Could print be the saviour of the news industry?

Five months ago yesterday, something strange happened in the world of newspapers.

One was launched.

Without – at the time – a website.

The New European was intended to have a life of just four weeks: a pop-up newspaper created as anger and angst mounted over the result of the June 23 referendum.

But, well into December, and as that anger and angst continues to simmer, it’s still going strong.

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As I said shortly after its launch, it’s bucked a trend of print closures, considerably outliving two other launches: the nine-week New Day experiment, and the six-week 24 newspaper.

It does now have a proper news website.

But it still uses that online presence to signpost people to its premium product: the print edition.

So what does the success of the New European tell us?

And is it a sign that media organisations ought to put more effort into print?

What the New European has done is corner a market that is real. Unlike New Day and 24, it has chutzpah, character and confidence – as well as a niche home where people with money exist.

The idea that news organisations are pursuing a mirage by pinning all their hopes on digital advertising has been developing some decent traction in recent months.

At our university’s recent media festival, veteran sports writer Patrick Barclay insisted that the resurgence of premium-priced, high quality newspapers was just around the corner.

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And today, outgoing Brighton Argus editor Mike Gilson makes a powerful plea for the press to shout its virtues from the rooftops – and to start investing in quality print journalism. It’s well worth a read.

Across the Atlantic, the print-only concept is explored convincingly in this piece in the prestigious Columbia Journalism Review.

It comes down to this.

Despite everything, revenue from print still outstrips that from digital by – depending on who you talk to – a factor of between three and four.

And yet some of those print products – certainly at regional level – are hollowed-out shadows of their former selves, thrown together almost apologetically despite skilled and dedicated staff, with faceless arms-length subbing hubs leading to quality corners being cut on a weekly basis.

The counterintuitive, contrarian, argument is that more newspapers should be print-only, with existing websites shut and/or new launches having no online presence.

But could it work?

I’m not so sure.

Not for regional daily papers, anyway. Most are in irreversible decline for a myriad of reasons, some of which have nothing to do with content.

Our time-poor lives are against them, along with socioeconomic changes such as the decline of traditional manufacturing, with its factory gate traditions and community ties, and our online food shopping habits.

Shedding or downgrading a website will do nothing here, I fear – and would fly in the face of some genuine, if at times fickle, demand.

It would also fly in the face of the reality that our children will never consume news in the way that we do, or did.

I’m not sure that a lot of weeklies would be helped either.

Most weeklies are still not drilling down deep enough into the minutiae of local life

The battle for people’s precious time is less intense here, but that void would still be filled by another media source.

In fact, today sees news that a weekly in South Yorkshire is going web-only after 140 years of print production.

But most importantly, most weeklies are still not drilling down deep enough into the minutiae of local life, or covering natural communities.

Where print-only does make huge sense is in the hyperlocal world of micro-coverage, rammed with names and street-level detail.

If you’re going to get people to buy your product, you need to be offering something valuable that isn’t available anywhere else – in print or online.

Despite our increasingly transient populations, our busy lives and our reduced community involvement, there remains an appetite for news.

I nearly hugged one of my neighbours last night when he told me that he and his wife had started buying our local weekly because they felt out of touch with what was going on in our town.

But that news has to be right stuff, with the right detail.

That neighbour had gone looking for a story about the closure of a local landmark business – one I had flagged up to the paper’s news desk.

He couldn’t find it – and neither could I.

Unless we can organise our resources to offer unbeatable truly local news coverage, print-only will be just another mirage.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Accusing young journalists of laziness? That’s just lazy journalism

When were the good old days?

I’d hazard a guess that – from an employment point of view – they probably come in the first few years of your working life.

If I’m right, mine would have involved some great craic, some great stories and some great lessons learned.

But it’s not as simple as that.

My first few years in journalism were also characterised by the time to pursue stories in newsrooms which were expanding rather than contracting.

And I remember some other things.

Long lunch hours down the pub. Sub-editors stringing out poorly-designed pages for hours on end. Ancient reporters whose intros mangled the English language. Not to mention a laissez faire approach to ethics.

I worked reasonably hard at times. But I also found time to drive up to Mid Wales on a Friday afternoon to see my girlfriend (now wife) at uni while I should have been visiting contacts in Mid Devon.

So I’m always wary of claims that there was once some golden age of journalism.

As I’ve said before, I am in absolutely no doubt that the reporters of today work harder than I ever had to. 

