The media and Grenfell Tower: the good, the bad and the ugly

Just over a week on from the Grenfell Tower horror, it’s clear there are goodies and baddies.

Top of the list of those who have emerged with reputations enhanced are, of course, London’s firefighters, and their impressive chief Dany Cotton.

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn showed some deft touches with a timely visit that saw him comforting relatives and demanding action. The Queen appeared to make light of Theresa May’s security worries by visiting the area, and caught the mood of the nation with an unprecedented statement last week.

And the people of West London have shown jaw-dropping community spirit in filling in some of the huge gaps left by the authorities on the ground.

Which brings me to the groups who haven’t covered themselves in glory: the local council, whose chief executive last night resigned, Mrs May, the housing trust which runs the tower, the building inspection regime, a host of contractors, ministers stretching back many years, and a political culture that prized dogma and penny-pinching over safety.

So in which camp do we put the media?

Well, it has to be a bit of both, as this excellent Buzzfeed article on local people’s mixed feelings explains.

Journalists have been able to tell the full story of this utterly man-made disaster in a way that has woken this country from a complacent slumber: highlighting raw suffering, amazing bravery, incredible generosity and criminal negligence.

But there have also been spectacular errors of judgement.

We’ll have to let IPSO decide whether the Sun really did get one of its reporters to impersonate a relative , although the paper’s statement of denial has the ring of truth to me.

The regulator will also have to take a view on the 1,500 complaints it has received about a Mail Online story naming the man whose ‘faulty’ fridge is alleged to have started the fire.

Mail Online – not to be confused with any national newspaper with a similar name, by the way – has sought to defend itself by saying no one could reasonably draw the implication that it was blaming Britain’s worst fire for generations on the man.

There’s an answer to that, and it rhymes with ollocks. 

With no buy-in from the man – he told Mail Online he didn’t want to talk, there was absolutely no justification for naming him in these unprecedented circumstances.

There are many, many people who need to be named and shamed over Grenfell Tower. A taxi driver from Ethiopia isn’t one of them.

The backlash against the story may have been intensified by the way in which this tragedy has allowed thousands of people to see the media go about its work for days on end.

Journalists have been exposed to very public questioning and criticism of their methods and their work – and not just at Grenfell Tower, as the BBC’s religious affairs editor Martin Bashir found when covering the Finsbury Park mosque terror incident.

There has been no hiding place for journalists – and nor should there be.

Some of the Grenfell Tower coverage may have felt insensitive, but there is a far, far bigger question for our industry to address.

A very telling piece in Press Gazette suggests that not a single newspaper or local news site covered the extensive warnings by residents at the tower over fire safety.

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Never has the phrase read it and weep been more apt.

The theme is echoed in an equally sobering article by journalist Grant Feller, who once covered North Kensington.

As I said in a blog last week, this mind-boggling horror that leaves us running out of appropriate words highlights the overwhelming importance of political journalism.

It can be deeply unsexy, deeply time-consuming, and deeply analytics-unfriendly.

Even with that most crucial and increasingly rare commodity of time, it’s not easy to sift out the wolf-criers and the serial whingers, let alone to find engaging ways of making the important interesting.

But it’s difficult to avoid the conclusion that if journalists in West London had been allowed to spend more time making contacts, more time poring over detailed council agendas, and more time simply listening to real people, we might – might – not be where we are today.

I’ve spent too much time today poring over another document, the impressively wide-ranging annual Reuters Institute report on the media.

It looks at trust in the media, at the willingness of people in different countries to pay for their news (only six per cent in the UK do), and at the growing power of social media.

Essentially, it asks: What is the media for?

I tweeted this last week.

Belatedly, our politics is beginning to prove its worth at – when put together with the election result – what feels like a major turning point for our attitudes to austerity, deregulation and privatisation.

Now it’s time for journalism to prove that it, too, can learn the lessons of Grenfell Tower.

Why we shouldn’t let political parties buy newspapers’ front pages

My brother-in-law’s loyalty to his local paper isn’t exactly rock solid.

But he does it buy it from time to time – including, I’m glad to say, when I come to visit.

I say does. But it would be more accurate to say did.

