Shining a light in the dark web to beat the keyboard warriors

For a couple of years, my job involved policing the web.

Not all of it, you understand.

Just the bit named – and more specifically, the bits of that site which were written by readers.

In other words, I was forced to operate below the line.

It wasn’t exactly the French Resistance, but at times I felt about as effective as Rene Artois from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

When I gave up that responsibility to a central team of moderators, I didn’t shed too many tears.

It was, in the wise words of my friend Lynne’s mum, much like plaiting fog.

And since then, my forays into life below the line have been few and far between.

One of the few sites where I do regularly scroll through the comments is Hold the Front Page.

Much of the People’s Contribution to HTFP’s content is fairly predictable.

There are frequent – and frequently justified – attacks on the senior management of regional media companies.

Many of them come from people no longer in the industry.

Which means there are also regular ripostes from serving journalists about how out of touch these onetime scribes have become.

And so the rule of ad hominem begins to take over.

There are a few givens about online comments, the best-known being Godwin’s Law – that the longer a comments thread becomes, the more likely either Hitler or the Nazis will be mentioned.

And not in a way demonstrating much of a sense of proportion.

One other certainty of life below the line is that there will be misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misreadings.

For an industry with communication at its core, this is in some ways extraordinary.

But I know it happens.

Because it happened to me this week.

I am *always* flattered _ and often bemused – when HTFP picks up on something in one of my blogs and decides to write about it.

And so it was with my last piece, about Leicester Mercury staff asking to be de-nominated from a national award in protest against the loss of some of the paper’s photographers.

Never in my wildest dreams – or rather nightmares – did I expect anyone reading the piece to interpret it as an attack on those staff. That’s the last thing it was.

But interpret it that way they did.

Or, rather, interpret it that way they did after reading Hold the Front Page’s story.

There was nothing wrong with that story, I hasten to add.

It’s just that few of the commenters on HTFP ventured beyond it. Or even read it in its entirety, I suspect.

Apparently I was aiming my comments at the wrong target. And – to add insult to insult – I was ‘fixated by meaningless baubles’ because I said I enjoyed industry awards ceremonies.

Clearly this is all very minor stuff in the below-the-line scheme of things, and clearly I should grow a pair.

But it was sobering to be reminded just how quickly and readily people can be to leap to instant and personal judgement when behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

Ironically, it came within a week of me discussing media site comments with some students, and making the point that we shouldn’t dismiss all those keyboard warriors as malevolent cowards.

Hidden in among the ‘slow news day?’, ‘why don’t you cover some real news for a change?’ and ‘lazy journalism’ can be some truths which are hard to swallow. Along with some questions we may not have thought of, and some genuine constructive criticism of our work.

I was fascinated to read a piece by a onetime Guardian moderator about his role – one that had been described as the worst in the world.

There was plenty of ammunition for that view in his piece.

But ultimately, there was also hope that online debates can work, and can shed more light than heat, if moderation works well.

And, perhaps, if journalists continue to engage, rather than leave this version of the dark web to argue bitterly amongst itself.

I have always believed in answering intelligent criticism from one’s web audience, and like to think I have changed some minds over the years, as well as countering some negativity.

So I thought long and hard about how to respond to my HTFP critics.

Then I just tried to be clever, saying: “To paraphrase Ian Hislop, if my blog was an attack on the Leicester Mercury’s staff, I’m a banana.”

I wasn’t going to look again at the comments, but I forced myself to.

Although I’ve apparently slipped on a banana skin of my own making, the thread now appears to be petering out.

One person who did read the whole blog was a journalist at the Mercury, who tweeted me to say that he hadn’t interpreted it as an attack on him and his colleagues.

That was good to hear. Hopefully he took the piece for what it was – an exhortation to the incoming editor but more importantly to Trinity Mirror to put the restoration of morale at the top of their priority list.

And that tweet was also evidence of how powerful support and positivity can be in life below the line.

One of my favourite quotes is one that has been – falsely, apparently – attributed to Edmund Burke:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Whether he said it or not, he clearly wasn’t talking about the web in 1770.

But lighting a positive and supportive candle in the darkness might be something we should all try and do once in a below-the-line while.

I’m going to go on Hold the Front Page to support that nice Paul Wiltshire bloke right now.


Why lost pride is the saddest journalistic loss of all

I love an awards ceremony.

There’s no more uplifting place to be than a table full of slightly squiffy colleagues with a couple of industry accolades under their collective belts.

They’re great occasions for catching up with old friends – and for celebrating the very best of journalism.

So the decision by some editorial staff at the Leicester Mercury to ask the organisers of the Newsawards to effectively scrap their entries could be viewed as an odd one.

Why deny themselves the pleasure – and the break from routine – of a trip to London, a decent meal and a few drinks? Particularly, if as happened at last year’s Regional Press Awards, there’s a fire scare which offers the chance for witty social media posts – and more drinks.

But I think the whole point of the Mercury NUJ chapel’s protest is that they are cutting off their noses to spite their faces. The sacrifice is what makes it all the more powerful.

Union member have asked the organisers to withdraw the title’s nomination for regional daily newspaper of the year – a category it won last year.

The move is in reaction to a decision to follow many other papers in the Trinity Mirror/Local World group by largely outsourcing photography.

