A capital training experience

When it comes to journalism, nobody in the industry likes to be on the wrong side of a story. And yet, perhaps there is no better training for novice journalists than experiencing what happens when someone picks up a sniff of a story and runs with it – all the way down the garden path.

Yesterday was one such day.

I am a lecturer in the journalism department at Leeds Trinity University. Yes, that’s right, that’s the university that has a brilliant record in employability. The university that’s proud to hold a fantastic Journalism and Media Week every year. The university that has a strong relationship with alumni who value the training which got them brilliant jobs behind and in front of the camera, travelling the world and following their dreams. Oh, and it is, apparently, the university that’s banned us from using capital letters (let me set the record straight now… it hasn’t).

So yesterday, while first year undergraduates were out testing their mettle by filming packages about the possibility of a second referendum, Black Friday and the expensive housing market in Leeds, while final year undergraduates were running back-to-back live radio broadcasts, while students from year one to post-graduate were appearing on a BBC broadcast about the future of local news, some of our esteemed national media were more interested in bandying about a misconception.

  

Experience: Broadcast journalism student Kudzai talking journalism futures with the BBC

And while the ‘story’, has been recognised as a non-story by other members of the industry (because they have seen the original memo which simply advises lecturers to explain assessments in a clear way which every student will benefit from) some kind of Brexit-fatigue perhaps appears to be fanning the flames of a tale, which if interrogated would fall flat on its backside.

Our students are not ‘snowflakes’ – that’s a derogatory term which shuts conversation down and fails to give credit or respect to the voices of young people. It’s a bullish label which belongs in the playground and minimises reasoned debate.

Our students are bright, intelligent, interesting people who know a hack from a handsaw. While flimsy journalism might manage to get some sparks out of these already dying embers, they crack on with the real job at hand; getting a degree and making the most of every exciting opportunity given to them.

And now they have had one of the best training experiences yet; knowing  when a story is a non-story and knowing it will be tomorrow’s fish and chip wrappers – if  you can still make such a thing from clickbait tabloids and their ilk.

Regional newspaper or local online journalist? Then have your say on what skills and tools are being used in the newsroom today.

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In November the final part of my PhD research began in earnest with the first round of distribution of a survey investigating what skills and tools are being used in regional newspaper newsrooms in the UK today.

The survey – which takes no more than 20 minutes to complete – will provide a picture of how regional newspaper journalists are working in print and online. All responses are confidential and responses are anonymised prior to analysis.

The data from this research will inform a much wider study conducted over the past three years.

During that time I have collected job advertisements for regional newspaper and online equivalent positions posted on http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk and also by the three major newspaper publishers in the UK (Newsquest, Trinity Mirror and Johnston Press) between November and January each year.

The job advertisements are being analysed for keywords indicating the importance and prevalence of both digital and print skills and tools. The advertisements will also be analysed for other information – including the types of positions being advertised and the number of jobs being posted each year.

All of this will be considered when analysing the third element to the research project – that being observations and interviews conducted in two daily newspaper newsrooms owned by two of the three major UK regional newspaper publishers.

This fieldwork research took place last year, with three consecutive weeks spent at each of the newspaper titles.

If you are a journalist working at any level currently employed by a regional newspaper or its online equivalent and you would be willing to take part in my survey please send me a message via Twitter @RebeccaWMedia or email me on r.whittington@leedstrinity.ac.uk and I will send you the link.

Your one response could make a huge difference to the viability of my research project.  All of this analysis and data will also help inform journalism training for undergraduate and post-graduate students.

Thanks in advance and please share this link with colleagues working for regional newspapers and their online platforms!

Rebecca

 

 

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.

 

 

 

 

Data day – the PhD push for information

It’s all become a little academic round here recently. I’ve just completed my third round of data collection looking at journalism job adverts on http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk (see here for more details on the study). The first two years of that data collection formed the basis for my brief involvement with a book which was published last month. Entrepreneurial Journalism by my colleague Paul Marsden is the first book I have contributed to – it was very exciting to see the final product when it arrived in the post today!

