Cracking the editor’s code

My head is full of cold.

But it’s also full of code.

Not the cool spy kind, or the even cooler computer language kind.

This kind, the IPSO Editor’s Code of Practice kind.

It’s not often that I quibble with an IPSO ruling on that code.

But I was taken aback by its complaints committee’s latest decision – that it was ok for a news website to name 15-year-old girls who had objected to a new uniform rule at their school.

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The Leicester Mercury had taken the names from a public petition site, arguing that the information was fairly and squarely in the public domain and available to anyone else with time to track them down.

The whole question of quoting children – who in IPSO’s eyes are the under-16s – is a messy one.

One paper I recently worked with won’t vox-pop anyone under 18.

The code says that conversations with children about their welfare have to be approved by their parents or ‘similarly responsible adult.’

When training journalists on the code, I’ve always used a scenario where pupils had staged a walk-out over some new rules at their school to test understanding of Clause Six.

As far as I was concerned, the relationship between a child and his or her school is very much about their welfare.

But this judgement offers a very different interpretation, saying that arguments over school uniform rules are fair game.

The fact that the Mercury removed the names from its web story after complaints, and didn’t include them in its print version, suggests to me that it knew it had been pushing its luck.

I can see a good story here, and I can see the argument that those names are already public.

What I can’t see is the benefit of identifying individual kids here. And what I can’t see is the responsibility of protecting the vulnerable from themselves.

If we took every statement made by a 15-year-old at face value, we’d have a fairly skewed view of life.

The ruling comes as IPSO has launched a consultation exercise on whether the code needs changing.

I asked a group of students what they’d like to add to the guidelines last week, and they came up with the intriguing idea of greater protection for older people.

There might certainly be something in that, particularly when it comes to crime reporting.

IPSO itself has done the industry a massive favour by producing an incredibly detailed guide to its interpretation of the code.

I’ve promised myself I’ll find time over Christmas to read all 104 pages of it.

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There have been no shortage of ideas for IPSO to consider.

Veteran commentator Peter Preston has floated the idea of greater co-operation between it and the rival regulator Impress over a single code.

While journalism professor Tim Crook has argued that the IPSO code is too prescriptive and small-minded, and that the regulator should be outlining a nobler mission for journalism.

It is important that all of us who are journalists have a code of practice that we can believe in.

If we think it can be better, now’s the chance to say so.

 

Farewell to the Wells office, that lovable outsize brown box

It was a right old faff to get around, with a door entry system guaranteed to trigger coffee spillages and a kitchen where you’d be hard pushed to swing a mouse, let alone a cat.

I recall it never quite being the right temperature, and you could hear everything that went on on the floor above.

And yet that office, with its piles of paper, room full of bound volume archives and milkless fridge, felt like home.

The Wells Journal headquarters was always my favourite office to visit during the 18 months when I was an editorial trainer covering the west of England.

It helped that it was a nice drive from my home, and that Wells is one of the most beautiful places on God’s earth.

But it was also a real newspaper office, where you could have one craic-filled conversation, and where real people popped in with stories.

I say it was because it closed yesterday.

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It had been living on borrowed time for a while, and I completely understand why it’s been declared surplus to requirements by my old employer.

I also feel for all the editors – many of whom I count as friends – who are having to square increasingly difficult financial circles, again and again.

But I can’t help feeling a pang of sadness at the loss of somewhere that was a second home for scores of reporters over the years.

It’s not quite like the closure of a church.

But there is something special, even perhaps – it is Christmas after all – spiritual about newspaper offices.

Above all, they are places of creativity and mischief, where ideas can be incubated and tested, where the gallows humour that gets you through the day can go unchallenged, and where a finger on the community pulse should be apparent.

So good luck and much love to everyone I used to run into in that outsize brown box on the edge of that little city.

And to those of you lucky enough to work in newspaper offices where you can still – with the right imagination – smell the newsprint: enjoy.

Happy Christmas to you all.

Could print be the saviour of the news industry?

Five months ago yesterday, something strange happened in the world of newspapers.

One was launched.

Without – at the time – a website.

The New European was intended to have a life of just four weeks: a pop-up newspaper created as anger and angst mounted over the result of the June 23 referendum.

But, well into December, and as that anger and angst continues to simmer, it’s still going strong.

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As I said shortly after its launch, it’s bucked a trend of print closures, considerably outliving two other launches: the nine-week New Day experiment, and the six-week 24 newspaper.

It does now have a proper news website.

But it still uses that online presence to signpost people to its premium product: the print edition.

So what does the success of the New European tell us?

And is it a sign that media organisations ought to put more effort into print?

What the New European has done is corner a market that is real. Unlike New Day and 24, it has chutzpah, character and confidence – as well as a niche home where people with money exist.

The idea that news organisations are pursuing a mirage by pinning all their hopes on digital advertising has been developing some decent traction in recent months.

At our university’s recent media festival, veteran sports writer Patrick Barclay insisted that the resurgence of premium-priced, high quality newspapers was just around the corner.

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And today, outgoing Brighton Argus editor Mike Gilson makes a powerful plea for the press to shout its virtues from the rooftops – and to start investing in quality print journalism. It’s well worth a read.

Across the Atlantic, the print-only concept is explored convincingly in this piece in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review.

It comes down to this.

Despite everything, revenue from print still outstrips that from digital by – depending on who you talk to – a factor of between three and four.

And yet some of those print products – certainly at regional level – are hollowed-out shadows of their former selves, thrown together almost apologetically despite skilled and dedicated staff, with faceless arms-length subbing hubs leading to quality corners being cut on a weekly basis.

The counterintuitive, contrarian, argument is that more newspapers should be print-only, with existing websites shut and/or new launches having no online presence.

But could it work?

I’m not so sure.

Not for regional daily papers, anyway. Most are in irreversible decline for a myriad of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with content.

Our time-poor lives are against them, along with socioeconomic changes such as the decline of traditional manufacturing, with its factory gate traditions and community ties, and our online food shopping habits.

Shedding or downgrading a website will do nothing here, I fear – and would fly in the face of some genuine, if at times fickle, demand.

It would also fly in the face of the reality that our children will never consume news in the way that we do, or did.

I’m not sure that a lot of weeklies would be helped either.

Most weeklies are still not drilling down deep enough into the minutiae of local life

The battle for people’s precious time is less intense here, but that void would still be filled by another media source.

In fact, today sees news that a weekly in South Yorkshire is going web-only after 140 years of print production.

But most importantly, most weeklies are still not drilling down deep enough into the minutiae of local life, or covering natural communities.

Where print-only does make huge sense is in the hyperlocal world of micro-coverage, rammed with names and street-level detail.

If you’re going to get people to buy your product, you need to be offering something valuable that isn’t available anywhere else – in print or online.

Despite our increasingly transient populations, our busy lives and our reduced community involvement, there remains an appetite for news.

I nearly hugged one of my neighbours last night when he told me that he and his wife had started buying our local weekly because they felt out of touch with what was going on in our town.

But that news has to be right stuff, with the right detail.

That neighbour had gone looking for a story about the closure of a local landmark business – one I had flagged up to the paper’s news desk.

He couldn’t find it – and neither could I.

Unless we can organise our resources to offer unbeatable truly local news coverage, print-only will be just another mirage.