It’s our duty to speak up when tragedy strikes our worldwide journalism family

It’s 3,555 miles from here to Annapolis in Maryland.

I was barely aware of its existence before last week, and I’d certainly never heard of the Capital-Gazette newspaper.

And yet on Friday morning, I ate my breakfast through tears.

Tears for five members of the world journalism family (yes, we do count our commercial colleagues as family members) gunned down as they worked in their office.

And tears for their workmates who, while mourning their loss and coping with their own post-traumatic stress, moved to a nearby garage and carried on putting out the paper.

When you spend your day writing about new shop openings or product recalls, journalism may not feel like a dangerous profession.

The fact that – across the world – 110 journalists have been killed in the last 18 months is one that can perhaps be easily dismissed.

And yet, there won’t be a single journalist in this country who hasn’t been subjected to online abuse of one kind or another.

Some of it might be laughable, like this minor abuse I received recently.

That came after I defended Leeds Live reporter Stephanie Finnegan over her coverage of Tommy Robinson’s brush with the contempt of court laws – coverage which led to horrific trolling online which was absolutely no laughing matter.

Talking of contempt of court, because it’s not a British case, I can say that the man arrested for the Maryland atrocity seemed to have targeted the Capital-Gazette because of its coverage of a court case he was involved in.

That sort of resentment is the kind that anyone who has sat on the press bench of a court will have experienced.

I can still remember plotting my escape through a window when a family group descended on our office to complain about our treatment of one of their number.

The relative free-for-all of the comments sections on most news websites and the still underpoliced world of social media has enabled 24/7, arms-length, largely anonymous, abuse of journalists to flourish.

If you’re a crime reporter, like my Twitter friend Carl Eve, it’s a nasty fact of life.

In fact, we’re not alone in having to put up with such personal abuse. A few minutes on Trip Advisor would be all that’s needed to find examples of allegedly truculent reception staff or clueless waiters highlighted for all the world to see.

But such references aren’t usually accompanied by threats.

And – important though those hospitality roles are, no one putting in a shift at their local hotel or bar would claim to be defending key bulwarks of democracy.

When you factor in the wider political dimension – whether it be Donald Trump calling reporters the enemy of the people or the expansion of the power of dictators such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan and Viktor Orban – it’s easier to argue that there is a sinister, insidious, continuum of abuse. One that starts with online taunts and ends in newsroom bloodbaths.

As social media firms, lawmakers and law enforcers struggle to keep up – nationally and internationally – what can we do?

There’s no doubt that managers need to be more proactive in supporting their staff.

When I was a news editor, I used to regularly climb on to my high horse in defence of our reporters.

I was prepared to let accusations of lazy journalism go most of the time. But there was an occasion when that last word became journalists. That was a red line, and I forced an apology after pointing out that I had just worked a 55-hour week, including, along with all my staff, a 13-hour day.

But we can’t leave it all to whatever’s left of management. We all need to put aside parochialism and complacency to take a greater interest in the work of organisations such as Reporters Without Borders and the Committee to Protect Journalists.

It’s a point well made by the great Eddie Mair – one of the country’s most effective interviewers – as he announced his move from the BBC yesterday.

And there are more ideas here on standing shoulder to shoulder with our US friends, and on improving coverage of tragedy.

But I also commend to you this lovely idea from a reporter at another American newspaper.

I’ve mentioned it before, but it seems more relevant and certainly more poignant now than ever.

So let’s all find time today – on Facebook, on Twitter, in the comments section – to literally put in a good word for a colleague.

And by colleague, I mean any journalist, anywhere, trying to do the best job they can.

Advertisements

Why learning lessons from weather presenters might mean a brighter future for journalism

It’s at times like these that the British public’s adoration of weather presenters goes into overdrive.

Whether it’s Matt Taylor in shorts, Carol Kirkwood sharing London’s luscious landscapes with us or Dan Downs delivering the forecast in his best Devonian accent, we can’t get enough of our meteorological maestros.

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 09.38.24

Photo: BBC

It helps that they’re giving us unremittingly good news at the moment.

But it’s not just that. These folk are friends dropping in.

And while criticising the Met Office and its various upstart rivals can sometimes be as much of a national sport as commenting on the elements to strangers, I’d wager the trust levels enjoyed by Carol and Co are as high as those pollen levels.

And there just might be a lesson for journalism there: one which points to a slightly sunnier future.

Granted, weather presenters never have to pick their way through the moral minefields of impartiality and balance as political grenades are thrown from all sides.

But as this thoughtful analysis from the American Press Institute points out, they can be past masters at getting an audience on their side.

They convey complex information in an engaging way, they help their community reject rumour and sensationalism, and they make great use of data and visual storytelling.

I have access to all kinds of forecasts via apps, the radio, news websites and information screens.

But if I really need to know, there is only one voice that I really trust.

If Ian Fergusson on BBC Points West says it’s going to be tricky on wintry roads, I start looking up train timetables. If he says the weekend’s going to be lovely, I put out the garden furniture cushions.

It’s partly because he keeps his powder as dry as the earth in my wife’s parched pots. He is the North Pole of cool, calm consideration to the Equator of the Express’s relentless search for new hyperventilating headline hyperbole.I realise I’m mixing my meteorological metaphors here.

It’s partly because he’s usually spot-on. If there’s doubt, he says there’s doubt.

And it’s partly because, after seeing him in my living room night after night for many years, I feel I know him.

It’s that sense of engagement, that connection, and certainly that trust which has to be at the heart of journalism’s relationship with its consumers.

