Wednesday, March 06, 2019

From Cinderford to Davos (via Alnwick and Devizes): Decoding the latest output about the 'Future of Journalism'


PORING over the finely-crafted pages of The Forester – “At the heart if the Forest since 1874” – it might seem a stretch to take in the ‘Future of Journalism’ bon mots delivered at the World Economic Forum in Davos of all places.
The cut and thrust of life in Cinderford – “By-pass plans take step forward” – is indeed a world away from the Swiss alpine town where 3,000 of the world’s great and good gathered to wheel and deal and listen to where we’re headed on a wide range of social and economic issues.
Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen delivering
the report (below) at the World Economic Forum in Davos
So, let’s be grateful that journalism got an airing, courtesy of the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford who delivered their new report: More Important, But Less Robust? Five Things Everybody Needs to Know about the Future of Journalism.
The report’s authors claim the five trends will impact the work of professional reporters as well as everybody who works with them and relies on them, from the general public to politicians, NGOs, and private enterprise.
Those clever people from Oxford University seem to have got to the bottom of many of the issues that publishers, editors and front-line journalists are facing on a day-to-day basis. But the language is a bit academic so we are pleased to include an exclusive PJ News interpretation of their findings, plus real-world examples from a random selection of newspapers.

1 We have moved from a world where media organisations were gatekeepers to a world where media still create the news agenda, but platform companies control access to audiences.

PJ News interpretation: Most of the news still comes from newspaper businesses but Google and Facebook control how it’s read.
In this ever-more competitive battle for attention, speaking is not the same as being heard, says the report. “Far from the death of gatekeepers, we have seen the move to two sets of gatekeepers, where news media organisations still create the news agenda, but platform companies increasingly control access to audiences.”
The Forester, a Tindle-owned title serving the Forest of Dean on the England/Wales border, has a well-serviced website that provides regular community updates. Yes, some of that information is also available elsewhere but as the ‘gatekeeper’ of news from that particular corner of the UK it is difficult to see how that position may be usurped.
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2 The move to digital media generally does not generate filter bubbles. Instead, automated serendipity and incidental exposure drive people to more and more diverse sources of information.

PJ News interpretation: While the targeted, contained world of the newspaper is constrained by its shape and size as well as the area it serves, digital media can take the reader off into hitherto unimagined areas.
In practice, most people only go directly to a few news sources on a routine basis, rarely more than three or four, says the report. “For most people, digital media use is associated with more diverse news use, but information inequality is a real risk, as is political polarisation – risks that are fundamentally rooted in political and social factors but can be amplified by technology.”
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3 Journalism is often losing the battle for people’s attention and, in some countries, for the public’s trust.

PJ News interpretation: The Brexit news overload and President Trump’s bleatings about ‘fake news’ seep into public consciousness and they eventually start to give up on news.
In a revealing study from the United States data from comScore suggests only about three percent of the time spent online is devoted to news, and just half a percent with local news. Put another way out of an hour online less than two minutes is spent looking at news and only about 20 seconds on local news
Equally strikingly, in an era of unprecedented abundance and ease of access, journalism is facing widespread problems of ‘news avoidance’, says the report. “People turn off the news because it feels irrelevant and depressing and does not help them live their lives; they often turn to entertainment or social media instead.
“These differences are not only a function of competition for attention. They also reflect that much of the public is questioning whether journalism is in fact helping them in their lives, and that people in many countries doubt whether they can trust the news.”
Attacks on journalism and news media can in turn further undermine trust demonstrating how trust in journalism is dependent both on trustworthy reporting and on a political context where public officials respect independent news media.
The Devizes edition of the Gazette and Herald in Wiltshire runs to 108 pages, plus a 12-page property pull-out. There’s no lack of “trustworthy reporting” here or the commercial partners to support such a vibrant product. There’s the traditional diet of police reports: ‘Cat had its legs tied together’ and council news: ‘Parking spaces plan supported’, plus schools, charities and community news. There is also a letters spread bristling with local people eager to join the debate. No evidence of any attention being lost here.

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4 The business models that fund news are challenged, weakening professional journalism and leaving news media more vulnerable to commercial and political pressures.

PJ News interpretation: If the traditional news media can’t make it pay they may be tempted to go easy on businesses and politicians.
The good news is that the majority of professional journalism is still funded by newspapers. An estimated 90 per cent of publishers’ revenues worldwide still come from print and digital revenues are in many cases growing only slowly. “Most of the existing forms of funding for professional journalism will decline as we continue to move to a more digital media environment, leading to further job cuts in newsrooms,” warns the report.
“The sustainable business models for digital news developed so far are diverse and promising - including a mix of advertising, reader revenues, and non-profit approaches - but they also generally support far leaner newsrooms than those historically found in legacy media.”
City A.M. – the “Business with personality” daily distributed free in London – records the activities of hundreds of companies in each issue, and there’s no evidence of anything but robust reporting. If news media are to become “more vulnerable to commercial pressures” it’s more likely to be in traditional go-to areas like travel, property and motors where tie-ups make sense for all parties without compromising any editorial integrity.
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5 News is more diverse than ever, and the best journalism better than ever, taking on everyone from the most powerful politicians to the biggest private companies.