Since the start of the year I’ve also been testing a survey which will be sent out to regional newspaper journalists in the UK later this year and I have been arranging placements for observational fieldwork research – all of which will feed back into my PhD project.

So, to be honest, I feel a bit like I’ve been juggling cats while riding a rollercoaster, but on Monday, hopefully, the hard work will start to pay off as I set out on my first fieldwork placement.

The aim of the overall research project is to identify skills and tools used in regional newsrooms and to analyse news production processes with the intention of having a positive impact on journalism training within higher education and industry. Also, I would like to get my PhD. 

If you are a journalist working in regional newspapers and or on an affiliated digital product and you would like to know more or get involved please drop me a line. Enquiries from other sources are also most welcome! You can email me at r.whittington@leedstrinity.ac.uk

Fake news just exposes the truth about us all

“If I were to run, I’d run as a Republican. They’re the dumbest group of voters in the country. They believe anything on Fox News. I could lie and they’d still eat it up. I bet my numbers would be terrific.” – attributed to People magazine 1998.

True? No.

This meme – attributing a rather disparaging quote by Donald Trump to an interview he supposedly conducted with People magazine in 1998 – is an example of the fake news that filled Facebook feeds internationally in the run-up to the US presidential election. Donald Trump may have said something like this at some point; but he never said it to People and there’s no evidence of him having said it anywhere else either. But despite the fact that the meme was entirely fabricated, it was shared across the globe.

Democrat campaigners and politicians have accused the spread of fake news on social media sites such as Facebook to be partially responsible for the loss of the election. Buzzfeed found viral fake election news significantly outperformed genuine news sources about the same subject in the run-up to the opening of the polls. And Mark Zukerberg, Facebook founder and CEO, has pledged to address the issue of fake news on the site, after initially dismissing claims that fake news swayed the election as ‘crazy’. Today President Obama said in regards to fake news: “We have a problem.”

But is he correct? Is fake news a powerful enough tool for campaigners to swing election votes their way? Perhaps. But I would argue not. Why? Well, because of what is known in academic circles as ‘The Daily Me.’

Essentially, The Daily Me is a term referencing how we, as digital users, access news within our daily lives. In a world where time is scarce and information sources are many and varied, most of us social media and smartphone users choose to focus on what interests us and what reinforces our own beliefs. We tailor our news choices by clicking on the links that correlate with our leanings and interests. We do not click on links that we believe not to be valid or true. Facebook and Apple are just two of numerous technology companies that have exploited this by designing algorithms to learn and replicate user choices – pushing similar content out to the individual user based on stories they have clicked on in the past.

The criticism of individually tailored news feeds is it narrows user margins. By streamlining content to only include items the algorithm considers of interest to the individual, broader perspectives and differing opinions are not included, meaning the ‘news’ that person is fed constantly reinforces the notion that their values, interests and opinions are the most widely-held within their society, the most important and the most valid.

This kind of positive reinforcement also occurs within social groups in online spaces. Mostly your friends in social networks like Facebook will be friends who hold similar values and have similar interests to your own. So, while a few of my friends on Facebook shared the unflattering Trump meme, there was no sign on my feed of any negative Clinton news – real or fake. That’s because most of my friends, like me, were rooting for a Democratic win.

And this is already old news. Those who did not want Britain to leave the EU were secure in the notion we would stay. That’s partly down to the silent element who did not tell anyone which way they would vote. But it’s also partly down to the positive reinforcement of our peers – when we look around and talk about politics online, our opinions are, in the main, reflected by our peer group. But if Stay campaigners had stepped out of their peer group to analyse how Brexit was being discussed online by those who were backing the Leave campaign, they would have seen similar passion, positive reinforcement and news sharing in favour of leaving the EU. We are becoming much less tolerant of differing opinions and dissenting voices are much easier to dismiss online than they are in real life. As a result, not only are our viewpoints narrowed, but our beliefs and expectations are also streamlined.