It’s an incredibly difficult process, but I do believe we’re making baby steps in the right direction.

It’s encouraging to see a news website that’s hoovering up some of the most talented journalists around, Huffington Post, moving its operations to Birmingham for a week.

It might be a temporary, token gesture. But, with the idea of an open newsroom, it’s a very visible sign of a desire for two important things. First of all, it’s eyeball-to-eyeball journalism, which is always the best sort. And secondly, it’s an invitation for people to see behind the curtain, to explore, understand and perhaps challenge the thought processes behind newsgathering and story priorities in a digital age.

Editor-in-chief Polly Curtis says – rightly – that it’s all about rebuilding trust.

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 08.47.42

I spoke at rather too much length about all this in a recent public lecture, and it always gladdens my heart to see journalists publicly talking about the way newsrooms work.

Particularly when it is done with a degree of style, as it was by Cornwall Live head of content Jeff Reines a few days ago, with a piece headlined It’s not a Slow News Day just because you don’t like this story.

He illustrated his piece with a digital short emphatically making the point that he and his colleagues are round-the-clock busy, thank you very much – and that the content which attracts the most ‘is this a story?’ abuse is usually the content which sends Chartbeat soaring.

There are also some fantastic thoughts in this round-up from the American Trusting News project, especially about techniques for encouraging your audience to share important stories.

And as someone who worships the ground that the author of Start With Why, Simon Sinek, walks upon, I was massively heartened by a section urging newsrooms to tell their readers why they do what they do.

His central – and utterly incisive – point is that organisations with a clear mission which rises above the financial and which inspires their staff are the ones which succeed. It’s the Why, not the What or even the Who, that really matters.

So explaining how newsrooms see their role and why individual journalists get out of bed in the morning, and anticipating public objections to some coverage has to be the way forward.

It’s why the recently-launched Behind Local News website is such a constant joy.

The latest contribution there is from Portsmouth News editor Mark Waldron on covering tragedy on the doorstep. That idea of trust seeps from every pore and every paragraph, with a bereaved dad rewarding a News reporter with an exclusive interview because of the sensitivity of his coverage.

The role of that same title in standing up for its community was also highlighted by one of Mark’s predecessors, Mike Gilson, in a piece for Hold the Front Page on the Gosport Memorial Hospital scandal.

I liked the way that Mike used a very simple word to describe the relationship between the best of the regional media and the people it serves: bond.

Screen Shot 2018-06-27 at 09.28.32

That’s what we should be striving for.

It’s what most of us already – perhaps unwittingly – have with those familiar faces on our TV screens.

So we might start by checking out the weather.

Enjoy the sun.

A VERY long read: how do we rebuild trust between media and audience?

This is the full text of a public lecture I gave at the University of Gloucestershire last night.

Good evening everyone.

I’ve never given a public lecture before.

I teach our fantastic students virtually every day – but I’ve never had an audience with what we might call civilians in it until now.

But you look like a lovely crowd, so I’m going to give it a go.

I should warn you that I do some of my best thinking while I’m out running.

And I’ve used some of my most recent runs to put together these words.

So you ought to know what you’re letting yourself in for: this lecture is about five miles long.

To put that another way, if you’re here for the embroidery evening class, get out while you still can, before we lock the doors.

I’ve been a journalist for 33 years now.

When I started work at the Western Times and Gazette in Exeter, it was still using hot metal – that’s a printing technique, by the way, not the latest thrash music craze.

I had a patch that I visited on a Friday morning, telling my contacts that if anyone asked I’d seen them in the afternoon – by which time I was halfway to Aberystwyth in Wales where my girlfriend, now my wife, was still a student.

There was no way my newsdesk – or anyone else – could get hold of me, and my trusty battered typewriter was back in the office. So I didn’t write a word for a whole day.

On days when I was actually in the office, time passed so slowly that we used to fight to answer the phone when it occasionally rang.

If I was covering mid Devon today – three and a bit decades on – I would be responsible for a steady supply of stories for the very excellent Devon Live website, filing while on the road for a digital-first operation where page view targets dominate newsroom behaviour more or less 24/7. I’d be expected to come up with edited video to complement my stories and to play my part in meaningful social interaction with my audience via social media and that website. I would be a very visible, accountable, contactable figure. There would be little chance of me disappearing off the radar for an hour, never mind a whole day.

That’s the world that we strive to prepare our students for – and it’s a world away from my days of going awol in the Devon countryside.

But some things haven’t changed in that time.

The idea of the media disregarding, ignoring or stretching the truth isn’t a new one.

The idea of people – from PRs to politicians – trying to pull the wool over the media’s eyes isn’t new.

And the idea of a media which is biased – even prejudiced – certainly isn’t new.

Whether it’s the Hitler Diaries, Freddie Starr eating my hamster, the so-called Truth over Hillsborough or a young Boris Johnson’s so-called revelations about the EU outlawing bendy bananas, there has always been material that subverts the truth in the media.

So I have to admit I’m not wild about the term fake news.

What I would agree is that there have never been more ways for those who want to play fast and loose with the truth to do just that. I am tired of people lazily laying all of society’s ills at the doors of social media but Twitter and Facebook clearly offer a vehicle which can allow lies and half-truths to take hold.

Facebook is now desperately rebuilding its algorithms and expanding its moderation system to counter allegations that it rewards much-shared, viral lies at the expense of the more boring truth.

