God knows what Sky thought it was up to with that church terror piece

In more than 30 years of journalism, I thought I’d seen it all.

But Sky News and its crime reporter Martin Brunt have proved me wrong.

Like thousands of other people, I still can’t quite believe what he did this week.

So, in case you missed it. This is what he did….

Yes that’s right. As a follow-up to the horrific attack on a French priest, Brunt turned up at a service in leafy Surrey – and proceeded to launch the most extraordinarily ill-conceived to-camera piece I think I have ever seen.

Rightly, he and Sky have been mercilessly mocked on Twitter, with #icouldhavekilledthemall trending spectacularly.

The wonderful Guardian writer Simon Ricketts was in his element.

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As a side note here, there have been dozens of pieces which are little more than strings of Twitter embeds masquerading as stories on Brunt’s report.

But I’ve yet to see anything quoting Sky in defence of the mind-blowing decision-making that went into actually putting this on air.

I’m disturbed by what that says about both balance and serious reporting.

But hey ho.

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Ironically, a few days ago, I was profoundly impressed by the way in which Sky News’s digital newsgathering editor Hazel Baker talked about the sensitivities of covering incidents like the atrocities in France.

And yesterday, the Guardian hosted a hugely interesting online debate about that very same issue.

So this piece is all the more puzzling, to put it mildly, in that context.

It’s difficult to know where to even begin in listing the thought processes and editorial judgements which are so profoundly wrong here.

I look forward to an apology for some of those from Sky.

Otherwise this episode threatens to make a mockery of our entire profession.

 

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Launching a new newspaper might be madness. But The New European has lessons for us all.

 

There are many definitions of madness.

There’s one attributed to Albert Einstein, which I have often heard used by editors and other senior media managers to justify change in our industry.

“The definition of insanity is doing something over and over again and expecting a different result.”

There’s much sense in that sentiment, which is why it has been used by both Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous.

But members of the group Hacks Anonymous – which often meets in the comments section of Hold the Front Page – might have an even more specialist definition: launching a new print newspaper.

Why would you contemplate such a complicated and labour-intensive alternative to simply setting fire to money?

My friends at HA will, I imagine, be reaching for the ‘I told you so’ line in their ready-made press punditry kits, and control V-ing it into the comments box of today’s story about the demise of the 24 newspaper. (Although if they’re having as much trouble as me getting the site to load, they might have to amuse themselves with Press Gazette’s version.)

The project launched by CN Group to serve the north of England and the Scottish borders has survived little more than a month.

At least no jobs will be lost with this closure, which is probably more than can be said for Trinity Mirror’s New Day experiment.

Although I was in many ways encouraged by that company’s willingness to try something new, its closure after nine weeks has left what is rumoured to be a £1 million bill, along with bitterness among some staff and condemnation from media commentator Roy Greenslade.

But the new titles keep coming, with a planned tit-for-tat launch in Oxford, and a new monthly paper in Bridlington.

And then there’s the New European.

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Archant’s pop-up paper aimed at the 48 per cent of us who voted Remain now looks like popping up for a bit longer than its scheduled four-week stint.

It combines break-out design with meaty long reads and offers another glimmer of encouragement to those of us who value serious and engaging politics coverage, coming hard on the heels of figures revealing print sales and online audiences were boosted by the referendum.

So why is it succeeding where New Day so dismally failed?

I like to think it comes down to the c-word. In fact, a few c-words.

The most important of these is community.

The letters page offers evidence every week of the strength of feeling that exists among Remainers, with a sense of burning indignation that has created a band of brothers and sisters determined to learn lessons and ensure that Brexit doesn’t break Britain.

New Day attempted to carve out something of a niche for itself as a straightforward, optimistic publication with a slightly more feminine window on the world.

But it soon became overwhelmed by what one of my favourite reporters would call blandalism.

The New European, on the other hand, has a very unambiguous outlook on life. While it is keen to explore why many of the 52 per cent behaved the way they did on June 23, it is also deliberately and unashamedly partisan.

In short, it has character.

More than that – largely thanks to the energy, spirit and sheer bloodymindedness of its creator Matt Kelly – it also has chutzpah. There’s an unapologetic verve to its social media activity and a light touch which balances some of its coverage.

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Finally, it has decent content – much of which is comment.

Archant has found some of the most interesting, incisive and entertaining writers around, and allowed them to tap into a part of the zeitgeist for as long as it remains current.

Clearly, at some point, the New European will come to the end of the road.

But, until then, it offers the rest of our industry food for thought.