So those who shared the fake news were not deliberately duping their friends – instead they were positively reinforcing the messages that they believed to be true. Facebook and other social media platforms have replaced official news sites in many people’s lives. They amalgamate news and stories in one place, making it easier for a user to get the information they are interested in without having to go to several official sources. That’s how fake news has become a problem – social media may be the viewing platform, but it is not officially the publisher and as a result it has not got the responsibilities of verification and fact-checking carried by an official media outlet. But users have not taken on the role of fact-checking either. And thanks to the Daily Me, verification or scrutiny over the reliability of a source is often overlooked due to the dodgy item reinforcing a held opinion or belief.  As a result, a ton of fake news and inaccurate propaganda can flood social media and be widely shared without being checked or removed.

There is also the element of drama which helps fake news do the rounds. Buzzfeed’s research showed that real news was overlooked in favour of fake. Why? Most likely because the fake news was far more interesting and exciting. Who wants to hear about tax incentives, foreign policy and education reform when you could be reading about double-dealing, sex scandals and murder? We have an insatiable appetite for the unseemly – good news is nice, bad news sells.

When I was editor of the Pontefract and Castleford Express a reader posted on our Facebook page asking about a police presence at a house in the patch. Before we even got the calls into the police press office there were people responding to the query making claims about child sex abuse, murder of a four-year-old and more. It was shocking how Facebook users made claims as though they were fact. We quickly got a statement from police – there was no child death, no sex allegation, it was a domestic incident and a man had been arrested for common assault. But still the rumours continued. People simply ignored the truth of the matter and continued to speculate and repeat wild untruths as though they were fact. It struck me that they simply didn’t want to know the truth. The truth was dull. It did not give them someone thing to talk and gossip about, it did not give them reason to draw their attention away from a dull afternoon at work, what they wanted was scandal and drama – so when we didn’t provide it, they made it up themselves.

And that’s the scary thing about the Daily Me. And that’s where Obama is correct in saying ‘we have a problem’. We are living in a world where a reality TV star is about to move into the White House. People don’t want truth and they don’t want the daily grind. We want to be shocked and we want to be excited. Online we create a virtual reality of the world around us and that reality reinforces our beliefs and justifies our behaviours. And that’s where the problem lies. Fake news didn’t win the election, it just exposed the way we are.

Ok, it’s been more than a while – it’s been a year.

In that time I’ve been occupying my brain with such things as babies and have had little time to focus on my academic work – although I have managed to do a second lot of data collection from Hold the Front Page jobs (I’m now into my third data collection period), publish a paper based on the work I presented at the 2015 Future of Journalism conference in Cardiff and contribute work to a book – Entrepreneurial Journalism by my colleague Paul Marsden – which is due to be published early 2017.

But I’m now back in the game – so keep your eye out for new posts and updates on research and news linked to regional news and newspapers.

And to all those who say newspapers have no impact any more – here’s a good example from the Guardian of how newspapers across the world can powerfully convey the most shocking news stories using still images and words.

 

 

Changing voices, attitudes and focus – Mojocon 2015

Authenticity over authority, consumer power over journalism qualifications and the importance of being there – three themes which were revisited again and again by speakers at the first ever Mojocon – mobile journalism conference – which was held in Dublin in March 2015.

Rosenblum
Gerd Leonhard’s screensaver

Rather than this being an academic conference, at which theories, papers and research was presented, this was an industry event which explored the realities of mobile journalism in newsrooms across Europe, the USA and even further afield. But while there were representatives from countries as diverse as Norway, India and Australia and from news units including newspapers, television and digital start-ups, the themes which returned again and again were the same. The industry across the globe has been united by the same change caused by the same factors – technology development and availability, advertising revenue cuts, global economic downturn and dilution of impact due to myriad news providing options. No longer do journalists find themselves in a hallowed position, choosing and creating the news. Like it or not, as so eloquently phrased by keynote speaker Richard Sambrook of Cardiff University, ‘the consumer is firmly in charge”. And to be honest, the word ‘consumer’ was probably only used in that phrase due to a lack of suitable noun to describe the role now taken by that person – they are news gatherers, documenters, historians, sharers, seekers and consumers. They have the same technology needed to capture and upload breaking news as the journalist, and, being in the right place at the right time, they have the authenticity which whets appetites. Like it or not, journalists are finding themselves moving from being the news providers to being news curators by choosing and honing information provided by a much more authoritative audience. Michael Rosenblum hit the  nail on the head when he said: “We make it  you watch it is an old model,” adding: “Everybody participates”.