Its rapidly-moving landscape makes it easier for people like Trump and Johnson to use what I believe is called the dead cat technique: throwing another headline-grabbing statement in the faces of journalists to blur the picture, cast more doubt and cover their own mucky tracks.

And we do perhaps live in more fragmented times, with fewer shared experiences – we don’t watch the same TV any more, or go to the same pubs, the same supermarkets, the same churches.

When you come across statistics like only 14 per cent of Republicans believe the American media is fair, and that 50 per cent of people consume what they call mainstream news fewer than once a week, it’s easy to talk ourselves into a crisis about the integrity of our news.

But research also shows that people consume far more reliable news than false news – and that social media users, far from being in a filter bubble, are actually exposed to more contrary viewpoints than the Twitter and Facebook refuseniks.

People who talk the most about fake news have the biggest vested interest in inflating that threat, and there is no doubt that The White House would have dismissed Watergate as fake news had it happened today.

It’s worth saying that Trump’s attacks on what his people now call the opposition media are as nothing compared to the brutality meted out to journalists in Putin’s Russia, in Turkey, in Cambodia – where a journalist I know has just resigned rather than be censored by the state, in Turkmenistan, and in Saudi Arabia.

As the impressive journalism expert Emily Bell wrote recently, when fragile democracies fall, it is often journalists who are the first dominoes to be pushed.

More than 2,500 journalists have been killed across the world since 1990 – and not all in unpronounceable former Soviet states.

The killing of Daphne Caruana Galizia in a car bomb incident in the holiday destination of Malta – as she investigated corruption at the heart of that island’s government last year – is proof of that.

So attacks on media freedom don’t only happen many thousands of miles away.

We like to think we’ve taught the world how to do democracy and transparency.

And yet let’s have a guess where the UK is on the latest world media freedom list – ask….

We’re top ten, surely, aren’t we? We’d be on the podium if there was an Olympic Games for a free press.

Not quite. We’re 40th. Out of 180

I could cheerfully – although actually it’s pretty depressing – talk for another 45 minutes or so on the changes some MPs want to make to the Data Protection Act going through Parliament to force media organisations not signed up to the right regulator to pay the legal costs of people who sue them.

It’s an affront to hard-hitting journalism, not surprisingly backed by MPs whose own misdemeanours have been exposed by journalists.

Luckily, that threat has receded for the moment.

But there is still the Investigatory Powers Act, described as the most extreme surveillance legislation in British history, and the threat of an extension to the Official Secrets Act.

It’s entirely understandable that there should be concern over press behaviour.

The recent Kerslake Report into the Manchester Arena bombing painted a disturbing picture of harassment, intrusion and tactlessness by some journalists.

Some of that behaviour may have come from foreign media representatives – but not all of it. That is a stain on my profession.

What is reassuring to me, though, is that the local paper, the Manchester Evening News, emerged with its reputation enhanced by the tragedy that almost broke its city a year ago.

I say almost broke, because the sensitivity of the coverage and then editor Rob Irvine’s overwhelming desire to heal wounds and bring his community together helped Manchester pull off a resilient recovery that has inspired people all over the world.

There was nothing but praise for the MEN and its staff in that hard-hitting report.

That’s why regional journalism will always be the journalism that’s closest to my heart. It’s the world I was part of for 30 years and still feel emotionally connected to.

At its best, that world reflects real communities, sharing in their joys and woes, acting as a cheerleader, a champion and a critical friend.

And there is an accountability in that world that in its own way is far more potent than any law or regulator.

This is whites of your eyes journalism: the knowledge that if you walk down your local high street you will bump into people you’ve written about, and – hopefully – the confidence that you can look those people in the eye and justify every word.

And that sort of eyeball to eyeball contact absolutely has to be at the heart of journalism.

I’m happy that my students here are sick of hearing from me that the real stories aren’t found in the centrally-heated, curtains-drawn fug of classrooms and newsrooms – they’re out there in the real world.

But here’s the problem. The journalists of today don’t breathe that fresh air and talk to those real people quite as much as they used to.

There’s less time to grease the wheels, to meet people face to face, even to introduce yourself when you move to a new area.

The very last thing I want this lecture to be is a lookback through rose-tinted spectacles at some golden age of journalism. It. Did. Not. Exist. But when I was a news editor, I used to join my reporters at weekly drop-in sessions in coffee shops, pubs and community centres, where people could talk to us about stories, and issues – and about the paper and website. It didn’t always make for easy listening, but looking my audience in the eye and hearing what they had to say was like putting on an oxygen mask.

It let daylight into our week – and provided all kinds of unexpected insights. One woman told me she bought The Bath Chronicle less frequently these days because her kids had grown up and she didn’t need to make so many papier mache models for school projects. And there was I thinking people bought it for the award-winning journalism.

The trouble is, she isn’t the only person no longer buying her local paper. And, more importantly, she and her friends aren’t the only people no longer using that paper and its website to advertise their businesses, cars, jobs and events.

Like most of the vital services in this country, journalism is underresourced.

Historic complacency and greed, huge demographic changes and a technological revolution have combined to break the traditional model of funding journalism.

Simply relying on the whims of print version buyers and increasingly desperate deals with equally fickle advertisers while at the same time having to keep an army of shareholders happy doesn’t work.

The company I know best, the one formerly known as Trinity Mirror and now one of the biggest players in the media market, is full of brilliant people.

It’s just changed its name to Reach. Not because it wants to be a lasting tribute to the great music of S Club. But because reach is what it supplies – a spread of audience across the country, millions upon millions of them, helped by the takeover of the Express and Star national newspapers and their websites.