He’s decided never to buy the Westmorland Gazette ever again.

Because of its front page.

News front pages ought occasionally to wind readers up: otherwise, what’s the point?

But this wasn’t news. This was advertising. Conservative Party advertising.

And it wasn’t just the Westmorland Gazette.

wmg

The fake front page that angered my brother-in-law and many of his friends was mirrored in a number of other regional papers last week.

Buzzfeed’s incisive political editor Jim Waterson has analysed the areas chosen for this election advertising blitz, which saw four-page wraps enveloping the conventional newspapers, covering up those titles’ real front pages in territory where the Tories hope to cause major upsets.

One of these is the politically-active town of Kendal, where Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron’s Westmorland and Lonsdale seat appears to be in Tory sights.

It’s not gone down well, with more than 800 people signing a petition demanding the paper apologise for carrying the advertising.

There’s been condemnation from across the UK on Twitter, with an illuminating thread provoked by this tweet from Spectator editor Fraser Nelson.

 

In a blog Nelson suggests the practice of running such wrap ads is as much fake news as anything dreamed up by the lie machines of some American websites.

Ironically, that same – much-abused – phrase was used by the organisation that represents all the papers caught up in this row when the News Media Association was trumpeting the independent reliability of its member publications last week.

nma

The practice has been defended by the editor of the trade website Press Gazette, with Dom Ponsford arguing that titles cannot afford to turn down the business.

From a practical point of view, he’s right.

It looks as if the Conservatives will book more wraps between now and June 8 in a move that – because the advertising is generic – allows them to classify the spending as national (where the official ceiling is generous) rather than local (where there are more onerous limits).

Ad managers will be rubbing their hands with glee as the camera-ready ads catapult them towards their weekly targets.

Editors, I suspect, perhaps won’t be so happy.

For the last five years, they’ve had to roll over as wraps, partial wraps, takeover front pages and other wheezes play fast and loose with editorial space, with a mission creep that has rubbed out the red lines of old.

And they will be used to defending the sale of space to political parties inside their publications at times like these.

But what we’ve seen in the last week is something else.

This is Theresa May’s officials effectively buying the integrity and independence of regional titles which has been hard-won over decades and centuries – for the equivalent of 30 pieces of silver.

They know that many readers won’t see the ‘advertiser’s announcement’ caveat, but will believe the paper they rely on for an unbiased guide to life is suggesting they vote in a particular way. They know their message will be on display for several days on racks passed by thousands of people. And they know newspapers can’t afford to say no.

Dom Ponsford may be right that many of those now complaining about these wraps rarely buy the papers concerned.

But some, like my brother-in-law, do. Or, as I say, did.

It’s undeniable that papers need all the advertising they can get.

But they also need readers.

So they better hope money doesn’t come in one door only to disappear out of the next.

In the words of the investor, public speaker and entrepreneur Amy Rees Anderson: “Success will come and go, but integrity is forever.”

 

Editor Maggie may go….but newsrooms need leaders more than ever

The scene was set in the not hugely subtle location of a graveyard.

Together they sat on a bench: the parish vicar….and the editor of the local paper.

Both feeling surplus to requirements. Both in need of greater community support.

It was very much a sideshow to the main business of the latest series of the wonderful ITV drama Broadchurch last night.

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But to me – and plenty of other journalists on Twitter – it was a fascinating little mini sub-plot.

I’ve written before about my admiration for Broadchurch Echo editor Maggie Radcliffe.

That was in the days when she had staff. Now there’s just her – and she’s about to lose her office and be forced to work from a regional HQ.

So it was, fresh from a showdown with the boss who had replaced her splash about a controversial planning application with a cliched one about cats, the tireless Maggie found herself comparing notes with the Rev Paul Coates.

As they both bemoaned their community’s blasé, fair (or, more accurately, bad) weather attitude to their respective services, Maggie’s dedication to protecting public-spirited journalism struck a chord with plenty of real hacks up and down the country.

And there was particular interest over the border from Dorset in Devon, where there’s been a changing of the guard in my home county’s Trinity Mirror newsrooms.

