Tuesday, 13 August 2013

Paul Robertson: 'Agonising over the internet - is the regional press fiddling while Rome burns?'

Paul Robertson, the former editorial director of Trinity Mirror North East and editor of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle, argues "that regional media businesses have spent years agonising over ‘the Internet’. What do we put on it? Who does it? How do we make money on it? All are valid questions, but the constant questioning and lurches of direction are paralysing the industry. It is fiddling while Rome burns."

Writing in the updated edition of the book What do we mean by local? The rise, fall and possible rise again of local journalism, Robertson also claims that the Leveson Inquiry and parliament has largely ignored the crisis in the regional press which has led to job losses and titles closing.

"During the Leveson Inquiry, the public would have been forgiven for thinking that all journalists are cheating, uncaring reprobates out to destroy anyone and everyone. Nothing could be further from the truth. The vast majority are hard working, passionate about their jobs – determined to expose wrongdoing and uncover injustice but, equally importantly, to promote and support the local people and communities they serve.

They are appalled by the phone-hacking scandal and the damage it unfairly does to their own reputations. The expensively assembled inquiry, by its very nature, concentrated on the celebrities, the high profile ordinary people badly wronged by the national media such as the McCanns and Dowlers.

What it largely ignored – an accusation which can be levelled at parliament too – is the real crisis that is happening among those operating at regional and local level, where the journalists play by the rules. MPs and others have been up in arms about the proposed cuts to local BBC services – understandably so – yet what about the birthplace of those stations’ journalism?

You can hear the pages turning on air as the local newspapers form the basis for any regional radio station’s news, sport and entertainment coverage as well as its phone-ins. It is the regional newspaper journalists who sift through council agendas, talk to contacts, bother to attend magistrates courts, community events, schools and workplaces. They and their families live and work in the towns and villages they serve, where contacts are made and the consequences of what they write are keenly felt.

When People Turn to Local Brands

The pages of the local paper in print and online continue to be the home of original journalism – a force for good but all that is threatened by the acceleration of circulation decline, the damage being done to the perception of journalists and the lack of a clear strategy from companies which give the perception that their shareholders are more important than their readers and advertisers,

Trusted brands, with a fantastic heritage, pillars of the community loathed by some but loved by many. Even in the face of 24-hour news coverage, when a major event happens on their doorstep it is the local brands people turn to. This was clearly demonstrated during my time at the Evening Chronicle in Newcastle in July 2010 when gunman Raoul Moat went on the run for a week and became the focus of an international media frenzy.

From the moment the first shot was fired in a quiet Tyneside suburb, injuring his ex-girlfriend and killing her new boyfriend, the team covered every cough and spit of the drama with fresh angles to stories for the newspaper and a rolling service through the website and social media – and in particular Twitter.

It was thanks to local contacts, the fact we lived in and knew the area and people trusted us that we were able to lead the way without resorting to the cheque-book journalism which inevitably saw the nationals buy up Moat’s surviving victims.

Long after the incident, it was the local newspaper which supported the launch of injured policeman PC David Rathband’s charity, covered the police inquiry, the subsequent court cases, the inquest and asked difficult questions of the police, social services and all those involved in the incident in which Moat ultimately shot himself having eventually been cornered and tasered by police.

The dedication of the team on the ground resulted in brilliant coverage, rewarded with big increases in sales and online hits. To me, it proved in turbulent times the local media is still relevant and has the talent to capitalise on the biggest of stories.

The move to overnight printing did mean the Chronicle missed out on PC Rathband’s tragic death in March 2012 in-print, which, judging by the paper’s Twitter account, prompted complaints and raised awareness among many readers who thought their evening newspaper was printed on the day that actually it isn’t – a further reason for some not to buy but log on instead.

This should not tarnish such a brilliant performance on the Moat story; it should inspire confidence that local newspapers can not only survive but also thrive. However, forces are at work, which could make this extremely difficult, and unless there is focus, support and a deliverable strategy, more local newspapers will go to the wall before it gets to that point.

Case for the Defence

In July 2011, a month before leaving the Evening Chronicle in the days leading up to the closure of the News of the World, I found myself on local television and radio constantly defending what local and regional journalism stood for. I became so angry at the negative portrayal.

Like every decent-minded person in the country, our professional journalists were appalled at the abuse of press freedom undertaken by the News of the World. It was a damaged brand – morally bankrupt – which brought shame on our industry and the threat of further legislation and regulation that will make it more difficult to do the job. Yet its closure was a major shock – a newspaper, which until this outrageous scandal had a well-earned reputation for investigative journalism mixed with celebrity gossip, sport, and campaigning, gone.

A free, independent, scrutinising press has long played a key role in the democracy of this country at both a local and national level. In the acres of newspaper coverage, in parliament with MPs baying for News International’s blood and most notably among the, at times, holier-than-thou television coverage, this has been overlooked during the phone hacking debates.