PJ News interpretation: There is lots of good journalism out there still
Journalism is facing stiff competition for attention and its connection with the public is threatened by news avoidance, low trust, and the perception that news does not help people live the lives they want to live, says the report. “But in many ways, the best journalism today is better than ever – more accessible, more timely, more informative, more interactive, more engaged with its audience.”
Up at the Northumberland Gazette, one of England’s most northerly weeklies, not only is there a spread on drone “near-misses in our skies” but also a page given over to the county council budget plans, put together by the ‘Local Democracy Reporting Service’ that has given a new lease of life to rummaging around at the local council.

SO, WHERE DOES THIS TAKE US?

In conclusion, the movers and shakers at Davos heard that strong journalism is essential for both the public good, politics, and private enterprise. “It can help ensure that the rise of digital media and our current turbulence results not in chaos, but in change for the better,” Reuters Institute director Rasmus Kleis Nielsen told the forum.
He said that everybody should be concerned by the risks posed by a combination of shifts in how people get their news and what media they use, transformations in professional journalism and the business of news, and change in the political environment that independent news media operate in.
“In the absence of independent professional reporting providing accurate information, analysis, and interpretation, the public will increasingly rely on self-interested sources and rumours circulating online and offline, a shift that will hurt both the political process, civil society, and private enterprise,” he said.
He concluded with a rallying call to journalists and news media: “Continue to adapt to the digital media that people all around the world are eagerly embracing at the expense of print and broadcast, and build a profession and a business fit for the future.”
Wise words, no doubt, but a virtual trip down the streets of Cinderford, Devizes or Alnwick via the pages of the legacy media weeklies that are still recording the community’s comings and goings with enthusiasm, professionalism and not a little wit and wisdom may point to a different present, if not the future.

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Alan Geere has never been to Davos in his 40-year newspaper career, but has succumbed to the charms of Cinderford, Devizes and Alnwick. E: alan@alan-geere.com T: @alangeere


  • This article first appeared in the March 2019 issue of PJ News

Wednesday, January 23, 2019

'Don’t let the technology dictate the story' – data journalism: the view from the newsroom

How The Guardian portrayed their story, with stock picture
An interesting contribution from The Guardian to the ongoing debate about where journalism education could or should be heading argued that ‘video and data skills have changed the face of journalism’ and universities must keep pace.
In a piece headlined ‘Media reboot: the real story is the rise of data’, Paul Bradshaw, who heads up the postgrad courses in data journalism and multiplatform and mobile journalism at Birmingham City University was quoted: “We struggle to meet demand from employers wanting students who can analyse data. All news organisations are expanding in this area.”
Paul, a long-time standard bearer for teaching the latest technological innovations, cites a Birmingham story about a planned rise in police patrols and stop and search after a spate of knife crime incidents. Journalists used data to determine which areas of the city were most subjected to stop and search. They then supplemented this with traditional reporting, by speaking to the communities affected, to give context, the Guardian reported.
Hurrah for Paul and especially his last observation - speaking to the communities affected – which should also capture the attention of both academics and industry.
My doctoral research into the changing nature of editorial leadership tells a different story about the impact of data journalism in UK regional and weekly paper newsrooms.

Conscientious yet uncontentious

In my 25 years teaching journalism I’ve found students to be a conscientious yet uncontentious bunch, happiest copying a quote from an online handout rather that actually having to speak to someone, either on the phone or, God forbid, in person. Hacking around on a computer for stories is just up their street.
New recruits are technically fantastic, one editorial director told me for my PhD research. “But I’m often disappointed they don’t have that innate love of breaking a news story; they don’t get that excitement from something breaking. They can craft it for you, they can give you a lovely edited video package, but do they have the love?” 
Another reflected: “I see sometimes where people are jumping up and down because they’ve done a bit of 360-degree video and it’s like yeah okay but…you’ve spelled somebody’s name wrong in the intro. Don’t lose sight of the basics and don’t let the technology dictate the story, let the story dictate how you use technology.”
Perhaps the universities are trying a bit too hard. “One of the things you get at university is usually state of the art equipment. Sometimes people come to us and they finish up working in an office which has still got an outside toilet and old equipment, and you can see the shock in their faces,” said another editor.
“Sometimes they are not fully prepared for the commercial realities and I don’t think they are necessarily prepared for the workload either because we do demand a lot from people these days.”

