Who’s going to pay the bill for journalism?

For the last few days, I’ve been driving past a poster with just five words on it.

FURY AS SCHOOL BUS AXED, it says.

It’s a newspaper bill, the sort that I’ve written hundreds of in my career, and a staple of local journalism.

But it suddenly jarred.

For a few reasons – reasons that to me crystallise the serious questions facing journalism.

In a digital age, billboards feel very analogue: bits of paper plonked outside shops to catch the attention of who? Drivers?

Do they work? I’ve attended – and led – workshops on bill-writing. Sell, don’t tell – all that sort of thing.  I’ve been told they work – and they do at least offer a form of brand promotion.

But is this – sometimes handwritten – version of a John Bull printing set the best sales tool to market what regional media publishers still refer to as their premium products?

They don’t scream 21st century multimedia. Which is a shame, because that’s what our newsrooms are steeped in every day.

Then there’s the language. Of course, you have to write bills in a strange staccato shorthand. People are never mildly upset – it’s always fury. Or joy, row, horror, mix-up, riddle, axe, slam and anger. God knows, I’ve wrung them all dry.

But life’s not like that, even in an age of social media emotional incontinence.

Those bills – and the products for which they are the public face – can present a binary, divisive picture of the world.

They’re a blunt instrument, unable to sell the emotional insight of a moving interview, the wisdom or irreverence of a well-crafted column, or the sheer nonsense of a first-person experience piece.

And when it comes to marketing our content online, we can at times pretend there’s no such thing as a paper or even a website. Every item is badged and sold in isolation, to Facebook users who dip in and dip out, and who may never truly have a clue who’s written what they’re reading.

To be clear, I’m not here to argue about whether bills work.

The point is that, although they may only be a few words, those messages on giant pieces of paper speak volumes about this industry.

About the fragility of sales and customer relationships, the clumsiness of journalese, and the legacy of bygone days.

Our industry’s most visible signs of brand marketing represent a daily, sometimes desperate, effort to sell our journalism.

Now it is so abundantly clear that funding journalism remains the single biggest challenge facing us, those bills look ever more symbolic.

I’ve lost count of the industry-watchers who’ve tried to get their heads around this issue.

The latest to look at ways to square the circle of broken community ties, a time-poor audience and an advertising drought was media commentator and academic Roy Greenslade, with a commendably wide-ranging piece in the Guardian.

In the past, he has advocated state subsidy for public service journalism – an idea as intriguing as it would be problematic.

There’s no doubt in my mind that the ownership model which operates across most of the regional media industry is unsustainable. In some cases, you could even say it’s already broken.

As Roy says, journalism – particularly the world-changing and investigative kind – is expensive.

And when there are so many demands on our time and money, few people are prepared to pay for it.

I’m always tempted by the hyperlocal, back to basics model, helped by a dash of crowdfunding.

But I’m not sure where the money’s coming from for that, either.

And each year, it gets harder.

The students that I’m teaching don’t consume news in ways that give any comfort to the traditional media.

And yet, here’s a funny thing.

I’m currently helping a group of them to fulfil their dream of setting up something called…. a newspaper.

It’s very early days.

But they’ve got some fascinating lessons ahead of them on how to make it work. Should it be free? Can they attract enough advertising? How much subsidy will the student union provide? How much fundraising will they need to do? What about a membership scheme?

Every time I’ve drive past that bill, I wonder whether at some time in the future, someone will write one saying FURY AS NEWS SITE AXED.

Let’s hope my student friends can find a way to stave off that day.

 

 

 

 

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A few words of advice for anyone starting to study journalism

It’s a big day today.

For me. But more importantly, for dozens of students here at our university, and for hundreds more across the country.

As I embark on my first full academic year as a lecturer, they’re starting a new chapter of their lives: as journalism students.

So what should we tell them on their first day?

There are so many things you’d like to say, so many words of wisdom and reassurance to share, so many tips to pass on.

A tweet from Independent editor-at-large Amol Rajan aimed at all new first years took my breath away at the weekend.

 

And then I saw a brilliant, brilliant series of quotes from Professor Brian Cox – another university lecturer – on knowledge and evidence in the Observer.

The point is for one reason or another many people don’t know how to change their mind. The whole point of science is that you have to be prepared – and delighted – to change your mind in the face of new evidence. That is the message that should be taught in schools.

When it comes to quotes about journalism, a decent place to start is a new column in Press Gazette by the author of one of the best books about our profession, The Universal Journalist writer David Randall.

At the end of the last academic year, as we said goodbye to our third years, I pulled together some of my favourites in a blog that stressed the importance of getting out from behind a desk, a phone or a laptop and engaging with the real world.

Today, my advice to those at the opposite end of their uni careers won’t be too different.

Over the next three years, we’ll be teaching and training our students to use a dazzling array of technology – from mojo kits to mics and Facebook Live to faders.

But the most important pieces of equipment are the ones they were born with: two eyes, two ears, a nose, a mouth and a mind.

If they can use their eyes to be observant and nosy, their ears to listen with empathy and imagination, their noses to detect trouble and bullsh*t, their mouths to win trust and their minds to exude emotional intelligence, they’ll be journalists to make us very proud indeed.

