The time for lip service is over; Radical change is needed to re-establish the scrutiny once provided by regional news.

Picture this: it’s early evening on one of the warmest days of the year so far and I’m sitting at the side of a large room in a community building in the middle of a housing estate. I have my pen and notebook at the ready and I have been asked several times by eager strangers if I would like a cup of tea. The room is populated by several rows of rickety plastic chairs, many of which are occupied by residents of the estate. A table at the front hosts a local authority man in a suit, his trusty sidekick and a couple of representatives of the Tenants and Residents’ Association – the reason for the meeting tonight.

No, it’s not a flashback to my patch reporting days when these kind of meetings were my bread and butter. This is the here and now and is part of the research I’m doing into regional newspapers. I’m not here to take notes on the meeting, I’m here to see what the late reporter for the paper does during his shift. He came to the meeting and, as a result, I followed.

But while the setting of such an event certainly seems to have changed very little in the 13 years since I started out as a rookie reporter, the scene back in the newsroom is vastly different. It’ll come as no surprise for many to read that the daily title and its sister weeklies are staffed by a handful of multimedia reporters, a digital team and a number of journalists who focus on contributed copy like press releases. Digital figures are a key focus and Facebook Live is the tool of the moment.

But, before the doom-mongers and nay-sayers get all excited and start writing ‘I told you so’, there are a couple of unexpecteds in store; specialisms that were once scrapped in favour of piling on the extra digital tasks have been reinstated and reporters are handing over some of their previous digital responsibilities to a dedicated team in order to free up their time and do something unheard of in recent years … they are leaving the office to cover stories on the ground.

As a result, meetings like the Tenants’ and Residents’ Association AGM are actually being attended and efforts are actually being made to build contacts in person, not just online.

But before the rosy glow of nostalgia takes over, here’s the problem: the meeting we attend is not extraordinary. It becomes clear the chairman of the association has been voted in for another year. It is ten years since he started. This, unfortunately, is the top story of the night. While the meeting does get a bit shouty and I take reams of shorthand notes (I couldn’t help myself) there is little else to report. There are a couple of potential follow-ups, nothing groundbreaking, and new contacts have been made. Bog-standard job done.

This humdrum event is the typical life of a patch reporter. Or rather, this was the typical life of a patch reporter. A time when resources were rich enough in the newsroom to mean that hours could be spent building contacts, scouring minutes and covering fairly dull meetings safe in the knowledge that for every nine reasonably uneventful jobs there would be one that would touch the tip of a corker of a story just waiting to be unpicked.

Not so any more. What’s changed is there are no longer actual patch reporters keeping a keen eye on meetings and events within specific areas. The job detailed above was flagged up by the association and it was luck that the night reporter had the time to attend. Had a big event been scheduled on the same night, it’s unlikely he would have been asked to go to the meeting. Regional newspapers simply do not have the resources to cover circulation areas in the same detail as they did ten years ago and more.

As a result, across the UK there will be hundreds of such meetings, many of which will be happening without a thought from a news journalist and one in ten of which may demonstrate a major social injustice.

And the inevitable happens; getting reporters out to such meetings regularly is a mountain that’s too hard to climb for most news providers, as a result the local newspaper is not forefront in the mind for many people who are fighting a good fight. Instead Facebook, blogs and other social media provide a space for many campaigners to air their battles. And many communities neglected by regional news, including those not using the internet, soon forget that the local paper could possibly be called for help.

This patchy effort at patch reporting nationwide has been put stunningly into focus by the Grenfell Tower tragedy. The critics shining a light onto a lack of regional press presence are right; if local reporters had been actively covering the area it’s likely that residents’ concerns about safety would have been given a public voice before the disaster happened. The public service role once taken by regional journalists failed and the horror of what happened shamed not only the local authority and government, but the regional press as well.

We all know the why. But what about the how? It’s not like those invested in regional journalism haven’t been scratching their heads about how to return to the key role in democracy and accountability that local newspapers once played. But what with revenue losses, resource losses, digital uprisings and the tightening of communications with public services like the police and local authority, the challenges have just been too great.

Regional publishers may now have more of an idea about where the ship is going than they did five years ago, but this doesn’t change the fact that more than half the crew has walked the plank and will not be replaced.