Passion and hunger

And key skills when recruiting? “We’ve met people who are really good at social media but are terrified to pick up the phone," said another editorial director who has responsibility for hundreds of journalists. "Verbal communication is a core skill as well so as being able to use all these digital skills, so I look for passion and a hunger and then excitement about why they want to come in the job.  I think the rest we can just about teach.”
Don’t get me wrong. I love it that uni course directors are continually updating their offer. And I know that a job in the regional press is not what everyone is aiming for. But I desperately hope we do not lose sight of those traditional skills of finding people who have something worthwhile to say and getting them to talk about it.
Perhaps last word should go to Simon Hinde, programme director of journalism and publishing at the London College of Communication, who is also quoted in The Guardian, saying: “The key thing is to allow students to develop their own authentic voice. Nobody knows what jobs today’s postgraduates will be doing in 10 years’ time.”
2029? Bring it on…

Friday, December 28, 2018

Why all roads lead to Gloucester Services on the M5


Third generation dairy farmer Jess Vaughan is up at 5.30 milking her herd of 80 'ladies' at her Severn Valley farm. By 10am her organic milk is on sale - at a motorway services on the M5. How did the farm shop concept take hold in such an unlikely setting and what are the benefits for traditionally deprived areas of Gloucestershire? 

HAPPY COUPLE: Jess Vaughan with one of the herd’s ‘ladies’, Bunty
OUT of work and not sure what direction to take, Mark Gale signed up for one of the Government’s latest job creation schemes.
Little did he think that 40 years later, after a lifetime helping people in challenging communities, he would be the driving force behind one of the most unusual and innovative marriages of local interest, rural business and commercial realism.
In the 1990s Gale was a community worker on the Matson estate in Gloucester and struggling to find a worthwhile project to create sustainable change and bring about long term benefit. He took the far-reaching decision to have outsiders conduct an ‘impact assessment’ looking at how the ring of council estates around Robinswood Hill to the south of Gloucester could be re-engaged.
“The communities had lost their way,” recalls Gale, now a youthful 61. “People were no longer using the hill for recreation while jobs and health continued to be a problem.”
That assessment pointed Gale back in the direction of the far-sighted, but improbably complex idea of developing land just a few miles further south for what was then called a ‘Service Station’ on the M5.
Driving force Mark Gale at the Gloucester Services
Roadchef, one of the big players, had looked at the site back in 1994 so Gale knew there was potential. All he had to do was find partners to stump up the cash and convince farmers to sell the land.
The modern-day motorway knights arrived in the shape of national funding from the Tudor Trust and local money from the Summerfield Trust. Gale talked the farmers into selling by emphasising the benefits to the local community, chaperoned the project through planning and then set about finding the right partner for his vision.
“We wanted to show that local communities can create a significant business, a business that would bring value to producers and customers as well as provide jobs and support for people who needed the help,” says Gale.
Two hundred miles north, at Tebay on the M6, the Westmorland Family business was already doing just that. Their story began in 1972 when John and Barbara Dunning, Cumbrian hill farmers, set up Tebay Services when the M6 cut though their farm. They opened a small 30 seat cafĂ© serving home cooked, locally sourced food. The Dunnings viewed the M6 not as the death of their farm, but the beginning of a whole new chapter in how they ran the business. 
“It really was good timing,” says daughter Sarah Dunning, who is now chairman of a business that has six outlets across the country. “We were thinking about the future and along came Mark with his slightly unorthodox, but very exciting, idea.”
With Gale as the CEO of the Gloucestershire Gateway Trust, a registered charity specifically designed the push through the Services project, and the Westmorland Family on board as the business brains the site opened for business in May 2014 on the northbound side and southbound a year later.
The partnership enables the Trust to benefit from a percentage of sales which go back into the community. But it is not just about charitable donations; it is a more fundamental way of connecting business and community for the benefit of both.
“We both get more out of it than we could generate on our own,” says Gale. “There are 350 staff here, 98 per cent of them from Gloucestershire and 22 per cent from the target communities that kicked off this project.”
With its distinctive ‘eyebrow’ architecture, and a grass roof, it pushes against the norm of the busy-busy, rush-rush feel of many motorway services. There is, for instance, very little signage and absolutely none outside the main building. “We had an advantage building from scratch,” says Dunning. “And we wanted to give a bit of calm. I think that’s what people want when they pull off the motorway.”
And calm they get. Plus enough toilets to accommodate a coach party, freely available showers and even a pond with ducks to contemplate while sipping your ecocoffee. Inside the spacious building 160 local suppliers stock the shelves with everything from meat, cheese and fish through to bread, ice cream and crafts.
The Trust works in partnership with local charities including The Nelson Trust, Play Gloucestershire, GL Communities, Fair Shares Community Time Banks and All Pulling Together Community Association in Stonehouse and Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust.
Last year marked the 10th anniversary of Gloucestershire Gateway Trust and each of the local charity partners received grants directly from Gloucester Services profits. The promise of a guaranteed annual income from Gloucestershire Gateway Trust and Gloucester Services partnership will enable the charities to plan ahead and continue their work.
The landscaped services building – not a sign in sight
And what does everyone make of its success? “This site is twice as busy as Tebay and we continue to keep very firm sight of our social objectives and business objectives,” says Dunning. “This was a project many years in the making and it is wonderful to see it up and running doing what it was designed to do.”
And Gale, a former UK Social Entrepreneur of the Year who has pioneered community businesses and business community partnerships, is still seeing clearly. “Everyone who comes on a visit I make them walk up to the top and view the landscape from the Cotswold hills to the Severn Valley with Gloucester in between. There are the people we are really serving. It’s a different way for business and charity to work together but it just works.”
Last word, though, with a family from Manchester who were enjoying the sunshine ‘Welcome Break’ on their way to Devon on holiday. “We just stopped for a break thinking it would be the usual Greggs and Costa,” said dad, between mouthfuls of wild boar sausage roll, “but it is refreshingly different, so we’re staying for a bit.”
They are not the only ones…