But they – and their biggest rivals, Johnson and Newsquest, both of which have even more desperate structural issues – have made wave after wave of cuts. At one point last year, a regional journalist was losing their job every working day. Dozens of my friends have lost their jobs – sometimes willingly, sometimes not – in recent years, while hundreds of titles have closed.

For most of my working life, editors have had to be ready to make cuts. Traditionally, there’s always been someone in their back pocket for the next time the grim reaper comes around. The reaper is still coming round – but this time those back pockets are empty: there’s no meat left to cut and we’re down to the bare bones.

One of the great ironies of all this – and a key argument in the mainstream industry’s armoury – is that statistically there are more eyeballs on the content produced by today’s journalists than at any time in history. But is that reach – getting millions of page views from around the world, including the huge numbers of fans in south east Asia who read The Liverpool Echo’s football coverage in the wee small hours – as effective and useful as penetration? Are we serving real communities? Or are we simply skimming the surface of shotgun marriage communities of our own making?

All of these questions – and many, many more along similar lines – all lead back to one, inescapable, overarching dilemma: How do we fund journalism?

Let me ask you a question. Put your hand up if you’ve bought a newspaper in the last week. You lot keep your hands up – it’ll keep the circulation (that’s the blood, not the paper’s) going, there’s about another couple of miles of this lecture to go. Now anyone who pays for an online subscription to a news site – such as the Times paywall, or something like the Times Higher Educational Supplement.

Ok: one more piece of audience participation. Who pays for Netflix or Spotify or some other on-demand or streaming service?

A challenge for what is sometimes called the legacy media has been that the consumers of their print products, the ones which made the real money, are dying off, and not being replaced by new readers. Hand in hand with that, new revenue from digital operations hasn’t come close to replacing the loss of print advertising and circulation income.

Recent job losses at Buzzfeed and International Business Times have shown that new media operations cannot completely rely on the vagaries of online advertising.

I have two children – one 19, one 24. They’ve never bought a newspaper in their life, and never paid for news. But they pay for both Netflix and Spotify (significantly in that case to avoid advertising). Can we keep future generations on board with a similar model of content which is tailored to their needs?

This existential crisis facing the media hasn’t escaped the notice of the Government. Our new shiny Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has announced a review of the sustainability of the industry called the Cairncross Review.

It will look at innovative new ways of supporting high quality journalism and it has some good people on board, although not a single frontline working journalist.

But for various reasons – not least its inability to come up with a single shred of common sense on Brexit – I don’t think we should hold out too much hope for the Government’s magic wands and silver bullets.

Before I look at some possible solutions, I want to stress that great journalism still happens – and on a daily basis.

And the definition of what makes great journalism has to be a wide and flexible one.

I would urge you to follow a new Twitter account called Behind Local News, which has been set up by the major regional media firms to celebrate the best work of their staff, and to explain some of the decision-making that goes on in their newsrooms.

It’s a fascinating resource, and one that provides evidence of the commitment of local journalists to make sense of the world around them.

My friends working for Reach here in Gloucestershire have incredibly tough web targets to meet but continue to break great stories, cover breaking news such as the recent fires in the centre of Gloucester well, and mark moments in history such as the anniversary of the 2007 floods with thoughtful, well-written journalism.

They – and colleagues up and down the country, in Bristol, in Birmingham and in Manchester, where the best reporter in the regional media today, Jennifer Williams, works – strive to make the important interesting, while surfing on waves of trending topics so that the page view targets that stalk them from dawn to dusk can be met.

Stories on issues from homelessness to hospitals have shown that it is possible to hit that sweet spot, of content which achieves web targets and begins to make a difference, that changes mindsets and eventually changes policy; that – perhaps most importantly of all – sends journalists home with a feeling of a job well done.

That’s important. I remember a chat with one of the best journalists in this part of the world a few years ago. The year before, she had won an award. Twelve months on, she hadn’t tried to keep her crown, had not entered the awards at all. She told me: “I can’t think of anything that I’ve written that I’m proud of.”

Journalists – good ones, at least – want their daily workload diet to be a mix of fast food and slow-cooked home fare. We cannot survive on microwaved news, on the reheating of other people’s material that gets more tasteless and less nutritious with every new ping.

I’m a massive fan of a business adviser called Simon Sinek. One of his books is Start With Why – looking at the overwhelming importance of businesses and their employees knowing why they do what they do. In recent times, too many journalists have felt that the reasons why they came into the profession could no longer be squared with their companies’ visions. In other words, their whys were very different to their employers’ whys.

So, what are we going to do about all this?

To me, the solutions begin at a local level.

For all that suspicions have grown about the veracity and motivation of large sections of the media, it is at that local level that, theoretically, the greatest trust exists.

If we believe a very recent survey by YouGov for the industry, 74 per cent of people trust their local newspaper or news website – compared to 22 per cent who trusted social media.

I’m not sure those figures are hugely precise – the survey also found that only 43 per cent of people trusted search engines.

But if vital relationships are to be rebuilt, it’s going to be face to face, eyeball to eyeball.

This week is Local Newspaper Week, and tomorrow – as luck would have it – is Trusted News Day, when I very much hope that that hashtag will be seriously trending.

The sort of transparency that is emerging through initiatives such as Behind Local News will be underlined tomorrow as editors and their teams use social media and their own websites to talk you through their days, discuss the importance of verified, fact-checked news, and generally invite you behind the magic curtain.

It’s a crucial process which I hope will show that journalists are real human beings, trying to do a tricky job in difficult circumstances.

