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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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.