From making pies in the farm kitchen to a £2m business

THE PIE LADY: Deborah Flint at Cinderhill Farm
JUST like on one of those TV ‘lifestyle’ shows, Deborah and Neil Flint left behind their jobs in fundraising and IT and started a new adventure on a farm in the furthest reaches of Gloucestershire just a few miles from the Welsh border near St Briavels.
That was seven years ago and having never farmed before, the Flints took a short course before they embraced the rural lifestyle at Cinderhill Farm in the Forest of Dean named after the ash black soil around the farm.
The land had not been a working farm for several years and the couple restored the land to its former use, installing water harvesting systems and other eco measures to sustain the running of the farm. They are dedicated to keeping traditional native breeds including Black Welsh Mountain sheep and British Saddleback pigs.
However, hit by the financial realities of farming, they realised extra income was needed and in February 2013, Deborah began to produce pies in their farm kitchen. Within six weeks, the production unit for pies and sausage rolls was moved out of their domestic kitchen into the ‘Pie House’, one of the outbuildings on the farm.
Word quickly spread about the products and the ‘Pie House’ has since been through two upgrades. The last upgrade took place in 2015 in response to the success of the produce at Gloucester Services.
The range now includes the Original Cinderhill Farm Sausage Roll of Exceeding Enormity (made with real meat joints; low in fat), the Forest Ridgeback wild boar sausage roll and the Foggy (Forest Oggy, where oggy is another term for pasty).
TASTY: The wild boar sausage rolls made at Cinderhill
Since providing the services farm shop with their first sausage rolls in May 2014 they have supplied over one million pounds worth of products, around £2m at retail value. In an area of rural poverty they now provide seven full time jobs, some part-timers and enough custom for two jobs at the local butcher.
“Gloucester services has an influence way beyond that which can be easily quantified,” says Deborah, 55. “It offers a stronger future for our community and our county.”
Just a few miles from the services the Vaughan family have been farming at Hardwicke Farm, located at the base of the Severn Valley in view of the Cotswold hills, for three generations.
Jess Vaughan knows the 80 ‘Ladies’ all by name and milks them personally every day to ensure they’re a happy, healthy herd. They do not homogenise their milk, preferring to leave all its nutrients as nature intended.
The fresh milk takes just four hours to reach the services farmshop, delivered alongside yoghurt, cream and a creamy, tangy fermented concoction called Kefir, which might just take off after exposure on The Archers of all places.
“Our herd are all individuals,” explains Jess, 37. “But most are more than happy to have a cuddle and actively seek attention. They are allowed to be who they want to be personality wise.
“The name Jess’s Ladies came from the fact that we were struggling for a name for our own farm bottled milk. Then one afternoon I said I had to go because I had to get back and milk the ladies – and so it was done.”
Cinderhill and Jess’s Ladies are just two of the 130 producers from within 30 miles of the front doors and 70 from further afield.


SERVING IT UP - M5 FACT FILE
  • ·         It is the first bee friendly motorway services in the UK. The services roof is seeded with a wildflower and grass seed mix, creating the perfect habitat for the bee population who live in the on-site hive.
  • ·         There is free tap water available reducing the need for customers to buy plastic bottles.
  • ·         Left over cooking oil is recycled as bio-diesel to be used in diesel engines
  • ·         The services employ 350 people, working in jobs as wide ranging as catering, retail, filling station, management, accounts, HR, maintenance and IT
  • ·         Look out for unusual birds with a wildlife spotter sheet created with Gloucestershire Wildlife Trust to help identify species around the services
  • ·         A total of 328,093 cakes, all made fresh on site by teams of bakers, were served in the year to June 2018.
  • ·         There is a well signposted dog walk and free water bowls available at the front entrances

This article originally appeared as a 'Long Read' in the Western Daily Press



Tuesday, December 18, 2018

What makes a great editor? Discuss...


Where’s David Attenborough when you need him? Two giants of the journalism jungle squaring off in a very public squabblefest about who did what better. Plenty of heat but does it shed any light on journalism’s current debates? Alan Geere heads into the forest of words. 