Are we putting enough effort into print, for instance?

A piece written by analyst Lorna Tilbian for the News Media Association urges big brands to prioritise print advertising in the wake of the Brexit boost.

This is incredibly difficult stuff. The rate of print sales decline of some regional titles is eye-watering, and it is fantasy to think that our children will be drawn to buy them in the way that previous generations have.

And yet, aside from the fact that it brings in around 80 per cent of ad revenue, a former editor friend of mine reminded me of another aspect of the power of print this week.

He spoke to some schoolchildren a couple of years ago and asked how many had seen their names on news websites. Not many had.

He then asked them how many had had their name in a local paper. Most had.

Finally, he asked them which coverage had meant the most to them.

The kids were – to slightly paraphrase a Sham 69 song title that my friend would love – united.

It was the print story that they could show their gran, that led to friends’ parents knowing about their achievement, and which they could keep forever.

I keep coming back to this idea of community.

A million years ago, one of my many jobs was to act as internet policeman.

As I’ve explained before, my beat wasn’t the entire web – it was just the comments section of bathchronicle.co.uk.

Moderating the comments and the spats was intensely frustrating at times.

But I saw some tweets one day that made it all worthwhile.

A group of regular commentators – regular offenders, some of them – had decided to meet up in the offline world. In a pub. For a drink.

They’d never met each other before. But they felt part of something the Chronicle had created.

I’m also intrigued by publications such as the Economist, although I realise it has the advantage of not just a niche audience, but one that’s prepared to pay online too.

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I like its approach to social media, and the way it respects its audience as if they are members of a club.

And there’s the potential of targeted email newsletters, which could be undergoing a revival as a way to create that sense of community which must be at the heart of any 21st century media strategy.

Whether they be truly local or hyperlocal, or a niche product, the publications and sites that survive will have both a clear idea of their audience and an ability to be catalysts in their communities. Whatever those communities are.

That Monday night feeling: tackling newsroom stress

At this sort of time on a Monday a few years ago, I’d be getting a bit of a sinking feeling.

My mind would be gearing up for The Worst Day of The Week.

My last boss as editor of The Bath Chronicle, Lynne Fernquest, used to joke that she wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with me on a Tuesday because I found the day so stressful.

For weekly newspapers going to press on a Wednesday afternoon, they could be horrible days, stretching well beyond 12 hours, with little time to look up from a battered keyboard.

The difference between the pace of life on individual weekdays has been evened out since then, with the voracious demands of a 24/7 website meaning every day has an equal level of expectation and potential stress.

Luckily for me, I no longer have that Monday evening feeling, or its Sunday night equivalent.

Pretty much without exception, I look forward to each working day, like an annoying Duracell bunny Pollyanna.

Appropriately enough, tomorrow – a Tuesday which three years ago would have seen me in full news editor headbanging mode – will find me discussing the very subject of workplace relationships and stress.

I’ll be on a panel as an independent observer looking at changes to one of the university’s psychology courses – and, in true Pollyanna style, I’m very much looking forward to it.

This week there have been at least two acknowledgements of the reality of stress in the 21st century newsroom.

One was a very familiar one: the threat of industrial action at Newsquest titles in Scotland, where the NUJ says reduced staffing has led to unacceptable stress levels.

The other was a bit more of a surprise.

An American academic is looking for journalist volunteers for a study looking at how and why people in our profession cope so resiliently well with pressure.

In the 18 months that I worked as an editorial trainer in the newspaper industry, I think I saw most aspects of office dynamics.

And hundreds of one-to-ones with reporters, designers, editors, features writers and sports journalists left me with an A to Z of the pressures modern media professionals face.

From analytics to accountability on social media, from diminishing resources to deadlines, from information overload to IT flakiness, and from ethics to evening work, I heard and saw it all.

And on my regular visits to newsrooms now, I continue to do so, as my colleagues keep up a daily fight to satisfy what can be a fickle and transient audience.

And yet, I still believe what my Twitter bio proclaims: that journalism can be the best job in the world.

But there’s a nut we need to crack: one that I have obsessed over for some time now.

I went for a drink with a young reporter recently.

He wanted to get a few things off his chest about his future, about workload, about story choice and about his work-life balance.

But this was what struck a chord with me.

“I used to be able to start the day with a list of seven or eight stories that I’d do that day, and mostly, I’d get through it.

“Now I’m lucky if I do two.”

That’s not to say that his output has dropped by 75 per cent.

He’s probably writing more stories that ever before. They’re just not the ones he’d choose to write.