One danger is what people will see in those newsrooms may look nothing like the world they see on their high street, in their shopping centre, or at their school gates.

Despite some great efforts by organisations such as the National Council for the Training of Journalists, our newsrooms remain stubbornly middle-class and white.

This won’t be the first time I mention the Grenfell Tower disaster, but the disconnect between journalists and residents was painful there.

All too often, people who live on what might be called the wrong side of the tracks only ever see coverage of their areas and their friends in stories about police raids, anti-social behaviour or court cases. As the BBC’s media editor Amol Rajan said in a public lecture far better than this one recently, journalists need to ‘Speak for and with the poor, rather than to or at them’.

Despite the job losses and the financial crisis, there are newsrooms – some not a million miles from here – whose email inboxes remain unswollen when jobs are on offer.

I am massively proud of the higher education we provide here, but it’s not for everyone, and the apprenticeship route into journalism has to be strengthened.

But the building of trust, and the growth of that sense of recognition between media and community is far, far wider than questions of diversity.

The reason TV reporters achieve higher trust ratings than their print or online colleagues isn’t just that they might work for a respected brand such as the BBC.

It’s that – particularly perhaps at a regional level, where ratings for shows such as Points West and Midlands Today remain incredibly healthy – we let them into our homes, see their faces and hear their voices on a daily basis.

Today’s print and online journalists – especially regional ones – are more accessible than ever before. People know their email addresses and Twitter handles. But they don’t necessarily know them. And so any interaction can be impersonal, confrontational and dismissive.

There is no substitute for the trust and accountability that develops when you’re a reporter living and working in your own community. When your children go to the schools whose exam results you write about, use the leisure facilities that need improving and cross the roads that are accident blackspots. When people know you as a real, rounded, fully sentient human being.

Some of my friends at Gloucestershire Live fall into that category, which means they also have a store of local knowledge – about the background to stories and the spelling of village names, for instance – that can be invaluable.

But not every newsroom is so lucky. And the turnover of staff doesn’t help.

I’ve always said that one of the great ironies of local news life is that people who initially know nothing about an area end up writing for people who know everything about it.

Plus that grim reaper ain’t going anywhere. Editors live in constant fear of the next round of cuts they will be asked to make.  Whichever traditional regional media firm you work for, there are two things that are constant: change and cutbacks.

So we need new organisations to reach the parts that Reach can’t, or certainly won’t in the future.

To scratch some of the itches of public service journalism, to shake things up, and to fully embrace the slogan that life is local.

Bristol is a good place to see what the future might look like.

Again, it’s worth saying that the city is served by some of the best journalists I know: excellent BBC reporters such as Matthew Hill, Andy Howard, Scott Ellis and the amazing Fiona Lamdin; people at ITV Westcountry such as Rob Murphy; the award-winning crew at Heart; and the team at Bristol Live/Post led by the most thoughtful editor I have ever known, Mike Norton, and including the hardest-working reporter I’ve ever known, Michael Yong.

But playing an increasingly interesting, influential and exciting role are new – or newish – players.

My friend Richard Coulter set up the hyperlocal publication Filton Voice in his part of Bristol after taking redundancy from the Post in 2011. Last year, he and his commercial partner launched their 16th title and they also now coordinate a network of writers, PR people, social media specialists and marketing experts which complements their grassroots journalism.

He and his titles cover stories that Bristol Live never will – the detailed, parish pump stuff that’s packed full of people’s names.

And their success is mirrored around the country, with new start-ups in Devon – on Dartmoor and in the town of Honiton – thriving as independent news providers.

Even more exciting is Bristol Cable, one of whose founders came to one of our news days recently. This is news by the people for the people: a co-operative of 1,850 members who fund and shape a hard-hitting, challenging news agenda which regularly unearths scandals and holds the city council and other key bodies to account. The only shareholders who need pleasing here are those who have made a conscious decision to fund news. The only invest that matters is the one in the phrase investigative journalism.

At a national level, the Guardian and Observer offer a similar model. The titles now have 800,000 financial supporters of some kind – four times as many as a year ago.

The Guardian and the Observer have addressed the question of how we fund journalism head-on. They’re lucky perhaps in that they have a liberal, relatively well-off readership who believe in public service journalism. But they’ve found that asking readers to put their money where their mouths are is a route out of financial carnage and a vital way to build trust. Unusually, the company now gets more income from print sales and subscriptions and donations than it does from advertising.

One other interesting aspect of the Guardian’s world view is a commitment – in the right circumstances – to collaborative, constructive journalism.

It has worked with international titles on massive, far-reaching stories such as the Panama Papers and Cambridge Analytica.

But it has also shown willing to get under the skin of this country, with the brilliant Jon Harris’s odyssey around Brexit Britain, challenging many of the comfortable assumptions of his own liberal elite readers.

And there are examples elsewhere: I particularly like the German news website Zeit Online’s idea of getting 1,200 people with opposing views together in pairs to discuss their differences on issues from refugees to Russia.

And in Holland, really interesting things are happening at a news website called De Correspondent, which is funded by 56,000 co-operative members who help provide crowdsourcing expertise to its journalists. De Correspondent’s philosophy is that ‘100 physician readers know more than one health care reporter.’

One thing the media is pretty rubbish at, by the way, is dealing with the great, overwhelming, issues of our time. One of the tests of what makes a compelling, front-page-worthy, story is how many people does this affect? There isn’t one of us who won’t be affected by climate change, but that doesn’t mean it makes the front pages much.