PAUL Dacre was never given to public pronouncements during his 26 years as editor of the Daily Mail, so his 4,500 words delivered to the Society of Editors conference were eagerly dissected.
He rounded on the BBC, the Leveson inquiry, journalism academics and his bete noir, Alan Rusbridger, editor of The Guardian for 20 years while edited the Daily Mail.
Referring to Rusbridger’s book Breaking News Dacre said: “Its real message – and how insidiously it drips through the pages – is that virtually every national newspaper in Britain is scurrilous, corrupt and amoral with one iridescent exception.  Yes, you’ve guessed it …The Guardian.
REFLECTED GLORY: Paul Dacre at the SOE conference
“Unedifyingly, it manages to combine rather cloying self-glorification and moral superiority with an almost visceral contempt of and disdain for the rest of the press.”
Ooof!
Rusbridger countered with a self-penned riposte in the New Statesman and responded to the direct criticism by writing: “Most of it seemed terribly myopic and insular and – for a man with such success, riches, power and acclamation behind him – incoherently angry.”
Ooof No 2!
While this stand-off might entertain the masses of journalists who don’t earn a small fortune editing a national newspaper or armchair media watchers who are intrigued by this public cut-and-thrust there were other comments hidden deep in Dacre’s speech which have got the journalistic, and academic, community more exercised.
“The mainly left-wing Professors of Journalism – is there, by the way, a more ludicrous subject for academic study – will order box loads of this book [Alan Rusbridger's] to demonstrate to their students how appalling Fleet Street is. Meanwhile, they’ll continue to churn out graduates for non-existent jobs which is why so many idealistic youngsters end up disillusioned and working in public relations, leaving us with a Britain where there are now more PRs than journalists – another depressing and insidious contribution to the democratic deficit. And today, my heart bleeds for those dedicated young journalists who were lucky enough to get jobs, yet are being denied, by our industry’s belt tightening, the opportunities I enjoyed.”
Oooof No 3!
Dr Margaret Hughes, chair of the Association for Journalism Education, and like a lot of the members she represents a journalist for many years reminds Dacre that journalism is a serious business. “The last few years have shown us this acutely, particularly when we look at how perceptions of role of the news media is influencing political and public life,” she told PJ News.
THINKING CRITICALLY: Dr Margaret Hughes
“Good journalism, and good journalists, require the ability to think critically and analytically about the complex world in which we live. Journalists are required to interpret complicated issues and help audiences make sense of the world. As such, the development of critical thinking that lies at the heart of all journalism education within the academy is not just necessary for considered and thoughtful journalism, I would argue it is a pre-requisite.
“Journalism requires the most talented, curious and thoughtful practitioners and there is no better place to develop this knowledge and skill set than within an academic environment, such as a university. So, yes, that does mean that journalism is a worthy subject for academic study and that it quite rightly has a place within the academy, indeed I would go so far as to say at the heart of the academy.”
Steve Hill, a journalism lecturer at the University of Westminster and co-author of Online Journalism: The Essential Guide has another view. “It is simply snobbery, from a certain section of the elite who believe that young people should only study ‘the classics’ or STEM [Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics] subjects - and preferably at Oxbridge rather than an old Poly. It’s not even original. I recall Kelvin MacKenzie was prone to similar rants. Very depressing.” 
And what about Dacre’s comments that about professors who ‘churn out graduates for non-existent jobs’? “One of the most challenging aspects of being a journalism educator these days is that we can no longer say that a good education will lead to a great job, but then when could anyone ever really say that?” says Hughes 
“What journalism educators now understand is that while we may well be preparing young people for workplaces and environments that do not exist in the way that they did in the past, the knowledge and skills gained on a journalism degree programmes are multi-disciplinary in nature.
REQUIRED READING: School of Journalism starter pack
containing, as Dacre thought it might, Rusbridger's book
“We prepare young people for a changing world of work, where the skills they learn can be used in a multitude of settings in which they will be valued for the skills and knowledge they bring and in which they will be able to carve out exciting and rewarding careers founded on what they have been taught as part of the excellent journalism education that is offered at universities across the UK.”
Claire Wolfe, head of journalism at Worcester University and a well-regarded journalist in the Midlands says that although newspapers are contracting there are other openings. “Students from journalism courses have shown themselves to be highly employable. Journalism courses help to develop communications skills, confidence and introduce them to the requirements of work via the often mandatory work placement modules,” she says.
And to conclude on a philosophical note, David Baines journalism lecturer at Newcastle University and a former sub-editor on the Journal says Dacre seems to equate a degree in journalism with the traditional training course.
“A degree at undergraduate or postgraduate level in journalism is not simply preparing a student for a traineeship on a local newspaper, but for life and a career in an increasingly complex world. An education which develops in a student the critical-reflexive skillset, toolkit and outlook of a journalist, would benefit all in the global economy,” he says.