The lack of predictability of journalism, the cliched notion that you never really know what the day is going to bring, is one of its greatest attractions as a profession.

It’s about feeling that somewhere along the line, you’ve created something worthwhile.

But it can easily become a double-edged sword if your day loses all shape, and you feel at the whim of others, as they fire ‘can you just web this’ or ‘can you just break off and do that’ Exocets into your inbox.

In a fast-moving world where web targets are driving the day, some of this is inescapable, I realise. I’ve sent those emails.

But I’ve written before about the wonderful idea of supported autonomy – the importance of feeling in control of your working day. And it’s not just about getting through that list – it’s about feeling that somewhere along the line, you’ve created something worthwhile.

That, I think, is the key to tackling newsroom stress. That and fostering a sense of belonging, of common purpose, and, of course, of camaraderie.

Perhaps in the end, it comes down to a version of this, one of my favourite newsroom quotes and mottos from a lovely piece on Poynter.

 

good time

 

 

 

Jen on Jezza: perfect political reporting

It’s very convenient that Jeremy Corbyn shares his initials with the son of God.

It allows we journalists to talk about religious-style fervour, worship, acolytes and disciples.

And with some justification.

I have wasted many a happy hour in recent weeks reading stories, columns, analytical pieces and profiles sparked by the Labour leadership race.

Many have highlighted the personality cult which has developed around Corbyn. And as Andrew Rawnsley pointed out in his peerless column in the Observer yesterday, there is nothing the Labour leader loves more than ‘communing with devotees who already agree with him, rather than trying to engage with swing voters.’

But it wasn’t until this weekend that I really got it.

And for that, I have to thank Jennifer Williams, political and social affairs editor for the Manchester Evening News.

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Her piece on the launch of Corbyn’s leadership campaign in her home city was – admittedly in the limited echo chamber of my Twitter political geek community – one of the talking points of the weekend.

 

National political writers and academics were tweeting links to it, and dyed-in-the-wool Corbynistas were reluctantly conceding she’d nailed some of the uncomfortable truths about their hero.

Like this one: “Lovely things, combined with angry things about people who doubted the practical possibility of achieving the lovely things without a plan, was what the crowd wanted.”

 

 

It was well-written, it was entertaining, and it was confident.

But it was also knowledgeable.

I wish I could find it now, but I saw a great tweet yesterday that said something like ‘Jeremy Corbyn has a real talent for engaging people who haven’t got a clue about politics.’

Which ought to be a wonderful thing. Which is a wonderful thing.

God knows, we need more people to think they can make their world a better place.

But here’s the rub. And here’s the test for the Labour leadership.

If you’re playing with the emotions of people drinking at the well of politics for the first time, you have a responsibility to be honest.

And that, Mr C, doesn’t mean passing off victory in a Ramsgate Town Council by-election as some symbolic beacon of hope, signalling the dawning of a new age of Aquarius.

And Jen from the MEN spots that.

As someone who teaches politics to would-be journalists, I like to think she spots that because she knows the system inside out.

She knows the difference between the different tiers of local government – Ramsgate Town Council, bless its sand-stained cotton socks, being at the foot of that particular political pyramid.

Since her piece, there have been more marvellous demolition jobs on Corbyn’s claims of a media blackout over this stunning Labour victory, with this one on PoliticsHome and this radio blast by Stig Abell particular favourites of mine.

But I keep going to back to Jen – I hope I can call her that.

This was a comprehensive effort: she was live-tweeting, posting video, writing a brilliant piece of analysis, and then responding to critics on Twitter.

She works for Trinity Mirror – which also employs many of my closest journalism friends, and which employed me until Easter.

The company was criticised by one of its most experienced Welsh journalists, Martin Shipton, when its Daily Post title axed the post of Welsh Assembly reporter.

Since then, the editor in charge of TM’s South Wales operations, Paul Rowland, has insisted his newsrooms are fully committed to covering politics, and to holding power to account.

For the sake of journalists within Trinity Mirror and without, and for the sake of communities up and down the land, that must be the case.

And Jen shows what can be done.