The Guardian’s rivals have also found ways to make readers pay. The Times and Sunday Times are beginning to see real success with their paywall, interestingly choosing to abandon any pretension to providing a 24/7, rolling news website and instead producing editions online which celebrate great writing rather than digital bells and whistles, but also bringing added value in the form of access to special events and cut-price tickets.

If you have the right audience, or the right product, such as specialist insight of the sort the FT and Economist can serve up, charging for online content can work well.

The answer to that who funds journalism question is relatively straightforward for them.

And there remain niche print products that manage to be both bastions of investigative journalism and financially successful – Private Eye being by far the best example.

But I don’t see paywalls or going niche being the long-term solution for the traditional regional media.

I fear they – at least in their current form – are destined for continued decline, with that grim reaper never all that far away.

More papers will close – or go weekly, more websites will merge, and more jobs will be lost.

But the businesses behind them will carry on.

As the famous Times editor Harold Evans said, the challenge is not to stay in business, but to stay in journalism.

The solutions have to start with local action, but there is room for national and international help, too.

The traditional media industry spends a lot of time and effort – rightly mostly – in getting cross with Google and Facebook for creaming off its best content and then selling advertising on the back of it.

But Google is becoming journalism’s friend, with a range of schemes to fund reporting, and its brilliant Newslab initiative, which came to this uni a few months ago to explain the latest digital journalism techniques.

We now need Facebook to step up to the plate. Former Culture Secretary John Whittingdale is pressing it to put money into the BBC’s excellent Local Democracy Reporter scheme. This has paid for 150 new reporters – including one here in Gloucestershire – to cover councils and NHS bodies for both the Beeb and regional news titles. The idea is that cash from Facebook would enable the scheme to be extended to the woefully underreported courts of this country.

This wouldn’t just be about finding the untold stories which research by my onetime colleague Phil Chamberlain at the University of the West of England has shown are going begging each week. It would also be about shining a light in the dark corners of a justice system which is increasingly – follow the Secret Barrister on Twitter if you don’t already do so – broken, and increasingly failing the most vulnerable members of society.

The bottom line to any discussion about the bottom line is that there has never been a greater need for decent journalism in this country, let alone in this world.

That’s the sort of journalism that challenges authority, that unpicks complicated issues to explain and to expose lies, and which fulfils that noble objective of comforting the afflicted and afflicting the comfortable.

I was at an event where onetime Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger spoke last year, and he said we needed to view journalism as like an emergency service.

And as the British-turned-American comedian Jon Stewart has said, if we don’t find a way to pay for journalism, we will all pay for it.

There are things that all of us can do.

One lovely idea came from a journalist working for a very small title in America. She tweeted that she regularly goes onto other news website comments sections to praise good reporting by journalists she has never met.

I use the Guardian website an awful lot but have never yet succumbed to one of the ever-present pleas for financial help. But I do make sure I buy it at least once a week, and the Observer on a Sunday – even if I have read quite a lot of the content online already.

We can be slightly more forensic in choosing who we read: has that writer got a proper Twitter bio, are they regulated by IPSO or Impress? And every click we make helps shape future editorial decision-making.

One of my favourite quotes is this one: Ask readers what they want, and they’ll say vegetables. Look away, and they’ll be eating candy. By that I think we mean the Mail Online sidebar of shame.

I promised I’d return to the subject of Grenfell Tower.

In just under a month’s time, it will be the first anniversary of that unspeakable tragedy.

It’s a horror that has asked very painful questions of many organisations, public, private and voluntary. But some of the most uncomfortable wake-up calls were for the media.

Not just in the disconnect with the victims exposed by the on-the-spot coverage, but in the way in which the capital’s media sleptwalked through concerns being raised by residents.

There were signs for journalists with real contacts and connections – that heart-breaking blog warning of the devastation that was to come.

But not a single journalist saw the writing on that wall, and not a single resident felt it was worth trying to get their story told.

No one was talking to the residents of North Kensington, and no one analysing the decisions being taken in those residents’ names.

There’s a whole new question – along the lines of the candy and the vegetables – of whether stories on high rise cladding would have gained traction online.

But such potentially tedious stuff represents the building blocks of good investigative journalism. It took a while for Windrush, for Stafford Hospital, for Cambridge Analytica and the Rotherham sex abuse ring stories to cut through. But cut through they eventually did, and they proved journalism can make a difference, can provide a voice for the voiceless.

Grenfell was an appalling missed opportunity for journalism.

It is perhaps the most poignant example of the way in which the vital cords that ought to bind the media to its audience have become not just frayed, but in some cases severed altogether.

Whether it’s through more truly local news sites or through ownership or subscription models that bring the audience into the fold, or through new duopoly funding for better public service journalism that reinvents our image, that relationship needs to be rebuilt.

That to me would perhaps be one of the best tributes of all to 71 people who didn’t need to die just over a year ago.

Why Marc’s Brummie newsroom plan might mark the way ahead

We journalists do like a bit of extreme weather.

Perhaps not as extreme as Hurricane Irma, and certainly we don’t want to see death and destruction.

But the threat of blizzards, floods and high winds can galvanise a newsroom, satisfying the heart with the warm glow of public service journalism and the head with soaring web figures.

Having said that, I always wanted there to be a bit of longevity to my weather crises.

A few years ago, we had a one-day snowstorm. For around 24 hours, there was the sort of mild havoc that turns Britain into a nation of hyperbole and mess when Mother Nature departs from the norm.