There, the journalist who taught me more about news-editing than anyone else, the indefatigable Jim Parker, is now in charge of four weekly newspapers that only a couple of years ago had their own editors.

At the same time, another journalist for whom I have great admiration, Patrick Phelvin, now presides over a giant single website covering the whole of the sprawling county of Devon apart from Plymouth.

It’s only a couple of weeks since another shake-up by Trinity Mirror axed the editor of the Grimsby Telegraph and its sister title in Scunthorpe, as well as the editor of the Lincolnshire Echo.

As departing Telegraph editor Michelle Lalor says, this leaves a leadership vacuum in some big communities.

It’s not just Trinity Mirror: Newsquest has also merged plenty of editors’ roles in recent years, although it is to be hoped that the latest partial abandonment of its soulless subbing hubs might signal an upsurge in local self-determination.

If there are real deputies left to lead newsrooms and champion the needs of their towns and cities, there may be an argument to be made for sacrificing the salaries of big earners rather than the troops on the ground.

But newsrooms without supportive, energetic, eyeball-to-eyeball leadership will serve up anaemic, one-size-fits-all, hollowed-out products that avoid the risk-taking and occasional unpopularity that are the hallmarks of the very best journalism.

It looks to me as if Maggie Radcliffe will join the long line of real editors who quit rather than go along with cutbacks that cross a line of conscience.

But if she puts up a fight, there’ll be plenty of us cheering from the sofa sidelines.

 

 

That Monday night feeling: tackling newsroom stress

At this sort of time on a Monday a few years ago, I’d be getting a bit of a sinking feeling.

My mind would be gearing up for The Worst Day of The Week.

My last boss as editor of The Bath Chronicle, Lynne Fernquest, used to joke that she wasn’t allowed to make eye contact with me on a Tuesday because I found the day so stressful.

For weekly newspapers going to press on a Wednesday afternoon, they could be horrible days, stretching well beyond 12 hours, with little time to look up from a battered keyboard.

The difference between the pace of life on individual weekdays has been evened out since then, with the voracious demands of a 24/7 website meaning every day has an equal level of expectation and potential stress.

Luckily for me, I no longer have that Monday evening feeling, or its Sunday night equivalent.

Pretty much without exception, I look forward to each working day, like an annoying Duracell bunny Pollyanna.

Appropriately enough, tomorrow – a Tuesday which three years ago would have seen me in full news editor headbanging mode – will find me discussing the very subject of workplace relationships and stress.

I’ll be on a panel as an independent observer looking at changes to one of the university’s psychology courses – and, in true Pollyanna style, I’m very much looking forward to it.

This week there have been at least two acknowledgements of the reality of stress in the 21st century newsroom.

One was a very familiar one: the threat of industrial action at Newsquest titles in Scotland, where the NUJ says reduced staffing has led to unacceptable stress levels.

The other was a bit more of a surprise.

An American academic is looking for journalist volunteers for a study looking at how and why people in our profession cope so resiliently well with pressure.

In the 18 months that I worked as an editorial trainer in the newspaper industry, I think I saw most aspects of office dynamics.

And hundreds of one-to-ones with reporters, designers, editors, features writers and sports journalists left me with an A to Z of the pressures modern media professionals face.

From analytics to accountability on social media, from diminishing resources to deadlines, from information overload to IT flakiness, and from ethics to evening work, I heard and saw it all.

And on my regular visits to newsrooms now, I continue to do so, as my colleagues keep up a daily fight to satisfy what can be a fickle and transient audience.

And yet, I still believe what my Twitter bio proclaims: that journalism can be the best job in the world.

But there’s a nut we need to crack: one that I have obsessed over for some time now.

I went for a drink with a young reporter recently.

He wanted to get a few things off his chest about his future, about workload, about story choice and about his work-life balance.

But this was what struck a chord with me.

“I used to be able to start the day with a list of seven or eight stories that I’d do that day, and mostly, I’d get through it.

“Now I’m lucky if I do two.”

That’s not to say that his output has dropped by 75 per cent.

He’s probably writing more stories that ever before. They’re just not the ones he’d choose to write.