And while journalists and industry onlookers are keenly aware of how the land lies, the general public is not as invested or particularly interested in the lack of regional journalistic presence until something like Grenfell happens. Politicians may have made vague pleas to government in the past and actions like the BBC’s project to provide 150 community reporters to local news organisations, including hyper-locals, have come about from pressure and campaigning. But really this is a dip in the ocean and much more is needed to make a real change.

How about publishing companies take inspiration from the recent collaboration between ITV’s Calendar and the BBC’s Look North? By putting aside competition and unifying to run a cross-publisher campaign both in print, online, in the street and behind the scenes, perhaps change could start to happen.

Many of the issues faced by regional news, or the lack of it, is down to revenue, or the lack of it. If publishers joined up with politicians, academics, regulators, campaigners and unions to create a committee of people focused on looking at ways of plugging these gaps, they could potentially examine new and dynamic funding models and look at why and how regional news thrives in other countries like Norway and the Netherlands. To do this, the government and other powers need to recognise the important role played by regional news and they need to be outraged about the reality of life without this vital function. Grenfell shows the time for lip service is over, radical change is needed.
These ideas may seem naïve; but in the shadow of this tragedy surely now is the right time to pull these kinds of ambitions together if any kind of change can be made to the regional news landscape.

 

 

 

 

Despite the BBC forecast, regional news is not dead

Future of News

The BBC has been making headlines this week after publishing a report into The Future of News, in which it analyses the possibilities of news-making, opportunity and the direction that news provision and consumption might take over the next decade.  It’s interesting  and insightful but not altogether original and, dare I say it, shockingly smug.

In fact, the self-satisfied tone of what’s been produced almost makes me want to stop paying my licence fee altogether. Within the document, which sets out the importance of mobile devices, data journalism and quality community reporting, the BBC sticks a great big knife into the back of regional newspapers… and then stands back to watch with glee while its suffering rival splutters for life on the floor. Take this patronising paragraph for instance;

“Devolution and the decline of the regional press are creating a real need for local news coverage: the BBC is going to have to do more to provide local news that properly serves all parts of the UK. And the BBC has always been an innovator in news. The opportunities of the New Journalism are plain to see – in data journalism, personalised news services and engaging our viewers, listeners and users so we have genuinely activated audiences – and it’s time to do so again. In the internet age, the BBC’s job is to be the place people come to for the real story.”

Gone is the charade of a potential partnership with regional newspapers it seems – after all, why would the Beeb want to bother with that when it could simply step into the still slightly warm shoes of all the dying newspapers it is now trampling across?

I don’t disagree when the report states that: “The economic issues facing the newspaper  business are not of the BBC’s making, nor will they be alleviated by the BBC standing aside.” The problems being faced by regional newspapers have little to do with Auntie; instead it’s a complex mix of digital technology, changing audience, lack of investment from publishing companies and devastating cuts – much of the decline of newspapers  is down to the management at the very top.

However, the BBC has too quickly written off regional newspapers, they are not quite dead yet. What the report has failed to address is the online work being done by the depleted regional newspaper teams; while many papers have gone weekly they are producing good quality, up-to-the-minute news on their websites. When the report says:

“In 2012 Johnston Press announced it was stopping daily publication of the Halifax Courier, Northampton Chronicle and Echo, Peterborough Evening Telegraph, Northamptonshire Evening Telegraph and Scarborough Evening News, a newspaper which started its daily reporting in 1882.
Today in Scarborough there is a small commercial radio station, no daily newspaper and perhaps surprisingly, very little local or community blogging about the news. Considering the town
hit the national headlines earlier this month as its hospital declared a major incident, there were very few news boots on the ground to hold those responsible to account. Where did local people go to find out what was happening at their hospital?” 

Erm, the Scarborough News website? Let’s have a look shall we…

Now I can’t go back in time, but a quick Google shows me the news surrounding the Scarborough Hospital major incident. Unsurprisingly the story was covered by several news outlets; the BBC and the Scarborough News being two of those.

Scarborough News major incident latest BBC major incident latest

While most of the nationals made it a major story once, both the BBC and the Scarborough News broke the story on the same day, returned to it the following day and then continued to revisit the story. While the BBC has since done an online feature about the situation at the hospital, the Scarborough News gave the most recent ‘news’ update; that an investigation was being held into what had happened. This demonstrates that the local ‘weekly’ paper did just as well as the BBC in covering the news as it happened, but also that it stayed with the story after the others had gone – continuing to inform the Scarborough readers of what was happening to their hospital. Just as you would expect a regional news provider to do.