And the next day, it was over. Gone, forgotten, move along there’s nothing to see.

Which as a weekly news editor with a default setting of exasperated grumpiness, I found hard.

For a day, I’d thrown my admittedly fairly meagre newsroom resources at our website, reflecting the overwhelming priority of the day for our audience.

But that meant a day of doing nothing to fill the yawning chasms of the print product.

By the time the paper came out, my one-day White Hell was nothing more than a melted snowflake, barely worth even a piece of down page fill.

That was a few years ago, and the situation would be even starker now, with far higher web targets, and possibly even fewer reporters.

But there’s a man with a plan to square this ever-decreasing circle.

Step forward Marc Reeves, editor of the Birmingham Mail and its website, Birmingham Live.

He has unveiled a vision for his newsroom that sees that website stand on its own two rapidly-moving feet.

screen-shot-2017-09-11-at-13-09-39.png

There will be a team of journalists who will be solely writing for Birmingham Live.

And here we are….

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 13.12.15

As Marc acknowledges in his vision – and that weblink above is well worth clicking through to, once you’ve finished here – print still provides the majority of the cash flowing into Trinity Mirror’s coffers.

So we’ve been in the slightly mad situation of throwing the kitchen sink at a product which no one pays for, and which has generated relatively small income, to the neglect of the one which has been paying the bills through advertising and print sales.

But as Marc rightly says, we are living on borrowed time.

Digital income is rising. But the angle of that rise is still not as steep as that of the print income decline.

We’ve already lost some big name titles this year, with the Oldham Evening Chronicle the most shocking closure. Dozens more print products are staring down the barrel of double digit decline with only the default setting of self-destructive price rises in the owners’ armoury.

If I understand him rightly, Marc’s solution to this is to reimagine his newsroom as if it is funded only by digital revenue streams.

This will be a newsroom without cross-subsidy from print, and one not beholden to what  leaders at Trinity Mirror’s predecessor Local World used to describe as ‘the tyranny of print’.

There will still be people working on print, although for the most part they’ll be designers and those ‘filling in the gaps’. I’m sure some love will still be going into the version of the Mail you can actually fold up, but – in the absence of the sort of premium, added value journalism that powers subscription models such as The Times – I can’t see much that’s going to win new print business.

The announcement of the new lean, mean Brummie news machine has ended up in a bit of an inadvertent diary clash with the revelation that Trinity Mirror wants to spend £130 million on buying the Express and Star titles.

screen-shot-2017-09-11-at-13-43-16.png

Undoubtedly, Trinity Mirror will say the funding of such a deal is very different to the economies of its day to day regional newsroom operations.

But, to workers such as Ex-sports hack, those £130 million still have the Queen’s head on them in the same way as the extra few quid that could be in his or her bank account do.

It’s clear to me that dividend-hungry shareholders and historic loans will almost always be a hurdle in the way of imaginatively-funded journalism.

But that’s a debate for another time.

What’s difficult about Marc’s plan is that it involves job losses. He’s trying to produce more news, better news, with fewer people.

That prospect still fills me with a degree of horror and disdain.

But there’s an honesty to his vision that I admire.

And I am hugely encouraged by his decision to involve the American organisation Hearken in work to ensure readers feel genuinely engaged.

Screen Shot 2017-09-11 at 13.51.16

It’s not often that interesting, refreshing, and logical ideas come along in regional journalism.

I saw Marc speak a year ago and I liked the cut of his jib.

Having read his words, I like that jib still more.

I wish him luck.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Why we can’t go on together with suspicious minds

I saw a sight which took my breath away this week.

The view from the top of Cheltenham’s tallest building is nothing short of amazing.

It was well worth the effort.

But it wasn’t just negotiating the lifts and stairs that got me to the top, and to a really satisfying piece for GloucestershireLive.

I had to overcome a few suspicious minds along the way, too.

The manager of the building said she had always been wary of journalists. And she was keen for one of her colleagues to sit in on all my interviews with the building’s tenants.

I found myself explaining my motivation several times over.

I simply wanted to write a through-the-keyhole, behind-the-scenes feature on a landmark that everyone in Cheltenham knows from the outside, but few have ever seen from the inside.

It’s not quite GCHQ, but the Eagle Tower is intriguing.

I wasn’t interested in minor gripes over leases, and I wasn’t there to do a hatchet job.

And, by the end of my two visits spread over three hours, everyone had relaxed, and I was an old friend.

I didn’t take the initial suspicion personally.

But there were clear signs that the image of journalism is too often one of glasses being half-empty rather than half-full, and of a profession looking for trouble that isn’t to be trusted.

And here’s the thing. The less people feel the benefit of journalism, the more that perception will grow.

There is a real risk of a disconnect between journalists and the people they write about. We fear the unknown, and journalists have become the unknown.

Somehow we need to be talking directly to more of our community.

There are some beautiful and telling thoughts in this analysis by American journalist Ross Barkan on the future of the regional media.

local people

We have the quantity of communication, with more ways of getting in touch with audiences than ever before, and online readership numbers that theoretically dwarf any print record highs. But do we have the quality?

If people see, speak to, and know their local reporters, they’re going to be more ready to trust and value their work.

When I was a news editor, I used to spend most Thursday mornings with a reporter in a café or pub somewhere in Bath. Our ‘surgeries’ weren’t just a means to get stories, they were also a great way of meeting readers, and persuading them that journalists didn’t come with horns on their heads and cloven hooves.

The dangers of that gulf between journalists and their communities are all around us.