The lack of predictability of journalism, the cliched notion that you never really know what the day is going to bring, is one of its greatest attractions as a profession.

It’s about feeling that somewhere along the line, you’ve created something worthwhile.

But it can easily become a double-edged sword if your day loses all shape, and you feel at the whim of others, as they fire ‘can you just web this’ or ‘can you just break off and do that’ Exocets into your inbox.

In a fast-moving world where web targets are driving the day, some of this is inescapable, I realise. I’ve sent those emails.

But I’ve written before about the wonderful idea of supported autonomy – the importance of feeling in control of your working day. And it’s not just about getting through that list – it’s about feeling that somewhere along the line, you’ve created something worthwhile.

That, I think, is the key to tackling newsroom stress. That and fostering a sense of belonging, of common purpose, and, of course, of camaraderie.

Perhaps in the end, it comes down to a version of this, one of my favourite newsroom quotes and mottos from a lovely piece on Poynter.

 

good time

 

 

 

Journalism is a team sport

I’m developing a man crush.

Correction.

I’m developing two man crushes.

(Or should that be men crushes? Where is someone who works with words for a living when you need him?)

And the targets of my bromantic affection have a couple of other things in common.

Firstly, they both wear specs – as I do.

More importantly, though, they are both experts in the analysis and development of team spirit.

My first hero is the man whose mission is to teach the world to sing, choirmaster Gareth Malone.

I have so much admiration for his ability to get people who have never met before to bond beautifully, and for his extraordinary skill in using music to transform self-esteem.

His latest work, with wounded servicemen and women, was – as always – hugely moving, and hugely positive.

My other inspiration is writer and leadership expert Simon Sinek.

He has more wisdom in his little finger than many FTSE 100 bosses have in their entire bodies.

Essentially his messages are about the long-term financial benefits of putting people before profits, and about the need for company purpose and integrity.

Interestingly, both Gareth and Simon have worked closely with the military in recent years, absorbing and reinforcing key lessons about sacrifice, camaraderie and teamwork.

I’ll be drawing on some Sinek wisdom tomorrow, when I pick up the threads of an editorial management training programme with some senior journalists.

London Mayor Sadiq Khan revived the phrase ‘politics is a team game’ at the weekend. But it’s a sentiment that could equally well be applied to journalism.

So tomorrow, we’ll be exploring what makes a great newsroom team, and putting some of my obsessions – from tea-making to early morning watercooler moments – under the spotlight.

A day later, I will hopefully be watching the seeds of teamwork come to fruition, as our third year students stage their own version of The One Show.

Students will admit that the dynamics of news days and news weeks can be a real challenge – particularly coping with roles that require leadership and decision-making.

They can be frustrated over their colleagues’ commitment and attendance, sensitive over criticism and feedback, and worried over divisions of labour.

All of which is brilliant preparation for life in a real newsroom.

A strong and supportive team spirit goes a long way in the teeth of what former Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger memorably called a ‘force 12 digital hurricane’ as he stepped down from the paper’s Scott Trust this week.

When I ask journalists when they experienced team spirit at its best, the answer usually involves overcoming adversity together.

There may be no I in team.

But there’s one in pride and passion, satisfaction and sensitivity, and craic and creativity.

And it’s those qualities that I’ll be keeping my eye out for this week.

 

The mini off-diary sabbatical

Two years ago, I was very proud to be a journalist.

I still am, it’s worth saying, and I hope that feeling will never go away.

But in March 2014, one of my reporters and I were feeling particularly chuffed with ourselves.

We had reached the endgame in one of the most satisfying and rewarding pieces of journalism I have ever been involved in.

After sharing the frustration of parents, staff and pupils at the frankly dictatorial regime operated at a local secondary school, we had been able to expose the head to proper and incisive scrutiny, and help usher in a new era of openness and relationship-building. And she had finally just resigned.

People said some very nice things about our investigation and we know it made some very harassed and voiceless staff feel listened to and vindicated.

The reporter concerned also won an award for her work later that year, which is always nice.

Those few weeks at the beginning of 2014 kept me going for a very long time.

If you ask most journalists why they came into the profession, one of the most common answers you are likely to get is ‘to make a difference.’