None of this is news to people who have been keeping tabs on journalism in recent years. But what was interesting about Mojocon was the impact and effect of this change – rather than pining for the past, delegates at Mojocon were looking to the future, sharing ideas and, it has to be said, salivating over shiny new apps, technology and toys. Long has this change been a painful process, a difficulty in acceptance, a denial and a doomful prophecy of an industry in crisis. But Mojocon showed the light at the end of the tunnel – at least for  this particularly difficult stretch of the journey – with practitioners innovating and sharing and showing how brilliant things can be done with just an iPhone and a couple of handy apps.

Perhaps the presentation which best illustrated the path of change and things to come was that by Shadi Rahimi, a producer for Al Jazeera network AJ+. Her work documenting the Ferguson riots was not polished, it was raw, emotive, fast, immediate and utterly captivating. No voiceover telling the viewer the news and delivering edited sections to back up that choice, but instead voices of the event telling the story and carrying the viewer with them. It was obvious it had been filmed on a phone and similarly it was obvious why it had been filmed that way; no video camera crew would have had such intimate access to the action. This was the kind of footage which would captivate the longed-for youth which has so long been the target of news outlets across the world – it wasn’t dictatorial, it was truth.

What was missing from Mojocon was perhaps the evidence of curation of consumer material – while it was talked about significantly, the demonstrations of it happening were less present – perhaps at  the next Mojocon we will see more of this in action.

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.

Board will strengthen the voice of newspapers – now time to start work on diversity

 

The New York Times newsroom 1942

Above: The New York Times newsroom of 1942 – not a woman in sight.

Have you ever watched a TV drama in which an unscrupulous journalist has done just about everything possible to get THE story? The tired portrayal of a hard-nosed hack is trotted out by many a scriptwriter, cementing the image of a person who would quite happily sell their own grandmother in exchange for a crumb of a story which would make a front page. I remember watching an episode of Doctor’s once (I was off sick, although that’s no excuse, I know) in which a rookie reporter desperate for the tale stuck their foot in the front door frame of a grieving mother’s home in order to be let into the property. On being shoved back out of the house the reporter then proceeded to shout threats through the letterbox before going on to publish a pack of lies on the front page of their local paper. Note to non-newsroom readers, this is NOT what happens in real life. In real life most reporters (not all, admittedly) follow a code based on law and ethics which would have seen them politely ask if the grieving woman wanted to pay tribute in the paper. If she said no the reporter would then leave and not return. They would not go on to print a lot of made up stuff in order to get revenge for the lack of story, but instead might file nothing, or might report the basic facts provided by the police or coroner. But sadly, due to some unscrupulous journos, some unimaginative scriptwriters and one very long Leveson Inquiry (which put all journalists on a par with the serpent in the Garden of Eden, bankers and expense-fiddling MPs) the reputation of journalism and the industry has become very shaky indeed.

So, in my mind it is excellent news that the Newspaper Society – which represents local and regional press – and the Newspaper Publishers Association, which acts on behalf of national press providers,  is to merge to form a ‘united voice’ for the industry, as reported today on Hold the Front Page.