With web targets bearing down on them on an hourly basis, the expectation that storytelling will involve video and live-blogging, information overload and heightened public demands, it’s no wonder they can feel stressed.

They work long hours, battling to keep the plates of public service journalism and web-friendly content spinning.

So it was with a growing sense of anger that I read a rose-tinted paean of praise to those so-called good old days in Press Gazette.

The writer spoke of lazy, poorly-trained journalists cutting corners and ignoring basic principles of verification.

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As someone who – unlike the writer – still spends time in newsrooms and who makes his main living training the journalists of the future, I bristled at a piece which to me was the very epitome of lazy journalism.

 

It came on a day when my patience was tested first by an over-the-top, tired piece on so-called clickbait  and the later news that the white elephant regulator Impress had been officially approved by a Government recognition panel .

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It came on a day when I and my colleagues had as usual put our heart and soul into ensuring that dozens of students are equipped with the skills, attitudes and confidence to shine in the media sector.

And it came on a day that saw one of my second year students help her neighbours out of their house after their shed caught fire – before live-tweeting the incident and getting a great story with great pictures online.

 

We know that these would-be media practitioners need to develop greater curiosity and ambition, to grow in resilience and resourcefulness as they look for stories to tell, and to keep on improving.

But we are sending them out into the world with technical skills and digital instincts beyond anything I and my colleagues could have dreamed of in those lazy, hazy 1980s days.

In fact, we’d probably have gone on strike if we’d been asked to do a fraction of what the modern reporter takes in his or her stride every day.

So by all means acknowledge an industry facing intense challenges which could threaten journalism that matters.

By all means rail against the poverty of imagination of newspaper companies cutting away at the flesh of our industry.

But have the humility to accept that there may be new approaches to storytelling.

And if you’re going to tell young journalists that they’re lazy, have the guts to do it to their faces.

Hope not hate: what makes stories fly online?

 

I’ve always thought that, as journalists, we see the best and worst of human nature.

The best comes in the shape of stories about health battles with adversity, heroic rescues or selfless charity fundraising.

The worst can raise its ugly head in the form of horrific crime, political cynicism or corporate incompetence. Not to mention terror attacks like last night’s in Nice where we struggle to find the right words.

And then there’s the bear pit, free for all that is social media – particularly Facebook.

Last weekend, I felt for Chris Humphreys, political reporter at one of my old papers, the Swindon Advertiser.

He led the coverage of a heart-warming rally against racism in the Wiltshire town, and used Facebook Live to stream video footage of the event.

It was then that the coverage was hijacked by the very people whose obscene outlook on life sparked the show of strength.

 

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I tweeted Chris to congratulate him, and I like to think this print headline was also a defiant message to those poisonous web trolls.

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We have a love-hate relationship with the people formerly known as the readers.

I’ve often quoted one of my favourite journalistic pearls of wisdom:

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In the  newsroom where I’ve been moonlighting to keep my hand in this week, I’ve watched as the newsdesk battle to second-guess the great British public.

My friends could be forgiven for simply serving up a diet of ‘grimy crime’, car crashes and viral videos.

Luckily – from the point of view of ensuring that the essence of journalism with a heart and soul is preserved, it’s not quite as simple as that.

Despite the wealth of data in the analytics-driven newsrooms of today, we still don’t always know exactly what turns our audience on.

Material that works a treat one week may flop spectacularly the next.

And we can end up feeling uncomfortable and unfulfilled as we serve up content which we think might attract people with a different world view to our own.

Although for many regional news websites the audience reaction has moved to Facebook, there is a useful debate to be had on readers’ comments and how to make the most of them.  The New York Times is making  new efforts to forge more constructive links with its audience, so that its journalism becomes more of a team effort.

Ultimately, the dream – and it may well be a naive one – must be that the audience develops such a relationship with you that it allows you to tempt it out of its comfort zone.

That certainly, seemed to be the direction of travel of an interesting thread from American media guru Jay Rosen.

 

 

 

 

 

And, now and again, those fickle, frustrating readers can surprise us. In a good way.

My temporary colleagues at the GloucestershireLive website stumbled across a lovely story about a wartime Spitfire engineer who was reunited with one of the aircraft at the age of 95.

I had my doubts as to whether it would, well, fly online.

But it did. And how.

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Ken Farlow at Fairford. Pic: Gloucestershire Airport

It became the most viewed story that night, and for some time afterwards. And more importantly, triggered a lovely response on Facebook.