Don’t let curiosity be killed off

When people complain about being stuck in traffic, there’s an annoying riposte that often drops from the lips of non-drivers.

‘You’re not stuck in traffic – you are the traffic,” they say, in their virtuous way.

And of course, they’re right. That’s what makes them so annoying.

There are parallels with a very different sort of traffic, too.

There’s a tendency in newsrooms for journalists to moan about the readers.

Often – or maybe it was just me in my grumpy old man-ish newsdesk moments – the moaning is very much in the vein of Basil Fawlty’s desire to ‘go and hit some guests’.

I took such a trip down memory lane the other day after spotting what I thought was a brilliantly-conceived piece on the Somerset Live website.

Written by my friend Laura Linham, the site’s Taunton Crown Court reporter, it asked a veteran defence solicitor how speaking up for evil villains sat with his conscience.

The inspiration for the piece came from those people. You know, the readers.

“How do these lawyers sleep at night,” people had ranted at the bottom of Laura’s stories.

So she took them at their word – and found out.

I loved the piece – and I told Facebook as much.

bbk-lawyer

Here we were, responding to the questions at the forefront of our readers’ minds. Public service journalism at its best.

Except they didn’t really want to know.

The story as near as dammit bombed in newsroom analytics terms.

All of which takes me back to one of my favourite quotes about journalism. One I’ve shared before.

saying

But I’m trying not to be disheartened.

I’m trying not to be disheartened because responding to readers is at the heart of the sort of journalism I want to see succeed.

One strand is hyperlocal journalism – and some new research involving one of my heroes, Dave Harte from Birmingham City University, has highlighted the role of what it calls ‘reciprocity’ here.

Many hyperlocal sites have been set up to cover stories and issues overlooked, ignored or beyond the resources of the traditional regional media, which in the past may have thought it knew best rather too often.

But there’s also the American project Hearken which seeks to help traditional media tap into audience power and views more effectively, and the Curious City initiative on a radio station in Chicago.

hearken

The radio project seeks to answer listeners’ questions on topics from gambling to beach cleanliness, and seems to be thriving.

It will always be tempting to wring one’s hands over the fickleness – and at times, tastelessness – of our audience members.

But we journalists – and our friends, and our families – are also audience members ourselves.

As I prepare to begin teaching the basics of news reporting to a new group of first-year students, some enduring values come to mind.

There’s determination and empathy – the two most important personal qualities in any journalist’s armoury.

But there’s also curiosity.

And the day we give up trying to answer our readers’ questions – spoken or unspoken – is the day we should give up on journalism altogether.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

My September resolution: to make amends for my ‘scary’ past

I’ve never been one for New Year’s resolutions.

But I do like the idea – floated by Sara Cox while sitting in for Chris Evans on Radio 2 last Thursday – of the new month resolution.

These are eminently doable, short-term goals for the next 30 days.

And for those of us in education (get me….), September ain’t a bad time to start.

It just so happened that the day after the concept of the new month resolution entered my psyche, I was at the Wiltshire Times in lovely Trowbridge.

After a really useful meeting with my old friend Gary Lawrence and his news editor Alison Phillips, I stepped into the newsroom.

It had all been going so well. And then came the slap in the face with a wet haddock.

“She reckons you used to be really scary,” a former colleague now working on the sportsdesk announced, pointing to a young reporter.

The reporter confirmed this, with her views echoed by a second reporter who looked vaguely familiar.

It turns out that both had had work experience stints at The Bath Chronicle while I was running the newsdesk there.

Now, my memory can be elephantine when it comes to stories, contacts and pub quiz trivia.

But that elephant’s giant achilles heel seems to be workies.

If I had a quid every time someone in a strange newsroom reminded me they’d done work experience in mine, I’d be able to buy them all something in Poundland.

(I’m very late to the party on that subject, by the way. What an amazing treasure trove it is of things you never knew you needed. Like car boot liners. But I digress.)

I don’t mind forgetting that people spent a week in my corporate company.

But I do mind that they found me intimidating.

Ok, I was crazily busy.

But – as the parent of a teenager and as someone now trying to pave the way for work placements for my students – I am not proud of my performance.

And I issued a public apology in that Trowbridge newsroom, there and then.

I was in another newsroom earlier this year where a student (not one of mine) cut short her placement because she felt neglected and unwelcome.

Grow a pair, you might say. Welcome to the real world, you might say.

But – as with the learner drivers who slow us down when we’re in a hurry, we’ve all been there.

So my new month resolution is to do my best to ensure that both sides of the work experience divide get the best out of it.

I can’t think of a better place to start than by highlighting two pieces I’ve already written.

There’s this advice for editors and news editors on making the most of your workie.

And there’s this list of tips for people about to go on work experience.

I’ve spent an awful lot of time this summer visiting newsrooms and offices to ask my industry friends what they want from would-be journalists.

And it’s clear that work experience remains an incredibly powerful way to get a foot in the door of this hugely competitive industry.

The devil you know is always going to trump an unknown quantity.

The more work each party puts in, the more openness that is shown on both sides, the better it is for everyone.