Why do we do journalism? We need to agree on an answer

It was a time when I had hair.
I also had a fairly naff line in colourful jumpers, army trousers and fingerless mittens.
But that’s not important right now.
A weekend spring clean of the loft uncovered my collection of back copies of the university student newspaper I edited 32 years ago.
There was some toe-curling stuff – and some very rude headlines.
But there were also some good stories, and a couple of decent ranty editorials.
What struck me above all, though, was the extraordinary range of material.
Yes, there were investigations into student union shenanigans, and hard-hitting campaigns on poor lighting and the safety of a bizarre bell tower.
But there was also a piece that alcohol played a part in conceiving, on the effect of election night nerves on the bowel habits of student union executive candidates.
There was a strong lavatorial theme throughout. It being a Welsh university, I changed the name of the no-holds-barred gossip column to Dai O’Rea. Oh how we laughed.
It’s been a quite a week for debate over the tension between different sorts of journalism.
In fact, it feels like a dam has broken, enabling a fascinating – if worrying – debate to be had about the state of regional media coverage.
Some of the most interesting analysis has come from a Brit who enjoys cult status on the other side of the Atlantic.
It’s around 20 minutes long, but John Oliver’s polemic on the American regional media has enormous resonance over here.

The broad church of Aberystwyth University’s Courier newspaper in 1984 might have embraced both politics and poo.
But it’s puppies and Iraq in the USA.
Oliver quotes onetime Chicago Tribune chief executive Sam Zell laying into an ‘arrogant’ journalist who questioned the trivialisation of news coverage.
“You’re giving me the classic, what I would call journalistic arrogance, of deciding that puppies don’t count….Hopefully, we get to a point where our revenue is so significant that we can do puppies and Iraq. Okay?”
He then told his employee: “F*ck you.” Nice.
Oliver’s central thread is that the decline of local papers, and the drive to maximise digital audiences, have seriously undermined the monitoring of the corridors of power across the USA.
He equates it to leaving school pupils to run their own classrooms.
His broadside – watched by around four million viewers – came within days of a blizzard of other hard-hitting attacks on the priorities of Britain’s regional newspaper owners.
First up was award-winning former Croydon Advertiser reporter Gareth Davies, whose heartfelt tweets explaining his decision to quit the paper soon turned into an extended blog post which lambasted owner Trinity Mirror’s stewardship of his newsroom.
His criticism – that the print product was now being thrown together, that trivial and anodyne content now trumped serious public interest journalism, and that staff cuts meant any off-diary investigations had to be done in reporters’ own time – was echoed in a passionate piece by media commentator Fleet Street Fox, whose SubScribe website hosted Davies’s blog.


Coverage by Hold the Front Page and Press Gazette – which followed up the story with tales of woe from Newsquest titles where staffing had been cut to the bone – brought forward some really detailed and intelligent below-the-line comments. These weren’t the usual ‘back in my day’ suspects. These were the real reporters of today. And they were hurting.
Then, this week, Press Gazette published the last – but never printed – column by Leicester Mercury features writer Lee Marlow.
Another Trinity Mirror award-winner, he took redundancy a few weeks ago, completely disillusioned with the direction in which he felt his paper was being taken.
When I first saw Davies’s tweets, I tweeted a message to Trinity Mirror digital publishing director David Higgerson, expressing the hope that he might use his excellent blog to answer some of the criticisms.
At first he was reluctant, but my point that many reporters in his newsrooms had similar fears to those expressed by Davies struck a chord, and he responded.
His blog dealt with only one aspect of the Croydon criticism, but – as usual – he was persuasive and passionate.
I have a huge amount of time for him, and for many of the other senior people in Trinity Mirror’s regional team.
They are wonderfully committed to sharing the latest thinking on digital storytelling, to encouraging new ideas, and to squeezing every last drop out of social media.
And I’m very glad that the company issued such a detailed response to Davies’s criticisms , over and above the Higgerson blog, even if the odd line did feel rather graceless.

You’ll notice that I haven’t used the word clickbait anywhere here.
I think it’s a much-abused one, defining as it does a story or social media post where the headline promises something that isn’t delivered.
It’s very rare that I see stuff which falls into that category on regional news sites. And the latest Facebook algorithm change  has driven the final nail in clickbait’s coffin.
But I’ve spent enough time in newsrooms in recent years to see the growing tension between the sort of journalism that takes time, that involves building relationships and trust, and that holds power to account, and the sort of coverage that is written against the Chartbeat clock, that reheats the social media soufflé, and that tries to scream fun with a corporate suit on.
I wonder how many editors can look themselves in the mirror and be happy with some basic questions.
Like, when was the last time your coverage seriously embarrassed authority on your patch? When did it lead to someone losing or quitting their job? Are you happy with the level of errors in your printed product? With your team’s working hours? Do you know enough about where your digital audience is? How many FoI requests have your staff made in the last six months? Are all your appraisals and personal development plans up to date? And – an obsession of mine, I admit, when did you last make your team a cup of tea? Or join them for a Friday night drink? Finally, do you still enjoy what you do?
There will be people whose answers will gladden my heart and I am fiercely proud of my friends who still work at all levels in the regional media.
And I’m hugely heartened by the good stuff that does go on in those newsrooms. I highlighted the fantastic work of the Manchester Evening News’s social affairs editor Jennifer Williams a couple of weeks ago, and she’s struck again with a great investigation into NHS services.
That’s why I love Davies’s new project – the Journalocal account which celebrates the best of regional news reporting.
But in the end it comes down to a very simple numbers game.
There need to be both puppies and Iraq, politics and poo – and the resources to serve them up.
But the default setting of each of the major players in UK regional media is to cut more meat from an already emaciated beast. And then come back and do it again.
As I have said before, there is increasing evidence that the model is, if not broken, then breaking. And that the future is local.
We face massive challenges in securing that future. Locally-owned news providers will never employ journalists in the numbers that regional papers boasted even ten years ago. And new generations will never consume news in the way that people of my age do.
In working out the best route to that local success, I turn – as I often do – to the leadership expert I respect above all others. A man with more common sense on that subject in his little finger than most FTSE 100 boards have in their entire collective bodies.
Simon Sinek  wrote a book called Start with Why, which is at the centre of one of the most-viewed Ted Talks of all time.

His central premise is that a business can’t be truly successful unless it can find an honest and inspiring answer to the question ‘why do you do what you do?’
‘To make a profit’ doesn’t cut it. That’s not the basic Why that drives the Apples of this world, he says.
Why do companies such as Trinity Mirror and Newsquest exist? Why should people use their websites rather than their rivals’?
The best companies and organisations have a clear vision that envelops their staff in genuine care and which is translated into incredible customer service and commitment to excellence on the ground.
The problem for the regional media is that there is no clear answer to that fundamental question.
Ask most journalists and they’re likely to say they do their jobs because they love writing, or they love storytelling, or they want to make a difference.
You won’t necessarily find those phrases in an annual report.
You’ll find plenty of lip service to concepts such as passion, and rich content and community.
But until the troops start really believing the words of their leaders, our industry will be forever beating a retreat.

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