 

 

RIP AJ: Farewell to the great Alan Johnson

When I moved to a new paper 27 years ago, I was also moving into a new house, in a new town. And on my own.
My wife – then my fiancée – joined me soon afterwards.
But for the first week at least, I knew no one.
Luckily, there was Alan. Sitting implacably at the newsdesk of the Evening Advertiser in Swindon, benign monarch of all he surveyed.
Veteran Adver news editor and sports editor Alan Johnson made me feel welcome and valued, and by the end of that week, I felt completely at home.
He was a calm presence in a frequently mad world, an encouraging mentor, a great ideas machine – and a lover of life.
As many of my former colleagues have said, when Alan was in the office, you knew that the day was going to be fun. Hard and long at times, but always fun.
His keen sense of mischief and his keen eye for life’s absurdities were never far from the surface.
He collected jokes, ill-considered headlines (Body found in cemetery was a favourite, along with Troops ring Obote palace, with Alan trotting out ‘Hello, hello, is that the Obote Palace?’) and trivia.
That welcome and care he extended to me were offered time and again to anyone starting at Adver Towers.
I never fully appreciated it at the time, but he fostered a mentoring culture which spread through the office like glorious wildfire.
Certainly his example encouraged me to look out for and develop younger reporters, even before I moved onto the Adver newsdesk.
More crucially, I learned the extraordinary importance of team spirit, of being able to laugh at life, and of supporting colleagues through thick and thin.
I had come to Swindon from Torquay, where Alan’s counterpart at the Herald Express, Jim Parker, taught me huge lessons about news editing as an energising performance art, bringing out the best in people through humour and drive.
It’s only now, as the sad death of Alan at the age of 77 catapults his image into the forefront of my mind, that I realise how similar those two influences on my working life have been.
They were people who you missed when they were off. That day was never quite as entertaining, never quite as satisfying.
And it isn’t just me that Alan has influenced.
The turnout at his funeral today spoke volumes about the love and respect in which he was held over his 43 years at the Adver.
And the tributes in the Adver obituary have been heartfelt, highlighting his patience, his work ethic, his knowledge – but most of all his determination to enjoy himself.
Alan retired before the digital age really took hold, but I like to think he’d have survived in a world of liveblogging and audience-chasing.
A reporter who started her career at the Adver at around the same time as me remembers Alan getting her to fry an egg on her car bonnet during a heatwave.
“I’ve got some great memories of his schemes and plans,” she texted me.
That was Alan.
Always up to something, always gently rebelling – but always a complete gentleman, and always a journalist who cared about his community.
Rest in peace, old friend.

When journalists have to be their newsroom’s conscience

I thought my contempt for Kelvin MacKenzie couldn’t get any stronger.

But he’s proved me wrong in the last few weeks. Twice.

First of all, he admitted he had ‘buyer’s regret’ after voting Leave in the EU referendum.

This in the paper that probably did the most to swell the ranks of the Brexiteers.

The paper which the Liverpool Echo understandably refuses to name in full, calling it The S*n.

And then, this week, he used his column in that same paper to question whether Channel 4 News presenter Fatima Manji should have worn a hijab while reporting on the Nice terror attacks.

The regulator IPSO is now investigating 800 complaints about his column, and Fatima has written an exclusive piece for the Echo, delivering a hard-hitting attack on what she calls ‘smears’ against Muslims everywhere.

MacKenzie has been roundly condemned by Channel 4 News, the NUJ, and by media commentator Roy Greenslade, although he argues that the former Sun editor had every right to express his opinion.

There’s a huge freedom of expression vs incitement/offence debate to be had here, and I’ve already added this case study to dozens of others to be poked and prodded in a new ethics module with my students next year.

But what interested me was the fact that a few hours later, the Sun published a piece by one of its own journalists, Muslim writer Anila Baig, which took a contrary view to MacKenzie.

She wrote of Manji: “She’s a professional who has been working for the programme for four years, not someone dragged in off the street just because she’s wearing a scarf on her head. And to accuse her of being representative of ALL Muslims – including mentally ill ones who commit abhorrent heinous acts – is ridiculous.”

Former Conservative Party chairman Baroness Warsi – who has conducted an impassioned campaign to get Sun editor Tony Gallagher to delete the column from the paper’s website – was still less than impressed, however.

 

 

 

 

The reason the second opinion piece interested me was that it came more at more or less the same time as I saw a tweet announcing the results of a huge research project looking at the referendum.

As a politics geek, the prospect of 80 different pieces of analysis of the most important vote in at least a generation was a mouth-watering one.

There are two groups of articles on the media, with each piece interesting enough.

But I looked in vain for any mention of the fact – okay, of my very, very deep suspicion – that the vast majority of news journalists in this country backed the Remain side.

For many local and regional reporters, working for politically-neutral publications, this wasn’t necessarily a problem – although perhaps it led them to be dangerously insulated from the realities of life until that fateful Friday morning.