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The horrible incidents that followed the Brexit vote revealed a nasty underbelly to British society, reflected in those Adver comments.

But we need to remember that they don’t – can’t, shouldn’t – represent Britain.

And to cling to the hope that the response to that heart-warming Spitfire story is the one that truly speaks for our nation.

There’s another source of hope, too.

It’s a vote of confidence in the most rewarding sort of journalism: talking to interesting people and telling their stories.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Facing up to the Facebook changes

A great man once said that a week was a long time in politics.
I’m not here to talk about that now.
But you could equally well say that a week is a long time in evolving multimedia journalism.
Certainly it feels that way.
If I ever need a chuckle, I take myself off to the uni library to open a book or two about online journalism.
Stuff written just two or three years ago now reads like ancient Hebrew script.
It was around then (two or three years ago, not the time of ancient Hebrew scripts) that I sat in on a number of sessions about social media and its increasing role in persuading people to read our stories.
The watchword then was very much about being human: avoiding robotic and repetitive tease posts such as ‘what do you think?’
In the intervening couple of years, Facebook has changed its algorithms several times, as well as introducing Facebook Articles and Facebook Live.
In terms of getting people to the content on most news websites – certainly regional ones – it has been virtually the only show in town for a lot of material.
So, when the Facebook wind changes, content desks may have to change tack accordingly.
I was hugely encouraged a couple of months ago when Facebook announced it would be prioritising longer reads – ensuring more thoughtful pieces of writing appeared in people’s feeds.
This week, it’s revealed it will be emphasising friends’ and family posts in a move likely to reduce the amount of publishers’ content which is seen.
Already I have noticed a dramatic fall in visible posts from the regional and national news sites whose pages I like.
It’s a change that not everyone has seen as negative.

There is real concern that Facebook, Google and, increasingly, phone brands, are becoming the gatekeepers of so much news content.
Whatever your view, most people seem to agree that the latest change will make it more difficult for news media posts to fly.
Much will come down to the age-old trade-off between click-throughs and brand awareness.
The growth of the media’s use of Facebook Live suggests that brand awareness remains important, although the latest research from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Online Journalism suggests that greater video content may not necessarily be the great white hope, unless it’s a breaking news story.
One thing that has become crystal clear in recent times is the role of both Facebook and Twitter as an echo chamber.
It’s difficult to work out whether this latest shift will magnify that effect, as friends continue to preach to the converted at the expense of thought-provoking and challenging material from outside the circle.
Meanwhile, how’s that being human project going?
A relative of mine took exception to a one-word Facebook post selling a story about a sex attacker in his city.
The word: ‘Disgusting’.
He was concerned that the site was encouraging something close to vigilante action by posting such a large volume of sex and porn-related stories, and then adding its own emotive take on them.
I quickly became bored of posts linking to stories about death crashes or child illness where it appeared to be compulsory to include the phrases ‘thoughts with the family’ or ‘this is heartbreaking.’
It’s a tricky ask, this social media voice business.
Getting the tone right as well as interesting and enticing can involve squaring a lot of circles.
But when it works, it works.
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In the mean time, good luck to all journalists in making Facebook work for you.
This chap seems to have got the right idea…
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How journalists can help make our national debate a little kinder

“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I can’t get that phrase out of my head.
Not that I want to.
They are, of course, the words of MP Jo Cox.
Someone I don’t think I’d even heard of until last Thursday afternoon.
But someone for whom I’ve been moved to tears time and time again since a moment of unspeakable horror on an ordinary street in West Yorkshire.
I have read thousands of words reflecting on her killing over the last few days.
Many were by people that I could barely hold a candle to in terms of compelling, analytical and incisive prose – such as Jonathan Freedland and Marina Hyde.
There have been other high profile – and controversial pieces – such as those by Alex Massie in the Spectator, Iain Martin and Kate Spicer.
There was wisdom in all of them, particularly Massie’s.
And there have been fantastic tributes to Jo, one of the first from her fellow Syria campaigner, Tory MP Andrew Mitchell.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
Others have come from reporters who knew her as a hard-working and passionately committed MP.
Someone, as Rachel Johnson pointed out yesterday with a guilty conscience, who was busy helping constituents with their real problems as she, Nigel Farage and Bob Geldof indulged in name-calling and histrionics on the River Thames. Jo’s brilliantly articulate husband Brendan and their kids got caught in the crossfire, though, as they took to a dinghy to support the Remain cause.
Those reporters’ tributes have been heartfelt and glowing. Journalists from regional papers such as the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Evening Post joined broadcasters such as the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg in painting a picture of a warm, genuinely lovely woman.

