJ course.

It’s a great initiative which has helped some talented people into the profession.

At the NCTJ conference last year, I also heard some encouraging examples of educators going out of their way to take their recruitment roadshows into communities, and to try to find journalists from non-traditional sources.

The difficulty with all of this is that among the qualities quite rightly most prized by editors are confidence and determination.

At careers events, I parrot one phrase: “If you’re not 100 per cent certain you want to be a journalist, it’s probably not for you.”

In other words, if people haven’t already sought us out, why should we go looking for them? What sort of journalists are they going to make if they haven’t got the gumption and the get-up-and-go to be knocking on our door?

As with all of the dilemmas facing our industry, there are no easy answers.

But unless our newsrooms look more like the communities they serve, we will never truly get under their skins.

Getting the coverage right when tragedy strikes

It often starts with just one distant siren.

But soon, the air is filled with the sound of them, different pitches, different directions, different patterns.

What starts as a routine web post about a bit of traffic disruption suddenly takes on a new, dark and tragic character.

And you know you have a big story on your hands.

My friends at The Bath Chronicle are today chasing multiple angles on the biggest tragedy to hit the city for decades.

In my 19 years running the newsdesk there, there was nothing that could compete with the intensity and dramatic horror of yesterday’s tragedy in Weston.

I have to go back to my time at the Swindon Advertiser to find a tragedy of this magnitude.

There, I was part of a newsdesk team which covered two unspeakably sad crashes – both on the 13th of the month, both in 1991 – in which ten people and five people were killed.

These are occasions when this job of ours becomes very real.

Of course what we do is as nothing when compared to the gruelling, heart-breaking and utterly exhausting work of the emergency services at these times.

And yet we should be in no doubt about the importance of our role.

Not just in providing information, satisfying curiosity and sifting the truth from the rumours.

But also in trying to make sense of the senseless, in allowing a community to gather its thoughts and to support its wounded, and in enabling families whose lives have been torn apart to express their grief and gratitude.

In short, in finding the right things to say when words have failed most people.

There are many balancing acts to negotiate here: the relentless pursuit of new angles against the sensitivity of raw loss; the division of resources between this massive story and all the other ones still unfolding; and the different sorts of writing needed to do justice to a community in shock online and in print.

Knowing my friends in Bath as I do, I have little doubt that they’ll get it right.

And doing that – covering all the angles and issues, treating the victims as fully rounded people, and crafting the right words with the right pictures – is what good journalism is all about.

Thankfully, this sort of horror doesn’t happen every day, every week, every year or maybe even every decade.

All the more important, then, that we rise to the occasion when it does.

Why that missing dog could be the lead you need

One of the mantras which have been regularly chanted around regional media offices in the last decade is ‘life is local.’

It’s one that – like many such slogans – has become devalued through overuse.

Which is a shame, because at its heart is the simple truth that we are parochial beings who live most of our non-working lives within a couple of miles of our homes.

Across the country, and indeed the world, entrepreneurial folk have made the most of this by launching highly successful hyperlocal news and community websites.

And not surprisingly, larger, more traditional media companies have tried to get in on the act, with rather more varying degrees of success.

One of the challenges faced by some of these more corporate organisations is to ape the organic, anarchic, idiosyncratic freshness of a real community start-up.

Another is to stay focused on the truly local.

In America, the experience of the hyperlocal news sites set up by Patch is an instructive one.

As this piece says, many of its journalists have now started up their own rival sites after becoming disillusioned with its spending priorities and news judgement.

It has now clearly learned its lessons, as a recent report on Digiday reveals.

It’s less reliant on trying to make national or regional content work across lots of microsites, and more determined to dig down to the stories that individual communities really care about.

That’s a priority worth keeping in mind as we daily hunt out the holy grail of stories that will keep web visitors returning and print readers buying.

One thing really caught my attention in the Digiday analysis.

In days gone by, news editors and reporters couldn’t get off the phone fast enough from anguished pet owners whose faithful dogs had gone missing. Been there, got the #notbovvered t-shirt.

The Patch experience has shown that such mini-crises can be the stuff of web success dreams.

They’ve got emotional appeal, the there-but-for-the-grace-of-God factor, a community call to action, an element of mystery and suspense – and cute animals.

I’m not suggesting for a minute that we abandon either holding councils to account or perfecting our SEO wizardry to throw our lot in with the cats and dogs home.

But sometimes we can be a little precious about where our news threshold lies.

I’ve said before that one of the most important questions to shape our news priorities should be ‘what are people talking about?’

We just need to get better at finding – and listening to – those conversations at the most local level possible.

Why acting as a critical friend to our products is so critical

Late morning in the offices of The Bath Chronicle in the mid-90s, and tumbleweed would set in.

Contacts would urgently need to be seen, early lunch breaks would suddenly be taken.

It was time for The Inquest.

Not perhaps the best name, and now sounding more like the beginnings of a pitch to TV executives for a new reality show in which celebrities act as coroner for the day.

But there was a great idea behind it: that once a day, we should all stop for 15 minutes to review the latest paper, to look at what went well and not so well, and learn lessons and chart follow-ups for the future.

So, yes, not everybody enjoyed it, and some would find an excuse not to be there.

But by and large it was a very useful process, and not least because it did underline the point that we were one team.

The process was led not by the editor, but by anyone on the editorial floor who could be persuaded to do some post-production analysis.

When the right person was ‘volunteered’ to lead the post-mortem, challenging questions could be asked, Emperor’s New Clothes pointed out – and great work could be celebrated.

On other occasions, people pulled their punches, conscious of the blood, sweat and tears that would have gone in to producing a paper we affectionately called our Daily Miracle.

It’s something we should do more of and a model that has been used successfully recently by one of the weekly papers in my region, with reporters asked to review each others’ editions.

As always, there was understandable concern about how critical the critical friend should be.

But if we think about this for a minute, any beating about the bush misses the point.

We are being judged all day every day by our communities.

And there’s a couple of crucial differences.

The first is that many of those readers who take a view on our work will never share that view with us. They simply vote with their feet – or fingers, and we will never know where, how or why we haven’t met their expectations.

The other is that many of the judgements that do find their way to us – on our own websites or on social media – will be based on a one-eyed view of the world.

I hope we can be confident that our colleagues will offer the criticism, challenges and comments that they do with one positive agenda in mind: a desire to improve our websites and newspapers.

And if we continue to pussyfoot around difficult issues, nothing will ever change.

A friend of mine who works for one of Britain’s biggest firms loves to share the latest managementspeak emerging from its bosses with me.

He does it to mock, but the longer I do this job, the more some of the phraseology seems to make total sense. Which is a slight worry.

One such concept is organisational health, which put simply compares a company with the human body.

There’s a whole separate blog in this, but the bit that matters here is the need for corporate blood and oxygen to circulate unimpeded by blockages in the system.

In other words, there must be transparent processes, clear and responsive decision-making – and a culture of openness.

So here’s the thing about reviewing our own products.

We’re all journalists.

Pressing for honesty and uncovering the truth should be at the centre of everything we do.

If we can’t be honest and truthful with each other, what hope have we got?