VERDICT

National newspaper headlines such as ‘Dacre v Rusbridger: two titans of 21st century journalism united in distaste’ give the general reading public the idea that beleaguered journalism is in trouble from within let alone outside.
But these are, to slightly misquote the great journalist Charles Dickens: “The best of times, the worst of times.” There has never been such a great opportunity to get involved in journalism across a multitude of platforms that hadn’t even been invented when Paul Dacre was editing the Leeds University student newspaper and Alan Rusbridger was a trainee on the Cambridge Evening News.
But in order to tame these multi-headed beasts of 24/7 digital news, aggregated and curated content plus the fog of misinformation and fake news the world needs people are educated – sorry, not just trained – in how to make sense of it all for everyone’s benefit.
Both Dacre and Rusbridger were brilliant editors. But they were of their time. Those times have moved on and editorial leadership is moving in different directions. Journalism, as never before, needs insightful, committed people and as the NCTJ report concludes those currently working in this noble game are more confident than ever.
We seem to be going in the right direction. Let’s hope Mssrs Dacre and Rusbridger can pull together too.
*I must declare an interest or two. I am one of small, but growing, band of journalists-cum-academics who have chosen to share their knowledge and experience with both the next generation of journalists by teaching and also the wider academic community through research. I have also served on the board of the NCTJ.

  • A version of this article appears in the 'Insight' column of the January 2019 issue of PJ News


Saturday, August 25, 2018

It's victory for the people in parking battle...but will they lose the war?


A stirring victory for people power or an ignominious political climbdown? Either way, much debated parking charges are not coming to a clutch of Cotswold towns – at the moment. But what does this episode tell us about political engagement and how are increasingly cash-strapped local councils going to find the money to keep services going? ALAN GEERE investigates



 When the end came it was short and, for hundreds of campaigners, sweet:

“After carefully considering the views of the public, parish and town councils, and businesses, Stroud District Council is stopping proposals to charge for car parking in Dursley, Nailsworth, Wotton-under-Edge and Stratford Park in Stroud.
“We have listened to concerns and it is has become clear during the past months that high street traders face a rapidly changing commercial challenge from a wide range of online services. I am keen to continue dialogue with traders and councils about these ongoing challenges for town centres.”

That carefully worded statement from Stroud District Council (SDC) leader Doina Cornell brought to an end months of ‘consultation’ – in the form of angry voices from every quarter – which signalled an unprecedented level of political engagement from people whose previous dealings with the council stretched from putting the right stuff in the recycling bin to paying their council tax by direct debit.
The three towns on the western edge of the Cotswolds rose up in righteous indignation and, for the time being at least, appear to have staved off the threat of parking machines, attendants and fixed penalty notices.
Nailsworth, especially, wore its heart on its sleeve plastering the town with banners proclaiming ‘Don’t take the P out of Nailsworth’ (above) and organising a public meeting that was attended by 300 people.
“This is great news for Nailsworth and the other towns in the review,” said Nailsworth mayor Jonathan Duckworth, who led the protests from the front. “We'd like to thank all those that have taken part in the fight for our town's future; there have been very many people involved and it is the united front that has been most powerful in this.
On Patrol: The parking attendant at Morrisons in Nailsworth
“We will work with SDC in the coming months but this will be more productive in an atmosphere of openness and partnership. We hope that their approach will now be different.”
Under consideration were eight parking areas in Nailsworth, four in Dursley and three in Wotton-under-Edge. The proposed charges ranged from 50p for an hour up to £2.50 all day and would have been introduced in January 2019.
Detailed proposals were first put forward by council officers in 2011 but the idea of parking charges has been around since the 1970s.
SDC commissioned a 36-page report from consultants Arup – ‘We shape a better world’ is their claim – which concluded that charging actually benefits the local economy.
“Fair charging encourages commuters to park in long stay locations, leaving the prime parking spaces for visitors and shoppers,” says the report, also concluding “there is no evidence to suggest that introducing car park charges will lead to a decrease in footfall”.
Not so, says Mayor Duckworth, who says the report fails to provide evidence of congestion in Nailsworth and does not acknowledge the Nailsworth has very few public facilities and gets almost no funding from SDC.
“Nailsworth has no secondary school, no museum, no canal, no Sub Rooms, no railway station, no sports centre, no swimming pool, no shopping centre for SDC to invest in. Nailsworth is different,” Duckworth countered.

