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.

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.

 

 

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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