Crucial Relationship with Readers

It is hugely disappointing that few have drawn a distinction between the way most journalists operate and the culture exposed at the News of the World. I know of no regional or local newspapers that act in this way. Do they get things wrong? Yes. The difference is they put them right through direct contact with complainants, correcting errors in print and carrying readers’ views on our coverage in letters and feedback columns.

Contrary to the impression given that little attention was paid to the industry watchdog – the Press Complaints Commission – nothing could be further from the truth. A letter from the PCC would be taken extremely seriously; complaints dealt with as quickly as possible in the hope a satisfactory resolution can be reached.

No journalist wears any such letter as a badge of honour, as no editor relishes having to publish in a prominent position any adjudication against their newspaper. Of course, there are times articles are written about individuals and organisations they don’t like – that is part of the media’s job. But local newspapers also champion the region they serve, the people within it, highlighting the great deeds of local people, being a critical friend to those who work to make their particular area a better place to live, work and do business.

Local newspapers are the only media which regularly cover courts, councils, criminal investigations, which report on schools, help raise the profile of charities with extensive coverage, and which campaign on issues which matter to readers. As Geraldine Allinson, the President of the Newspaper Society, said in a speech in 2011:

The fact is the role of local newspapers cannot be replicated by any other medium. No-one else can scrutinise those in authority and underpin the local democratic process the way we do. No-one else can support and reflect the aims and aspirations of the local community and campaign on its behalf. And no-one else can give a voice to local people who want and need to be heard

Need for Focus and a Strategy

Yet for how long are we going to be able to argue the case? Sadly every day there is news of job losses among journalists and regularly closures of titles attracting little attention outside the trade and the affected communities. Almost every newspaper centre with one or more daily has seen the evening title printed at the same time as its sister morning, while there is an increasing trend of once proud dailies becoming weeklies.

A strong weekly, backed up by an interactive website could be a success, provided the owners support the editorial and commercial teams with cash and time to give it a chance. In Newcastle there was a ‘clear blue water’ strategy aimed at ensuring differentiation between the Journal and the Evening Chronicle – a challenge in any multi-title newsroom.

Armed with marketing information, each title had its own dedicated team working to a publishing strategy which complemented each other with a fierce but friendly rivalry, resulting in distinctive newspapers with character. Financial pressures and structural change put this well-defined strategy, using brands with more than 100 years’ heritage, in the spotlight and a series of decisions were made which was to change the face of journalism in Newcastle and potentially threaten the real local feel of each title.

Staffs merged so those who had grown up with loyalty to one title were forced to quickly get to grips and understand the characteristics of the other. Reporters were required to write different styles for different titles, designers and subs following suit and for a time there was a painful period to manage change. The mantra was exclusives yes, secrets no, with more intelligent forward planning, sensible placement of stories where they would have the most impact and collaboration at all levels became the norm. It was not just editorial. Being aware of the difficulties facing our commercial colleagues operating in the same local market place was more important than ever. There was a clear need to be more supportive, without compromising independence and integrity. 

The Madness of Free Content

A Dunkirk spirit ensued, so despite the cuts, changes and pressures, newspapers continued to be produced – but in the same cut-throat environment that saw sales spiralling downwards and boardrooms wrestling with how best to tackle it.

The utter madness of uploading all content online for free continued as the attempts to monetise websites proved only moderately successful. However, more discerning advertisers were looking for alternatives to monopolistic newspapers charging higher prices for smaller audiences and, in the process, the cash cow that was classifieds – in particular situations vacant – was slaughtered – having a dramatic impact on the bottom line.

In an industry of innovation, local newspapers quickly adopted social media, such as Twitter and Facebook not only as tools for newsgathering but also to interact with the audience. User generated content brought a new dimension to publishing and there was a real opportunity to once again begin reclaiming some of the ground lost due to the explosion of alternative sources of news and information, using brands which were recognised, trusted and still strong enough to be a significant player in the crowded marketplace.

Yet, the economic situation, the need to make profits to service increasingly high debt levels and the fact print still remained the place where most revenue was generated despite the migration of classified, has seen what could be a fatal delay for many in adapting to changing consumer demands. You only have to travel on your local transport system to see the change. Not so long ago the train carriages and bus seats were filled by people reading their local newspaper.

Today those same people are using their Kindles, mobiles and iPads – spaces where very few local newspapers have gone or have done so half-heartedly and too late because they don’t see it making a return – short-sighted thinking which has become the norm. There is no doubt, too, that the clear blue water has become increasingly muddied as content is duplicated across titles from the same stable. The marketers may say there is little crossover readership but, from my own experience, many family, friends and acquaintances did get both the Journal and Chronicle but no longer do so. When I ask why the main reasons given are ‘it is because they are the same’ and ‘I can get it for free on the web’ but that is not what either the owners or the marketers want to hear.