In an ever changing world in which news is being accessed by a growing audience in myriad ways it makes sense to tackle issues that challenge all newspapers as a united front. Leveson may have barely touched upon regional news provision during the inquiry, but the fallout of the hearing was strongly felt in newsrooms up and down the country. I felt it keenly as the editor of a weekly newspaper at the time; despite working hard as a campaigning newspaper, celebrating the community we served and supporting businesses, charities and good causes, I was regularly quizzed about my thoughts on ethics, my team and their reporting methods. One occasion (when a trainee reporter had failed to adequately cover a charity raffle story) I was told all I cared about was selling papers and asked quite aggressively asked ‘how can you sleep at night?’ (I did point out this was a bit of an overreaction and the accuser did apologise, but it stung all the same).

I do think things have improved. Time is a great healer and most editors work hard to make sure their teams behave in an ethical way which reflects well on them as individuals and on the newspapers they work for as well. I don’t think a unified board at the time of Leveson would have stopped the perception of journalism being a crooked practice, but it would have strengthened the voice, experience, values and opinions being provided by  the industry as the counter balance. It would have allowed regional news providers to seek support and fellowship during difficult times and it would have shown the vast extent of the ‘good’ journalists against the handful of ‘bad’ who had so damaged the industry’s name.

I do have to say though there are still huge mountains to be climbed in the industry. It is a real shame and quite indicitive that in representing an industry of thousands, there is only one female board member. Local World’s Lisa Gordon sticks out on the list of white men in suits like a sore thumb. Jeremy Spooner is correct in saying ‘the news media industry is a diverse and vibrant sector’ but while the new board represents the bredth of publishers in terms of  ‘family-owned local newspapers alongside large national titles’ it is also sadly representative of the inbalance of men to women running these companies. Let’s hope that the board recognises the mirror it holds up to the industry and works to implement change in order to bring more diversity into newspapers’ workforce and senior management structures.

The Will Cornick dilemma

Some news stories stay with you as a journalist long after the media frenzy has left the building and moved onto the next hot topic. For each journalist there are incidents and happenings that are the backbone of your career. A defining moment. The killing of Ann Maguire was one such story for me.

Ann Maguire
Ann Maguire

That Monday (April 28, 2014) I was leading the newsdesk for the Yorkshire Post  and the Yorkshire Evening Post.

It was about 2pm and I was talking to the YEP crime reporter about a story he was working on when someone came over and said ‘A teacher has been stabbed to death at a school in Leeds’.

It was unbelievable.  The world stopped for a second. That moment is a snapshot in time for me – but in reality we had to move exceptionally fast. It was important that we covered this with accuracy, depth and with our team always remembering that we were THE media outlet for Leeds – the ones who would continue to report long after the national media’s interest had waned. We needed to be first with the news but we also needed to act with sensitivity and integrity.

It transpired that Mrs Maguire, a well-liked Spanish teacher at Corpus Christi Catholic College in Leeds, had been killed in front of her class by a 16-year-old pupil. The boy had been arrested, but not charged, meaning legally we could name him. Some of the nationals chose to follow  this course. And the boy’s name was also being bandied about on social media, meaning anyone with the interest and the internet to hand would be able to find out his identity with just the click of a button.

So why did we choose not to name and was it the right thing to do? I believe it was. The teen was a child in the  eyes of the law. And, until a court hearing found him guilty just yesterday (November 3, 2014), he was an innocent one at that. At the time of the killing we sat down and discussed ‘to name or not to name’? Legally we could have followed in the footsteps of the Sun and named him. But morally it felt wrong. Yes, we will have lost some web traffic to other sites which named the defendant, but we chose to take that hit. A better hit than damaging the reputation and standing of the newspaper titles in the communities which they served and which they continued to serve long after the nationals went away.

William Cornick
William Cornick

So we covered the story online and in print. We promoted our coverage through social media too, but we did not name the person responsible. Instead we celebrated the life of an influential, highly regarded and much loved woman. We opened a book of condolence and printed tributes in the papers. It felt like the right response to a terrible situation which would resonate in Leeds for a long time to come. Now, six months on, William Cornick has been jailed for killing Ann Maguire. And I still feel satisfied that we made the right choice.

 

Update – added November 13, 2014: This is an interesting insight into the legal side of things from Hold the Front Page’s legal column.

 

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