5 reasons why I’m not looking back to a golden age of journalism

There’s a feast of enticing TV on tonight: Game of Thrones, the final of Love Island, Harry and Wills talking about their mum on ITV1 – and the final episode of the compelling Ripper Street.

But I’ve already been gripped by a captivating piece of programme-making.

I can’t imagine that the audience for A Day in the Life of the Coventry Evening Telegraph troubled the ratings scorers when it was shown on that city’s cable TV channel back in 1991.

I never worked there. But the 33-minute documentary took me straight back to the newsrooms which were my second homes in the 80s and 90s: in Exeter, Torquay, Swindon and Bath.

They were the scenes of some great times, and had an atmosphere – smells, sounds, sayings and systems – all of their own.

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They also had sales figures and editorial staff numbers that would now be the stuff of utter fantasy.

But would I like to turn the clock back 26 years? I’m not so sure – and here’s why.

1. All those men in white shirts

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Blimey, we were corporate and male, then, weren’t we? I didn’t see a single woman in conference. With the exception of crime reporter Sue Lary, and a shot of a woman in paste-up, it was pretty much wall-to-wall blokes. And men in white-shirt-and-boring-tie combo, in particular. The BBC’s gender gap problems are a woman vicar’s tea party compared with this lot. Thankfully, we’ve moved on in the last two and half decades. And leaving aside the fact that there are now women in editors’ chairs in every part of the country, we’ve also relaxed our dress codes away from that Man at C&A look.

2. All that faff

I don’t know how long that conference would have gone on for, but I suspect it was more than half an hour, tying up half a dozen of those MANagers. And I suspect there was another set-piece meeting later in the day. If they were anything like the ones I took part in, they would have gone into tedious detail and featured intense debate about whether a picture should go on page 17 or 7. And then there’s those production processes. Of course it was desperately sad when long-serving employees lost their jobs, but an awful lot of those jobs involved just carrying pieces of paper or metal around. So one can mourn the loss of a whole vocabulary of titles, production areas and skills, while being grateful for technology that saves both time and money.

3. All those offices

When I started on my first newspaper in Exeter in 1985, the editor was dozens of yards away down a corridor. In his office, mostly with the door closed. Lord knows what he did all day. Little more than 20 years ago, the editor, deputy editor and associate editor of The Bath Chronicle all had their own offices. Managing directors were people you might see once or twice a year, and who wouldn’t know your name. Now, I only know one editor who spends more time in their office than out in the newsroom – and many editors don’t even have an office. They lead from the front and have to eyeball their staff pretty much all the time. Which is as it should be.

4. All those Yellow Pages

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And fax machines. And spikes. And post to open. All that paraphernalia of the pre-internet age, when the only way to track people down was by using a phone or a door knocker. When you could miss a splash if the post was held up, and when investigative research relied on public libraries and the occasional bundle of papers in a hedge. And, of course, when if a story broke at 3pm, you’d have to wait until the next day before you could tell anyone.

5. All those laurels to rest on

There’s a comment from then Telegraph editor Neil Benson that really sticks in my mind.

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Asked whether bad news sells papers, he acknowledges that it might boost his sales a bit.

But he says the paper sells 90,000 copies a day ‘more or less irrespective of what’s in it.’

Oh happy day. Oh happy day when, in a city of 300,000 people, you achieve something close to total penetration, no matter what you did. When you have to beat a radio station or two, and your two regional TV newsrooms, but never have to worry about people-powered news websites, or Twitter, or football clubs cutting you out of the equation altogether.

I’ve argued strongly before that the reporters of today have to work far harder than I ever did, 26, 16 or six years ago.

And I think the discipline of having to cope with a multimedia, transient, hypercritical audience means our journalism is better. I know much of the writing certainly is, having seen some of the tortuous rubbish that passed muster in my youth.

The Good Old Days?

So, while it’s tempting to hark back to those so-called good old days, I’m resisting the urge.

On the surface of it, life in those packed newsrooms producing papers snapped up by entire communities feels like a golden age.

But the joy of journalism can be as real now as it was 26 years ago, with new ways of telling stories, and new platforms to reach audiences undreamed of in 1991.

And there’s certainly never been a greater need for what we do.

 

 

Raise a glass to Ray – but let’s raise our game, too

I was going to have a right old go at a national treasure today.

A lovely old man in his 90s with a seemingly inexhaustible zest for life.

One who’s never done me any harm whatsoever.

But my conscience got the better of me.

Don’t get me wrong, I do admire Sir Ray Tindle, founder of the 220-title local newspaper empire that bears his name.

I am much taken by his optimism, his longevity in the face of illness, his dedication to cravat-wearing, and his cavalier attitude to web design.

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I love the way he started it all with his £300 wartime demob money.

And most of all, I am impressed by his relentless obsession with the idea that life is local, that newsrooms should cover the minutiae of identifiable communities’ lives.

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And yet, when I saw coverage of his handover of power to his son Owen, I couldn’t get a horrible geographical thought out of my head.

The pictures don’t help, either.

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The picture of the handover used on Hold the Front Page

I’m desperate to know what’s in those packages on the desk, for a start.

But have a read of this…

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Really? Did he say those words out loud? In Britain, as opposed to, say, a country that’s just above South Korea?

It’s all a bit weird.

But let’s give the new Supreme Leader, sorry chairman, a bit of credit.

For Young Mr Tindle did come out with a genuine gem.

“We will go forward into the new era of local media, keeping things beautifully small and beautifully local.”

Which is a lovely thing, as my fellow blogger Steve Dyson has said, in a piece which also celebrates my friend Richard Coulter’s Voice titles in and around Bristol, and the recently-launched Cambridge Independent.

My concern when it comes to the Tindles – and this is why I was going to pile into an elderly national treasure, is that their company’s dedication to realistic pay and training hasn’t always been obvious.

I’ve taken on enough reporters from Tindle titles over the last couple of decades to get a fair insight into the step change that moving to a bigger group involved on both those scores.

But, looking back at below-the-line comments on a host of Hold the Front Page stories about Tindle, it’s clear that Sir Ray engenders great loyalty among his staff, who say time and again, they’d rather work for him than anyone else.

So, like his, my glass is going to be half-full.

Because he is right about the need for truly local journalism.

The journalism that looks people in the eye, that rubs shoulders with its audience, and which has a recognisable human face.

Yesterday’s Rewired conference on cutting edge journalism featured a fascinating session that was very much back to the future on representative media: essentially getting out and doing face-to-face reporting.

Because here’s the thing.

If we’re going to build a future for journalism, it’s going to have to be local, and it’s going to have to be out there, breathing the same air as our audience.

I was very taken today with a piece on American journalism from columnist Ross Barkan.

He was writing about Trump and the erosion of trust in the US media, but his message is just as relevant on this side of the Atlantic.

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‘We can hate most what we don’t know.’

There’s a truth that goes far wider than the future of journalism there.

But for now let’s cling on to that thought.

The more we know the people we write for or broadcast to, and the more they know us, the more likely it is that journalism has a sustainable future.