Why I’m happy my licence fee is being spent on extra newspaper reporters

There are times when the jobs pages of the regional journalism website Hold the Front Page can be a bit of a desert.

Not this week.

Across the country there are well over 100 jobs on offer – a veritable Christmas feast of vacancies unprecedented in recent years.

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It would be lovely to report that the shareholders of Trinity Mirror and Johnson Press, along with the American owners of Newsquest, had had a blinding flash of inspiration and decided to reverse years of cuts in Britain’s regional journalism firepower.

But that’s not what’s led to this jobs bonanza. This Christmas present has come from the BBC: in other words, from you and I.

The idea of the BBC spending £8 million of licence-payers’ money on the salaries of reporters who will work for commercial media companies has been controversial.

Why should the BBC prop up private sector firms that have presided over the closure of titles and offices, and the removal of rafts of editors, subs and even reporters?

It’s a reasonable question to ask. But we are where we are, and it is what it is, as all our mothers used to say.

We have a shareholder or venture capital model which is on the ropes, we have audiences whose attachments to their communities can be fragile, and we have a media landscape where there is more competition for people’s time than ever before.

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And, importantly, the 150 reporters based in newsrooms from Teesside to Truro will not just be serving those companies’ titles and websites with stories from councils, courts and the NHS, but will also be providing content for the Beeb – and for other local news websites including some hyperlocals.

And never has the work of holding power to account been more necessary.

This week has brought a reminder of the tragedy that shames this whole nation, but which poses particularly awkward questions for regional journalism.

The opening of the public inquiry and the memorial service for the victims of Grenfell Tower are a stark jolt to all of us.Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 11.06.14

This happened on our watch, on journalism’s watch.

The warning signs were there: in blogs that weren’t read, detailed council documents that weren’t analysed, and people who weren’t listened to.

That lack of coverage, of challenge, of curiosity, of contacts, of connections, played its part in the deaths of 71 people in an incident that should have no place in the year 2017.

But it’s a tricky business when newsroom web targets demand that each story gets at least 1,000 pairs of eyes – sometimes higher. Would some story about the variety of cladding used on a high rise tower have cleared that hurdle, and won an online audience?

There are times when that audience can appear to be our enemy rather than our ally. When – as my friends in Gloucestershire have seen – attempts to explain and bring to life a planning blueprint that will affect every family in the county seem to fall on blind eyes and deaf ears online.

And yet, there are beacons of hope, where journalists seem to have found that powerful sweet spot where public service journalism that makes a difference overlaps with storytelling that hits web targets.

I think of my friends at the Bristol Post, where great stories about individuals caught up in the nightmare of homelessness, and the recent gut-wrenching tragedy of the suicide of a girl from the city have captured hearts, minds and eyeballs.

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As the editor of one of its sister websites, Devon Live boss Patrick Phelvin so rightly said: “If it comes from the heart and is interesting then generally there’s an audience for it.”

I also look admiringly at the work of Sam Petherick at my old paper, The Bath Chronicle, who was shortlisted for a national award for his stories about overpaid vice-chancellor Professor Glynis Breakwell.

And once again I pay homage to one of the greatest journalists working in the regional media today, Manchester Evening News social affairs editor Jennifer Williams, whose coverage of issues from homelessness to hospitals and drugs to development always strengthens my belief that journalism can be a massive force for good in society.

 

All of these journalistic heroes are pursuing new stories, cooking up new dishes rather than reheating tired soufflés. As blogger Adam Tinworth so rightly said recently, in many ways there is too much journalism.

He wasn’t, we should stress, talking about truly local journalism: the coverage, challenge and storytelling that comes from working a patch or a specialism. That’s a skill that I try to put at the heart of everything that I teach, and I was hugely encouraged to hear an editor friend say she was bringing back patches at her papers the other day.

Of all those Cs I listed above, it is perhaps curiosity that is the most important. We spent an afternoon this week interviewing prospective students for our course and it was a joy to hear one say: ‘I want to know why things happen.’

As Guardian editor Kath Viner recently said, journalists shouldn’t just be asking the questions that everyone is asking – they should also pose the ones that no one else is voicing. That’s the key.

So I’m hugely cheered by the BBC investment, as well as by other initiatives where organisations making money out of other people’s journalism are beginning to give something back.

There are great things going on at Google, with its Newslabs work, and its recent funding of a string of regional journalism projects, including one to make court coverage more useful.

Initiatives from PA’s robot data journalism trials to the inspiring Bureau of Investigative Journalism’s Local Bureau work  should also give us hope.

That surfeit of journalism that Adam was talking about isn’t at grassroots level.

And so what we need to ensure is that the BBC investment doubles down on the regional coverage of what goes on in the corridors of power around the nation.

These 150 foot soldiers in the battle to hold power to account need to complement what’s already happening, not allow existing political reporters to be shunted into other work.

We need more eyes, ears and noses to be stuck into unwanted places.

There’s a mantra I’ve been sharing in teaching sessions, at open days, in TV interviews, at interview days, and on outreach visits. I’ve undoubtedly said it here before, too.

But it can’t be repeated enough times.

If we get journalism right, we stop Grenfell Towers from happening in the future.

Get it wrong, and that sort of tragedy happens time and time again.

Main picture: Christine Matthews

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