But I know that many national news journalists would have been writing pieces taking angles with which they bitterly disagreed.

Clearly, no one is holding a gun to the heads of these highly-paid folk.

But I wonder where the red lines lie for them – and I use the word lie deliberately there.

Fifteen years ago, the NUJ membership at the Express complained to the old Press Complaints Commission about their own paper’s relentlessly negative coverage of asylum-seekers.

And there is form for MacKenzie’s journalistic colleagues to rise up in protest against him, after he lost two jobs as a columnist within a year.

As with many an internal rebellion, it’s often the sports desk that makes a difference.

They can be the oldest and wisest hands, and the ones most reliant on contacts and relationships which can be broken by poor judgement elsewhere in the office.

It was – so the story goes – the sports desk at The Times which persuaded the paper’s powers-that-be to put the result of the Hillsborough inquest on the front page for its second edition.

I was reminded of that by the departure this week of its Merseyside football writer Tony Barrett, who apologised for his paper’s arrogant treatment of the story in its earlier edition.

There’s no doubt that The Sun scored a massive own goal with its so-called story about FA senior communications manager Andy Walker.

There was fury from the rest of the football journalism community, with this piece in the Birmingham Mail venting the anger of soccer writers frustrated at the unfair targeting of one of the most helpful sporting PRs in the business.

I’m all for journalists keeping to the straight and narrow road of impartiality, and I know more compromises have to be made on more fronts than ever before these days.

But sometimes a line in the sand has to be drawn. And sometimes that line is in your own office.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Hope not hate: what makes stories fly online?

 

I’ve always thought that, as journalists, we see the best and worst of human nature.

The best comes in the shape of stories about health battles with adversity, heroic rescues or selfless charity fundraising.

The worst can raise its ugly head in the form of horrific crime, political cynicism or corporate incompetence. Not to mention terror attacks like last night’s in Nice where we struggle to find the right words.

And then there’s the bear pit, free for all that is social media – particularly Facebook.

Last weekend, I felt for Chris Humphreys, political reporter at one of my old papers, the Swindon Advertiser.

He led the coverage of a heart-warming rally against racism in the Wiltshire town, and used Facebook Live to stream video footage of the event.

It was then that the coverage was hijacked by the very people whose obscene outlook on life sparked the show of strength.

 

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I tweeted Chris to congratulate him, and I like to think this print headline was also a defiant message to those poisonous web trolls.

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We have a love-hate relationship with the people formerly known as the readers.

I’ve often quoted one of my favourite journalistic pearls of wisdom:

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In the  newsroom where I’ve been moonlighting to keep my hand in this week, I’ve watched as the newsdesk battle to second-guess the great British public.

My friends could be forgiven for simply serving up a diet of ‘grimy crime’, car crashes and viral videos.

Luckily – from the point of view of ensuring that the essence of journalism with a heart and soul is preserved, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Despite the wealth of data in the analytics-driven newsrooms of today, we still don’t always know exactly what turns our audience on.

Material that works a treat one week may flop spectacularly the next.

And we can end up feeling uncomfortable and unfulfilled as we serve up content which we think might attract people with a different world view to our own.

Although for many regional news websites the audience reaction has moved to Facebook, there is a useful debate to be had on readers’ comments and how to make the most of them.  The New York Times is making  new efforts to forge more constructive links with its audience, so that its journalism becomes more of a team effort.

Ultimately, the dream – and it may well be a naive one – must be that the audience develops such a relationship with you that it allows you to tempt it out of its comfort zone.

That certainly, seemed to be the direction of travel of an interesting thread from American media guru Jay Rosen.

 

 

 

 

 

And, now and again, those fickle, frustrating readers can surprise us. In a good way.

My temporary colleagues at the GloucestershireLive website stumbled across a lovely story about a wartime Spitfire engineer who was reunited with one of the aircraft at the age of 95.

I had my doubts as to whether it would, well, fly online.

But it did. And how.

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Ken Farlow at Fairford. Pic: Gloucestershire Airport

It became the most viewed story that night, and for some time afterwards. And more importantly, triggered a lovely response on Facebook.

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The horrible incidents that followed the Brexit vote revealed a nasty underbelly to British society, reflected in those Adver comments.

But we need to remember that they don’t – can’t, shouldn’t – represent Britain.

And to cling to the hope that the response to that heart-warming Spitfire story is the one that truly speaks for our nation.

There’s another source of hope, too.

It’s a vote of confidence in the most rewarding sort of journalism: talking to interesting people and telling their stories.