So, thank goodness for the BBC, without it we would be living completely in the dark about what’s happening on our own doorsteps. Or perhaps not.

To explore the point further I went onto the BBC”s home page for Leeds  and West Yorkshire just after 10am today and then went to have a look at a couple of daily newspaper sites so see what comparisons could be made.

This was the BBC’s home page:

BBC home page Leeds West Yorks January 30

Of the three top stories on the page, none had been published or updated today. In fact, the most recent thing on there, ironically, was the twitter feed which displayed a story from weekly Johnston Press title the Pontefract and Castleford Express which had been tweeted at 10.13am.

Let’s look at two daily regional titles for West Yorkshire, what was on their home page at this point in time?

YEP home page January 30 Telegraph and Argus home page January 30

The Telegraph & Argus, covering Bradford, was packed with stories from the day – including which schools were closed due to snow and a story and video of a runaway van which had caused chaos  in part of the  city that morning.

And the Yorkshire Evening Post – covering Leeds and West Yorkshire – had three top stories, all of which had been broken or updated that morning, two of which had video accompanying the words. Laughably, the video on one of the stories was preceded by a paid-for video advert for the BBC’s iPlayer (see below).

YEP third story January 30

Now, coming from a weekly and daily newspaper background I know I could be a little over-sensitive to its content, but I also can’t help feel like the BBC is not only smug in its assessment, but also just downright wrong. Rather than kicking regional newspapers when they are down, perhaps more acknowledgement and credit should have been given to the good work that is being done and that could be complimented by better provision from the BBC in the future. Competition is healthy and good. Monopoly – even if it is dressed up as ‘saving the  day’ – is not.

This report was about the future of news – and with the licence-fee not going away anytime soon, despite people using their televisions, laptops, smartphones and more to access news from myriad places – often NOT the BBC –  and many paying subscriptions to other content providers as well,  the corporation is perhaps being a little complacent in its ‘vision’.

We are paying for the BBC’s future whether we like it or not. But the future of newspapers is not as cut and dry; the revenue stream is still not nailed on, print circulations are declining and it’s likely many more will close in coming years. But some of the regional newspapers that exist today will continue to provide local content in new ways, reaching a growing audience through various platforms and continuing to try, despite the difficulties, to provide the best service possible. And I for one know they will continue to give the BBC the run for its money that it deserves.

How fast is valued over foundation in the world of social media news

This tweet made me laugh, and then it made me stop and think about how social media has changed the way news outlets respond to breaking news.

TwitterReports

In the olden days (just a year  or two ago) news organisations would get reports of an explosion from people on the phone, on email and perhaps on Twitter and Facebook too. The old mantra was to get as much information as possible, then phone the police and find out if the reports could be confirmed. As  soon as that information was granted we would write a report for the internet which we would then share on social media. We would then update that report as the news changed. In an ideal world, the publication of this first report would take no  more than ten minutes. But, in reality, it could take much longer, depending on the response from the authorities and how lively our website was feeling that day.

The old mantra also used to be ‘no point in publishing if you haven’t got anything to say…’ with the idea that established news organisations were better be late and informed, than rushed and flimsy.

Oh, how times have changed.

Now, the people using Twitter are the eyes of the world. As proved by this tweet, people on social media report a noise like an explosion in Manchester. Give the BBC ten minutes to get the story online and that’s ten minutes where people interested in finding out more have been searching, retweeting and clicking on any accounts of said loud noise. It doesn’t matter if those tweets being retweeted are from people who have sought to establish if the explosion has happened or not. Twitter doesn’t care if information is correct as much as it cares about information first.  By the time the BBC tweets out its factually accurate news report, it has missed out on hundreds of hits, clicks and retweets and already it looks ‘out of date’.

So, what to do instead? If every cough, sneeze and loud bang that was tweeted was then picked up and reported on by traditional news sources then people would soon tire of the  scores of mistaken explosions being reported inaccurately and would rightly accuse the BBC, or whoever, of trashy journalism based on flimsy sources. From experience, I would say this is a deciding line based on individual circumstances. The newsdesk has to make a snap decision about the ‘quality’ of the original report source before deciding if it’s worth pursuing. Usually there will have been at least three tweets from different people before calls are put in to the authorities and, depending on the potential severity of the situation, that’s when a decision will be made to put a ‘we are aware of a breaking news event, check here for more updates’ tweet and story online.