As I said in my last blog, it’s certainly an ambition that motivated one of my local journalism heroes, onetime Express and Star reporter Shaun Lintern.

And undoubtedly, it was one that has kept reporters at the Yellow Advertiser going in recent months as they worked on an investigation into the abuse of around 60 children in the 1980s and 1990s.

But after that last blog, a senior journalist got in touch with me to express scepticism that time could ever be found to do justice to these hugely satisfying stories.

We need to produce them every year or so to recharge our journalistic batteries and to ensure that our investigative and story development muscles don’t atrophy.

But how, practically, can we step off the treadmill of what can so easily become the daily grind?

How can we reconnect ourselves with the simple truth that we are doing a job that can be the best in the world, one that others would kill to do?

Here’s an idea. As I begin to explain it, I fear it will shot down in flames.

Probably with the simple and understandable riposte to my question of ‘hire more staff.’

But what the hell.

I’d like to float the idea of the mini off-diary sabbatical.

Once a month, one reporter would be given two or three days off to pursue a story that they have had no time to develop in their normal working week.

That reporter would be chosen by his or her peers in what could even be a monthly Dragon’s Den social event, at which everyone pitches for an off-diary stint.

Those colleagues might have to work a bit harder and longer for those few days, which would clearly have to be relatively holiday-free.

But they’d know that their turn would come in the months ahead.

And they’d also know that the most satisfying journalism was actually happening in their offices.

So there you go.

If anyone wants to comment on my idea, I will be putting on my tin hat.

I’m obsessed by my newsroom obsessions

I shocked my parents the other night.

I was staying with them ahead of a visit to the Herald in Plymouth, my home town paper.

“What time are you going in?” my mum asked.

“I want to get there for 8am, so I’ll be leaving around 7.30,” came my reply.

“You don’t need to get up,” I added, having seen the look of horror on her face over this allegedly ungodly hour.

No one was forcing me to get to the Herald’s nice new offices at a time when there were only three people in the building.

But I wanted to indulge one of my obsessions: the morning newsroom routine.

Seeing how various newsrooms greet the day is a fascinating exercise. Some come to life slowly, while others have a more structured programme of meetings and shift starts.

The pattern obviously depends on which day it is for weekly titles, although the web and a drive to balance out daily workloads are beginning to even out these differences.

There’s no one right way to do it.

But, as I have said before, I like to see some proper punctuation to the day: with a sense of belonging cemented at the watercooler, kitchen or newsdesk, and a sense of energy, positivity and purpose created by an editorial team leader with a clear idea of the day’s agenda.

I got to talk about, and gather more observations on, a few more of my obsessions. In fact, I did a training session with some newsdesk folk and used the word obsession with slightly worrying regularity.

So what are the others?

  • Team spirit: Characterised by tea-making and mickey-taking, team spirit is what will keep people in our fold for longer, creating the environment for the craik, camaraderie and care that we all need.
  • Desk geography: When I was a news editor, I used to have all my reporters around me, so we were able to have one conversation, so that I could eyeball them all and so that I could pick up on flagging energy levels or story problems. I believe you need to be physically close-knit for the magic of teamwork to happen.
  • Beautiful writing: I was talking to a features writer at the Herald about the need to read great journalism – to wallow in the words of writers such as Zoe Williams, Miranda Sawyer and Andrew Rawnsley. She said that she felt some top writing was unattainable: “It’s like hearing Smoke on the Water, and thinking ‘I’ll never play guitar like that’.” No, I said. We can all become better writers. I believe that. I’ve seen ugly duckling, clunky dead hand writing turned into swan-like, picture-painting joy, time and time again.
  • Autonomy: Or rather, to quote my new favourite bit of management jargon, supported autonomy. Having control of your day – which is likely to involve another obsession, decent advance planning – is the first step in the battle to keep stress at bay.
  • Talking: While we’re talking, and listening, there’s more than a fighting chance that people are feeling valued, that career aspirations are being taken seriously, and that the little niggles that can spiral into major issues are being tackled. Time set aside for conversations such as 121s should be the best-spent time of all.

So there you have it. My obsessions. I’m obsessed by them.