They’re writ large in the horror of Grenfell Tower, where newsroom cuts meant journalists were looking the other way as residents issued stark, prescient warnings over fire safety.

They’re there in the gut-wrenching bombshell closure of the Oldham Evening Chronicle: an 163-year-old daily paper that’s there one minute and gone the next.

And they’re there at the bus stops of my home city of Plymouth. It’s relatively trivial stuff in the great scheme of things, but my mum and dad are losing a bus service they rely heavily on.

They knew the axe was falling, but they’ve had to spread that news to many of their friends and fellow bus customers.

They knew because my mum gets the Plymouth Herald virtually every day. But she’s in a minority. Too many of that service’s passengers get on with their lives in blissful ignorance of community life, even though they may have called Plymouth home for decades.

We need a strong local media both to expose the kind of strategic complacency, cynicism and cackhandedness that lay behind Grenfell Tower, as well as to highlight minor but significant attacks on our quality of life such as bus cuts.

Never is the regional media’s role in binding communities together more important than in times of citywide crisis.

That might be the Manchester Evening News rising brilliantly to the challenge of covering terrorism tragedy on its doorstep. Or it might be the inspirational work of the Houston Chronicle over the biblical floods in Texas. There’s a nice line in this Washington Post piece on such coverage, too.

Think about finding a way to support local journalism. You never know when you might need it yourself.

If we’re not careful, more towns and cities will follow the depressing example of Oldham.

We must fight to stop newspapers and their websites joining post offices and churches as community assets that everyone wants to stay open but few will actually tangibly support.

There is no magic bullet here. We are in very difficult demographic, financial and cultural territory. And former South Wales Argus editor Kevin Ward isn’t wrong when he questions the default setting of cuts and more cuts adopted by the boards of directors of some regional media firms.

kevin.png

But I’m not giving up.

There is hope to be found, with the example of a site in Denver in the USA one such beacon.

And the one thing I know is that the most successful and sustainable journalism is the journalism that is closest to its people.

The kind where journalists are so much more than faceless bylines, disembodied phone voices, and robotic Facebook posts.

Face to face, eyeball to eyeball – as well as on every social media platform – we have to keep on keeping on. With charm, with humour, with determination, with sensitivity, and above all, with a shared sense of community and humanity.

When it comes to our audiences, we need to move from Suspicious Minds to Always On My Mind.

And It’s Now Or Never.

The microwave reporting that’s no substitute for real journalism

I had a heart-warming email from a student with only a year under her belt at our uni this week.
She was one day into a work placement at a high profile national magazine.
Her verdict: “It’s so fun, and I don’t want to leave.”

Having spent several days last week visiting newsrooms and other media contacts to discuss work experience and generally keep our industry links warm and fruitful, this was music to my ears.
Now that I’m on the other side of the work placement table, a key priority is to ensure that our students’ stints in newsrooms fan a flame rather than snuff one out.
There’s another blog in that, for another time.
But that email also delighted me because it confirmed there was still fun and satisfaction to be had in journalism.
Don’t get me wrong: I’ve never really doubted it.
But a wave that has been building for a few years has finally broken in the last couple of weeks.
In days gone by, the phrase ripping yarn would have been one of the highest forms of praise for a reporter, as well as a reference to a damn fine Monty Python spin-off.

ripping
Now Ripping Yarns is more likely to be a job description.
Staff in at least two London newsrooms have complained that the joy has been sucked out of their working days by a cut and paste culture that sees them rewriting other outlets’ stories to the virtual exclusion of original journalism.
rpping-headline.png
Of course, newsrooms have always given fresh life to their rivals’ revelations, and there will always be a place for getting extra angles on other folks’ stories. But we have now moved into a whole new ball game.
The issue was given a decent airing on Radio 4’s excellent The Media Show, where Press Gazette editor Dom Ponsford hinted that more revelations were to come. Now his website has pointed the finger at International Business Times, where it is claimed a change in Google algorithms which punished the IBT has led to a new derivative and target-driven regime.
The granddaddy of industrial-scale news story production is, of course, Mail Online.
I know enough people who’ve worked there to be in no doubt how soul-destroying following up – if that’s not too generous a phrase for it – other titles’ work can be in that sort of factory farm environment.
Journalism professor Roy Greenslade has also weighed in recently, with tales of woe from his City University graduates about life on the online frontline.

roy.png
As he so rightly says, to see young journalists at the start of their careers have creativity purged and dreams shattered as they’re broken on the ripping newsroom wheel is nothing short of heart-breaking.
It’s microwave reporting – bunging something someone else has slaved over into your formulaic machine, giving it a stir and then serving it up four minutes later.
And it’s the sort of writing that NCTJ examiners are beginning to wring their hands about in their feedback over the latest NQJ exam today, with concerns that reporters are getting out of the habit of detailed reporting.
I have spent my life talking to journalists about why they came into this fantastic profession – and about why they decided to leave.
The answers to the first question can vary. They might want to make a difference. They might want to hold power to account. They might love writing, and telling other people’s fascinating stories. But at the heart of it will be a desire to open the world’s eyes to something new.
And when that desire becomes unfulfilled, the love affair with journalism ends.
In too many newsrooms, there is a disconnect between the needs of the employer and the needs of the employee. The business model is in direct conflict with the instincts of the people being asked to make it work.
There may be a way to make money from secondhand storytelling.
But the people doing it won’t feel like journalists. And we shouldn’t call it journalism.

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.

Screen Shot 2017-06-22 at 11.08.12

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.