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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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.

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.”