Where that story then goes is up to Twitter and the people using it (including other news providers, as proved by this tweet) – but the point is, if it’s a big tale, you were the first to break the story (even if it was a non-story at the time) and your tweet and tale will have people following you for the story rather than a rival.

Journalists are being forced to learn and adapt with the changes that social media throws at them and mistakes will sometimes be made along the way. It could have turned out these explosions were the start of something life changing. It in fact developed no further than a storm in a Twitter-tea cup – a prime example of how In the melee that is social media, traditional news sources are fighting to keep their place as the ‘go-to’ providers of information and more and more emphasis is being placed on speed over substance.

BBCTwitterReports

Hyper-local: While the online debate continues, Made in Leeds marches onto our screens

Made_In_Leeds_logo

Work has been going on behind the scenes between regional newspaper publishers and the BBC to allow all parties a satisfying slice of online hyper-local video sites. Well, according to Johnston Press CEO Ashley Highfield, that’s the case anyway.

Highfield said this week that JP had been in talks with the Beeb to come up with a solution to a problem that’s been lingering like a bad smell for several years now. The conundrum up until this point has been that in launching hyper-local sites the BBC would use its vast resource to monopolise a market which really belongs to someone else, thus probably putting already impoverished and super-stressed newspaper journalists out of a job. The fear was that Auntie would squash the work of regional newspapers in her mighty wake and really, it just wasn’t fair. The BBC, wanting to play nice did back off from its hyper-local plans (they were going to cost too much anyway)  and then the bid was thrown out entirely.

But the Beeb still needed to do better, as did newspaper sites which were growing audience but not meeting the expectations of quality. Cue, a lot of behind the scenes jiggery pokery with exec types (and probably quite a few corporate lunches) to come up with a brand spanking new idea which would be just the ticket for everyone involved: shared content and platforms. Rather than the BBC setting out a lot of very expensive hyper-local sites which it would then have to grow an audience for from scratch, why not instead use the audience already provided by well-established local titles and their existing online visitors? This will allow newspapers with struggling staff and equipment resource but with well-established online audiences to share that valuable asset with the BBC in return for production-quality broadcasts made by the corporation being screened on their websites. And most  importantly for business, both parties get to claim the shared audience as their own. The bosses will see this as a win win for everyone. But it’s likely that the journalists on the ground will have a different opinion – with questions over product identity and voice being just some of the hot topics up for discussion.

While everyone’s back has been turned focusing  on hyper-local video something completely new has snuck into the mix. A hyper-local television station. Made in Leeds  – a television channel made for, well, Leeds, launches today. The channel, which has been lauded on my own freeview set as ‘coming soon’ for a number of weeks now, is available to watch on Freeview 8, Virgin 159 and, later this month, Sky 117. But it has to be said, that is pretty much all I know. Despite having worked until last Friday for the Yorkshire Evening Post – the newspaper for Leeds – I have seen or heard very little of Made in Leeds. While the channel has been in the planning for at least three years, I don’t really know who the actual people are behind the production. I also don’t know what to expect  aside from a 24 hour daily schedule or where it slots into the market. It appears Made in Leeds is doing a soft launch, presumably to iron out any immediate problems before the flock of vultures descend and start picking over its potential carcass.

Competition is not a bad thing. And Made in Leeds might be just what viewers in the city are looking for. It’s got a great studio and has, so I hear, employed a lot of young talent, many of whom will be fresh, enthusiastic and throwing themselves  into every opportunity the channel provides. But I struggle to see where Made in Leeds fits into the existing mix. Is it pitching itself at students and culture vultures – like a televised The City Talking – or is it going up against big hitters like Calendar, Look North or BBC Leeds? Is it spreading itself too thinly with a 24 hour offering rather than focusing on eight hours of specifically targeted programming? And what about online? Much of the information I have found out about it so far has been via Google rather than its own website. It has an exceptionally large twitter following (6,232 at  last count) but doesn’t seem to really have set out its  stall. In this world of millions of media offerings vying for a limited audience’s attention – an audience which is more and more watching online rather than over traditional television sets – has Made in Leeds done enough to get  people to sit down, switch on and stay tuned? I’ll certainly take a look when I  get home tonight, but I’m yet to be convinced I’ll still be watching in six months’ time.

Create a free website or blog at WordPress.com.

Up ↑