It’s been said many times before in many different circumstances: what a shame it is that we never get to read our obits, the messages on our funeral flowers and the eulogies in our memory.
I wonder how many of those journalists ever said those sort of beautiful things to Jo’s face.
And I wonder how many of them had insisted that the vast majority of politicians were public-spirited masochists in the months and years leading up to Jo’s tragic death.
It’s a point made excellently by Michael Deacon in the Times, but one which needs making more often.

It’s not just our industry. I also wonder how many of Jo’s constituents ever gave her the right level of credit for the tireless problem-solving she did on their behalf. It was lovely to see #ThankYourMP taking off within hours of her death.

But, if we are – as so many commentators and politicians have urged – to reject the politics of hate, the media must play its part.
For more than two decades, as a news editor, I went looking for division and discord.
Find someone to condemn someone else they may not know saying things they haven’t heard about – and bingo! Rows have broken out, wars of words have erupted, battle lines have been drawn – and front pages have been filled.
And that other thing we do. When someone genuinely changes their mind.
Suddenly it’s an embarrassing u-turn, or a humiliating climbdown.

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Why do we denigrate the results of good listening, or honest reflection?
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”
I wrote a couple of months ago about the media’s unhelpful role in the EU debate.
To be fair, I now get slightly frustrated with people who say they haven’t got enough information on which to decide the right way to vote on Thursday (it’s In by the way…).
You could have wallowed in TV debates, BBC explainers and newspaper polemics around the clock if you needed information, guidance and opinion.
But the point I made then – about media coverage being similar to fracking in the way it exploits minor fissures of disagreement to generate the hot gas of controversy – still stands.
Journalism is a finely-judged mixture of public-spirited citizenship and cynical suspicion.
Somehow that world view has got out of kilter.
In among the whipping-up of bitter rows and fierce condemnation, there was a question that I’m glad that in my more reflective moments I occasionally also used to ask.
‘How will this story help?’
Help in greater understanding, greater justice, greater knowledge, greater happiness, greater truth?
It’s one that perhaps all of us journalists need to ask a little more often if our tributes to Jo Cox are to really mean something.
“We are far more united and have far more in common with each other than things that divide us.”

 

 

 

Shining a light in the dark web to beat the keyboard warriors

For a couple of years, my job involved policing the web.

Not all of it, you understand.

Just the bit named bathchronicle.co.uk – and more specifically, the bits of that site which were written by readers.

In other words, I was forced to operate below the line.

It wasn’t exactly the French Resistance, but at times I felt about as effective as Rene Artois from ‘Allo ‘Allo.

When I gave up that responsibility to a central team of moderators, I didn’t shed too many tears.

It was, in the wise words of my friend Lynne’s mum, much like plaiting fog.

And since then, my forays into life below the line have been few and far between.

One of the few sites where I do regularly scroll through the comments is Hold the Front Page.

Much of the People’s Contribution to HTFP’s content is fairly predictable.

There are frequent – and frequently justified – attacks on the senior management of regional media companies.

Many of them come from people no longer in the industry.

Which means there are also regular ripostes from serving journalists about how out of touch these onetime scribes have become.

And so the rule of ad hominem begins to take over.

There are a few givens about online comments, the best-known being Godwin’s Law – that the longer a comments thread becomes, the more likely either Hitler or the Nazis will be mentioned.

And not in a way demonstrating much of a sense of proportion.

One other certainty of life below the line is that there will be misunderstandings, misinterpretations and misreadings.

For an industry with communication at its core, this is in some ways extraordinary.

But I know it happens.

Because it happened to me this week.

I am *always* flattered _ and often bemused – when HTFP picks up on something in one of my blogs and decides to write about it.

And so it was with my last piece, about Leicester Mercury staff asking to be de-nominated from a national award in protest against the loss of some of the paper’s photographers.

Never in my wildest dreams – or rather nightmares – did I expect anyone reading the piece to interpret it as an attack on those staff. That’s the last thing it was.

But interpret it that way they did.

Or, rather, interpret it that way they did after reading Hold the Front Page’s story.

There was nothing wrong with that story, I hasten to add.

It’s just that few of the commenters on HTFP ventured beyond it. Or even read it in its entirety, I suspect.

Apparently I was aiming my comments at the wrong target. And – to add insult to insult – I was ‘fixated by meaningless baubles’ because I said I enjoyed industry awards ceremonies.