A resounding ‘No’ from a packed public meeting at Nailsworth Town Hall
But back comes council leader Cornell: “Yes, well that is the Nailsworth view which is quite interesting. I think what is also interesting having talked to people in Nailsworth, about some of the things we do is that people aren’t always aware of the services the district council provides.
“Because a lot of our services might be for quite vulnerable individuals not everyone gets them. Nailsworth is having its sheltered housing redeveloped or we are working on anti-social behaviour so not everyone necessarily knows that’s going on.”
Two weeks before the end of the public consultation period last month 300 people packed into a public meeting at Nailsworth Town Hall to make its voice heard with a resounding ‘No’ to charges.
"We're lucky if we usually get 50 or 60 to any kind of meeting," said Duckworth. "But it was clearly an emotive subject which helps account for the fantastic response."
Nailsworth had put aside a fighting fund of £20,000 to go down a legal challenge route if the charges had made it through the council chamber. While that's not needed right now there's every indication that the issue could find its way back on to agenda.
"They will have to come back with some sound reasons," says Duckworth. "At the moment it just looks like a way of raising money which is not a legitimate reason for doing it."
Worried traders Lee & Janet Buffrey in their Dursley sweetshop
Over in Dursley – 'Historic market town’ it proudly proclaims – it might be a rainy Wednesday morning but the town is buzzing. Everything from seed potatoes to buckets and mops with estate agents, building societies and some smart looking charity shops thrown in.
But the mood is clear. "Introducing car parking charges will kill this street," says Lee Buffrey from behind his counter at Hewitts newsagents and sweet shop. "We've already had customers say they would not come in to town if they had to pay 50p to park." 
His wife Janet agrees. "It would have made a big difference, but I don't think the politicians expected such a backlash from the towns."
But there is a problem with parking. People queuing to get in to the car parks block the town centre roads quickly causing gridlock, if that doesn’t seem a perverse expression for a charming Cotswold town of 6,700 people.
Supermarket Sainsbury's has the biggest car park in the town and campaigners point out that this would still remain free so are concerned that charging would not help ease congestion.
Interestingly, there is no mention in the Arup report of either this Sainsbury's car park or a similarly popular parking area at Morrisons in Nailsworth. Both supermarket giants confirmed to the WDP that they would continue to operate a free car park 'for customers' but were less clear on enforcement measures. 
Morrisons does have an attendant who monitors comings and goings, but there is no empirical measurement, like a ticket machine or Automatic Number Plate Recognition (ANPR) that would make it a transparent exercise for all involved. 
Clearly the presence of these car parks knocks a bit of a hole in the ‘tackling congestion’ argument and Cllr Cornell admits: "I don’t know where we are with the supermarkets.
"There was a conversation which officers did have with all the supermarkets and as far as I understood they would continue to operate their free car parking, but there may have been some schemes as regards people going into shop there."
So, for the time being, those strident banners can be taken down. But who knows when they might need to be dusted off…

Council leader says issue has not gone away


For the council at the centre of ‘Parking Wars’ it’s more a case of a break in hostilities rather than a wholesale surrender.
“I think we’ve got to look at it again. Personally, I’ve always felt it was important to look at how car parking charges can be used as a way to manage congestion,” council leader Doina Cornell (right) told the WDP in an exclusive interview at her Stroud District Council office.
Cornell leads a cooperative – some may say, unholy – alliance of Labour, Green and Liberal Democrat councillors who together outnumber the Conservatives by just seven seats. Political considerations are, by necessity, never far away.
“I represent Dursley which is one of the towns affected and I think there is an issue with car use. Traffic nationally and in rural areas is going up and up and our town centres are finite so it is inevitably more and more of an issue.
“People drive a lot and public transport isn’t good enough so the alternatives aren’t ideal for people either. There isn’t enough public transport and in rural areas buses are really expensive, so even if you want to use the bus and are happy to use a bus it’s not necessarily practical so we can’t just completely do nothing.
“I think we have to look at it again but I think we’re going to have to talk to town councils.  Town councils are saying charges are very difficult for local businesses. That’s fine, but we’ve got to ask ‘okay, so what do we do, how do we manage this going forward?’”
Cornell also feels the parking debate highlights a bigger issue in the towns. “I think what it’s brought out for us is the question of viability of the high street. Since we made the initial decision to look into this as a possibility last year there’s been a lot of bad news stories and so that’s something that’s come across quite strongly about retail, the state of the high street particularly in small towns.”
And how has she reacted to the vociferous opposition? “Proportionally of course if you look at the population of the Stroud District the people who have engaged with this is actually quite tiny. It’s a minority but still more than on other issues. 
“It’s interesting that obviously car parking is one thing that people have engaged with, maybe because it’s so visible.  I mean there are other things we’ve done which no one seems to have an issue with.
“I’ve never had anyone protesting about planning application charges going up so it’s interesting what people pick up on politically to engage with.
“I suppose to take some positives out of the whole experience. I’ve had lots of conversations with people and had emails from people which wouldn’t have happened otherwise. Perhaps it was rather unusual way to engage with lots of people but it has given an insight into what people are thinking.”

  • The article originally appeared as a 'Long Read' in the Western Daily Press of August 28 2018

Thursday, May 03, 2018

Liverpool FC, that suspended freelance and the Express executives who are missing in action