And it is also clear that the chapel are disturbed by other changes which have begun to take effect, with more likely after cutbacks in the parent company’s operations in Devon have signalled the shape of things to come.

It is a very sad day when journalists stop feeling pride in their work and in their products.

One of the low points of my previous job was a conversation with a very talented reporter who said she struggled to find anything to be proud of in several months of work, having won an award the previous year.

She left the industry briefly, but I’m delighted that she’s now back in the fold.

I’m writing this as I head home after a fascinating half-day conference looking at the future of Britain’s regional and local media.

My personal highpoint was being congratulated on asking a ‘great question’ – about whether more daily titles are likely to go weekly or free – by Johnson Press chief executive Ashley Highfield.

The old Paxman magic is clearly there.

But for all the optimism in the room at the Westminster Media Forum, it is clear that, at least for the four biggest regional newspaper companies, the future will be one of consolidation and contraction.

In other words, there will be fewer people to do more work, even if news gatherers are more protected than other journalists.

The Leicester Mercury is currently advertising for a new editor, after the departure for personal reasons of a decent man, Kevin Booth.

The ad lists a host of vital skills and priorities, but perhaps misses the most important.

Rebuilding trust, morale – and pride – should go straight in at number one.

More light, less heat: a recipe for 21st century journalism

It’s been described by some as the most important vote in a generation, far more crucial than most general elections.

Admittedly there are just under ten action-packed weeks still to go before June 23, but many people are still woefully underprepared for the EU referendum.

A poll of polls has suggested that around one in six of us hasn’t yet made up our minds which way to vote.

But more worryingly, the average Brit’s knowledge of matters European isn’t all that great.

Only people in Latvia know less about Europe than we do, according to research carried out last year.

How can this be, when the issue of Britain’s place in Europe is rarely out of the news?

montage e

As this excellent piece by Christopher Meyer from King’s College, London, says, too much of the coverage mounted by the national media is simply sound and fury. And, as that great man whose birthday we’re about to celebrate would have said, it signifies nothing.

Or rather, it signifies the interests of one or two owners, as this quote from Anthony Hilton in the Evening Standard reveals.

I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’

There are notable exceptions, with the Guardian, Telegraph and The Week all doing their best to provide context, analysis and facts. The BBC is also doing a great job, although it has been accused of being too timid and giving too much weight to the flakier end of the Leave camp.

Plus there’s the wonderful Full Fact organisation, with pages of content aimed at carving through the bluster and posturing.

But, to me, too much of the media’s take on the EU debate simply shows how out of date and irrelevant elements of our mainstream news sources have become.

I was talking to one of my students last week about a far less significant story.

She said something that stuck in my mind: “I want to achieve resolution with this story.”

That constructive take on the role of the reporter has been echoed in a recent column by Roy Greenslade which looked at the movement for what is becoming known as solutions-focussed journalism.

It’s also been explored in a piece on

It’s a subject I’ve tackled before and one that, I think, offers us a glimpse of hope in some of the dark days that can blight this industry.

Too much of our coverage is like fracking – splashing our words into tiny fissures, so that they become giant cracks which produce negative and dangerous energy.

The EU vote offers us a chance to help people crying out for more information, who want the issues to be safely marshalled for them so they can make informed decisions.

Instead of creating heat, we should be shedding light.






Has serious journalism had its chips?

It consisted of around eight sentences, and I imagine took just a few minutes to write.

And it was about……an abandoned bag of chips.

chips snip

But it gave my friends at the Gloucestershire Echo their biggest story of the day – and was picked up by other media across the world.

I spent a fair amount of time discussing this story with some of my first-year journalism students yesterday.

I posed the question: Is there anything so trivial that it would never be written about, so minor that I doesn’t constitute news?

The answer, I think, has to be no.

Some of the old certainties about what makes a news story have gone out the window in recent years, and part of the joy of multimedia journalism is the freedom we now have to tell all kinds of stories in new and engaging ways.

My friends at the Echo have form on the fast food front.

A few years ago, they did a – very successful in terms of web audience – story headlined ‘Is this Gloucestershire’s biggest chip?’, although sadly it seems to have been eaten by the internet.

It may well be that some of the impressive audience for the latest chip tale was viewing the story ironically, with that annoying question ‘slow news day?’ getting many a run-out.

But, gratifyingly, many of those enjoying the story had their tongues as firmly in their cheeks as did the Echo’s news team.

The media website Hold the Front Page suggested the piece might be an attempt at chickbait in its Friday Funnies section.

And it came in the week that veteran editor Peter Barron – a man I have huge time and respect for – stepped down as editor of the Northern Echo, with a warning that journalism must be more than simple web target-chasing.

I was also taken with this fascinating piece in the Guardian about the chicken (there is it again) and egg nature of journalism.

All of which reminded me of one of my favourite quotes about journalism…


At the end of the day, if all the Echo had done on the day in question was write about abandoned KFC meals, our industry would be in a pretty poor state.

But on that same day, reporters were covering a major fire, the sentencing of a death crash driver, and dozens of other more serious stories.

The real inconvenient truth is that the modern journalist has to be all things to all people, covering the full gamut of human life – chips and all.