Local Life under Pressure

Newsagents continue to close apace, while new outlets which people frequent less often – like garages and supermarkets expand. It is a difficult conundrum for distribution. But again, to cut costs, most newspapers are now distributed wholesale rather than dedicated local teams, in fewer numbers and less areas to reduce waste.

 Taking two hundred copies out of van routes doesn’t appear too drastic but it all adds up, as does the lack of a coherent, cost-effective home delivery service. Just like the Post Office, the pubs, the independent high street stores – all part of local life under intense pressure, many closing, so the local newspaper – many of which fight to save those facilities – face a fight themselves. But they still have more eyes and ears on the ground than most media outlets in terms of journalists, readers and other staff.

The multi-skilled single newsroom at its best allows a flexible approach where resources can be targeted effectively. It has improved diary management and forward planning. No longer are there two reporters and photographers turning up to every event from the same centre or to the same court case to hear the same evidence.

Having said that, there are times when it is still desirable, perhaps even necessary, such as covering a football match with personality writers whose opinions are valued by a particular title’s readers. If this is to be maintained then everything must be done to protect and in some cases beef up the content operation again even if, and I say it with a heavy heart, all production is outsourced. Pages can be produced to template from anywhere in the UK or indeed in the world but local, unique, relevant content has to be gathered from the town, cities and villages served by the newspaper.

How do we Sustain Local Newspapers?

In InPublishing, November 2011, former Hull Daily Mail editor John Meehan talks about sustaining journalism in the regions. It is thought-provoking, well argued and, while there are points for disagreement, it largely reflects my own views on the future way forward. He points to the unique place the newspaper has in the community as compendiums of local life while the printed word gives credibility to the digital format and it is this point which is probably the most pertinent. Meehan writes:

Regional media businesses have spent years agonising over ‘the Internet’. What do we put on it? Who does it? How do we make money on it? All are valid questions, but the constant questioning and lurches of direction are paralysing the industry. It is fiddling while Rome burns.

Local newspapers have a proud record of championing important causes, promoting local businesses, holding decision-makers to account, unmasking those who commit crimes in the neighbourhood as well as the unsung charity workers – with regular up to date information which can be trusted and relied upon. In a world of global communications, there needs to be more recognition that no two places are the same – what matters to people in the suburbs of Newcastle is not necessarily the same as in London, Manchester, Birmingham, Cardiff or Glasgow.

As I have already stated, there have been many efforts to streamline and rationalise the work being done in newsrooms around the country – some of which makes sense. Whether it is delivered in print, via a website, mobile device, a new form of television or a technology not yet even available, content generation and managing material coming through active engagement with the audience should be protected at all costs. Unfortunately, it is increasingly a case that is not happening.

Towns, cities and villages will be poorer, less democratic places without their local newspaper in whatever form it takes. Almost everyone agrees but too many are reluctant to enter the debate and make a difference. Platitudes don’t pay the bills or wages. MPs can help by changing the legislative framework and ownership rules – they should take a closer look at who covers the issues they are talking about in their constituencies away from the Westminster bubble and perhaps gain a better understanding of what it would mean to them to lose the local news source.

The phone-hacking scandal and the attention being paid to it mean the crisis in local newspapers is likely to be largely ignored for the foreseeable future, by which time it could be too late. Sky has joined the fray with its video-led website pilot in Tyne and Wear.

If successful, it is certain to be rolled out to other areas. In many ways, thanks to the resources at its disposal, Sky Tyne and Wear is doing news on the web in a way newspapers have failed to do. Local television might play its part, but only if the brands with heritage, trust and a relationship with their audience engage and shape its future along with a viable financial model which may require initial subsidy to ensure plurality.

Failure to act will mean local newspapers, so often the glue which holds communities together will become unstuck and society will be a much poorer place as a result. As media consultant Jim Chisholm said in Press Gazette in December 2011, much of what has happened to our newspapers has been self-inflicted, but the products remain profitable.

He argues: “Yes there are tough times ahead, but this doesn’t mean they can’t be exciting and positive if we start making some brave, positive decisions about the future of news.” While I agree, I also fear it is already too late for some.
  • Paul Robertson was editorial director of Trinity Mirror North East and editor of the Newcastle Evening Chronicle (2002-2011). Previously he was editor of the Teesside Evening Gazette (2000-2002) and held numerous positions on the Journal, Newcastle including chief reporter, head of content, sports editor and deputy editor.
  • What do we mean by local? The rise, fall and possible rise again of local journalism edited by John Mair, Richard Lance Keeble with Neil Fowler, published by Abramis on September 1, 2013. ISBN 978-1-84549-593-0. Price £19.95 or as a special offer to readers of this blog £15.00 from richard@arimapublishing.co.uk.
  • See also, Neil Fowler: Government must help the regional press - which should start charging for online.

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