Clearly this is all very minor stuff in the below-the-line scheme of things, and clearly I should grow a pair.

But it was sobering to be reminded just how quickly and readily people can be to leap to instant and personal judgement when behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

Ironically, it came within a week of me discussing media site comments with some students, and making the point that we shouldn’t dismiss all those keyboard warriors as malevolent cowards.

Hidden in among the ‘slow news day?’, ‘why don’t you cover some real news for a change?’ and ‘lazy journalism’ can be some truths which are hard to swallow. Along with some questions we may not have thought of, and some genuine constructive criticism of our work.

I was fascinated to read a piece by a onetime Guardian moderator about his role – one that had been described as the worst in the world.

There was plenty of ammunition for that view in his piece.

But ultimately, there was also hope that online debates can work, and can shed more light than heat, if moderation works well.

And, perhaps, if journalists continue to engage, rather than leave this version of the dark web to argue bitterly amongst itself.

I have always believed in answering intelligent criticism from one’s web audience, and like to think I have changed some minds over the years, as well as countering some negativity.

So I thought long and hard about how to respond to my HTFP critics.

Then I just tried to be clever, saying: “To paraphrase Ian Hislop, if my blog was an attack on the Leicester Mercury’s staff, I’m a banana.”

I wasn’t going to look again at the comments, but I forced myself to.

Although I’ve apparently slipped on a banana skin of my own making, the thread now appears to be petering out.

One person who did read the whole blog was a journalist at the Mercury, who tweeted me to say that he hadn’t interpreted it as an attack on him and his colleagues.

That was good to hear. Hopefully he took the piece for what it was – an exhortation to the incoming editor but more importantly to Trinity Mirror to put the restoration of morale at the top of their priority list.

And that tweet was also evidence of how powerful support and positivity can be in life below the line.

One of my favourite quotes is one that has been – falsely, apparently – attributed to Edmund Burke:

“The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”

Whether he said it or not, he clearly wasn’t talking about the web in 1770.

But lighting a positive and supportive candle in the darkness might be something we should all try and do once in a below-the-line while.

I’m going to go on Hold the Front Page to support that nice Paul Wiltshire bloke right now.

More light, less heat: a recipe for 21st century journalism

It’s been described by some as the most important vote in a generation, far more crucial than most general elections.

Admittedly there are just under ten action-packed weeks still to go before June 23, but many people are still woefully underprepared for the EU referendum.

A poll of polls has suggested that around one in six of us hasn’t yet made up our minds which way to vote.

But more worryingly, the average Brit’s knowledge of matters European isn’t all that great.

Only people in Latvia know less about Europe than we do, according to research carried out last year.

How can this be, when the issue of Britain’s place in Europe is rarely out of the news?

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As this excellent piece by Christopher Meyer from King’s College, London, says, too much of the coverage mounted by the national media is simply sound and fury. And, as that great man whose birthday we’re about to celebrate would have said, it signifies nothing.

Or rather, it signifies the interests of one or two owners, as this quote from Anthony Hilton in the Evening Standard reveals.

I once asked Rupert Murdoch why he was so opposed to the European Union. ‘That’s easy,’ he replied. ‘When I go into Downing Street they do what I say; when I go to Brussels they take no notice.’

There are notable exceptions, with the Guardian, Telegraph and The Week all doing their best to provide context, analysis and facts. The BBC is also doing a great job, although it has been accused of being too timid and giving too much weight to the flakier end of the Leave camp.

Plus there’s the wonderful Full Fact organisation, with pages of content aimed at carving through the bluster and posturing.

But, to me, too much of the media’s take on the EU debate simply shows how out of date and irrelevant elements of our mainstream news sources have become.

I was talking to one of my students last week about a far less significant story.

She said something that stuck in my mind: “I want to achieve resolution with this story.”

That constructive take on the role of the reporter has been echoed in a recent column by Roy Greenslade which looked at the movement for what is becoming known as solutions-focussed journalism.

It’s also been explored in a piece on journalism.co.uk.

It’s a subject I’ve tackled before and one that, I think, offers us a glimpse of hope in some of the dark days that can blight this industry.

Too much of our coverage is like fracking – splashing our words into tiny fissures, so that they become giant cracks which produce negative and dangerous energy.

The EU vote offers us a chance to help people crying out for more information, who want the issues to be safely marshalled for them so they can make informed decisions.

Instead of creating heat, we should be shedding light.