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.

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

And here we are….

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.
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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

 

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