“This article was ill-informed and wrong. It did not, in any way, reflect the views of the Express. It should never have been written and was very quickly removed.
“We unconditionally apologise, both for the article itself and any offence, understandably, caused. The journalist who wrote the piece was immediately suspended.”
So that’s ok then.
The Express had published a piece under the headline “Liverpool must take serious action after Roma violence or risk further trouble”. It included the line: “Why does trouble seem to follow them (Liverpool fans) like bees round a honey pot?”
James Evelegh, Editor of InPublishing, leaps in with trenchant comments – most welcome in a largely anodyne media commentariat - in his weekly blog today.
 “When writing your story about LFC fans, check your facts, steer well clear of stereotypes, and avoid unnecessary references to Heysel and Hillsborough. If you do mention them, then make sure you know the difference between the two,” he says
 “As the first grumblings started to be heard from the Mersey, the new management team leapt into action with a fulsome grovel; it disowned the article completely, apologised unconditionally, announced the suspension of the ‘freelance’ (that’s handy) journalist involved, and announced an immediate inquiry. Textbook.”
That suspended journalist is not some fresh-out-of-college digital fodder but experienced, and before this respected, newshound Colin Mafham. He’s been around the block a bit – I briefly worked with him 30 years ago on Today – and must have written literally millions of words for the nationals.
Search ‘Colin Mafham’ on Twitter and you can see that full social media invective unfolding in front of you and have a look at the Liverpool Echo for a more considered response.
I was reminded of an InPublishing column headlined ‘There but for the grace of God…’ by ‘Mr Magazines’ (my epithet) David Hepworth who wrote about how the caption ‘token attractive woman’ has appeared in a cycling magazine (below).
He wrote: The bit of the editor’s statement that caught my attention was what came next: “In the rush to get the magazine finished, it was missed by other members of the team.”
Now, like anyone who’s done time as a galley slave in the production department of a magazine, I’ve known some very close calls in my time. Many’s the pull-quote saying, “some old bollocks here” that was only spotted at the last moment. It is axiomatic that the tone editorial professionals employ with each other will not be the same as that they would use to address the readers with. I’ve seen captions on pictures of lambs in healthy eating magazines that read “yum!” and left-to-rights that have been done with incomplete information where one of the figures is referred to as, “fat bloke – ask Terry”.
I can take all that. That’s the rough and tumble of production. What I can’t take is the editor blaming "other members of the team" for this particular cock-up. You simply can’t do that. 
Indeed, you can’t do that. And while ‘suspended’ Colin Mafham is contemplating life without his weekly cheque from the Express what of the people who were supposed to be in charge? Someone was responsible for reading this stuff before it went out and someone pressed the button to publish.
And what about the sports editor, or indeed editor?  Like many an editor before me I have stood up and been counted for something someone else did on my watch – I remember one run-in about coverage of a National Front candidates in local elections.
The reporter could probably have phrased the story better. I didn’t see it before it went out and nobody showed it to me so it was my fault. 
That’s what the job is all about.

Friday, April 06, 2018

Who wants to be a newspaper tycoon?


The Darlington Despatch, Cranbrook News, Eastleigh Times, Warrington Post, Bishop’s Stortford Independent, Dungannon Herald, The Oxford Paper, Brighton Beezer and Thornbury Voice.
Just some of the newspapers launched in the last year by publishers large and small. Brave? Foolish? Or shrewd business? Probably a bit of all three as ALAN GEERE has been finding out.

HAWICK. Home of the Voice of Rugby, Bill McLaren, luxury knitwear and now one of the most surprising success stories in British newspaper publishing.
The Hawick Paper, funded, launched and edited by former YTS apprentice compositor turned editor Jason Marshall has published every Friday since August 2016 up against his former employer, the Johnston Press owned Hawick News.
MAN IN THE STREET: Jason Marshall and The Hawick Paper
Jason, 47, used his redundancy money from JP to fund the project and now has a thriving business with a full-time employee heading up the sales side, regular freelances and expert help with digital and photography.
A print run of 3,600 is spread around 40 outlets in the town and with Morrisons just cracked the hope is that other supermarkets will follow. Surprisingly for a start-up it’s a paid-for at 90p every Friday.
“Reaction from the community has been phenomenal,” reports Jason from a smart coffee shop in town called the Night Safe, which as is the way of High Streets throughout the land is a former bank. “Everything that goes on in the town goes in the paper and readers and advertisers appreciate that.”
Hawick sits at the southern end of a string of Scottish border towns on the A7 between Edinburgh and Carlisle and just 15 miles from the English border. Proud and busy it is the sort of self-contained town that has ‘local newspaper’ written all over it.
That there are two weeklies with ‘Hawick’ in the title, plus the Selkirk-based Southern Reporter and the Scottish dailies on sale in the newsagents make this town of 14,000 an unlikely hotbed of newspaper publishing.
Issue No 83 of The Hawick Paper runs to 40 pages and has everything a local paper used to have. ‘Proper’ news with decent illustrations, two full pages of obituaries, family notices and church services, letters, nostalgia, club notes and eight lovingly produced pages of sport.
Catching the eye are two full pages on the Hawick Amateur Operatic Society’s production of Oliver! Complete with nine photographs and a namecheck for everyone involved from the cast and orchestra through to stage crew and wardrobe.
Also helping boost pagination is a seven-page ad feature called ‘It’s All About Hawick’ showcasing local businesses with an ad and a little write-up.
It’s a thoroughly likeable local newspaper, neatly laid out and true to the over-riding principle that all content should be local.
Jason does confess that the project is “all consuming”. He does the print production himself using InDesign and two days a week he’s at his desk by 5.45am and on Wednesday doesn’t leave until midnight.
And while growth of the paper is limited by the size of the town and its population Jason takes a grown-up view of digital and has a fully-functioning website that has even attracted digital subscriptions. There are 5,500 likes on Facebook and Twitter following is growing.
Just 90 miles south, but a million miles away in attitude and approach, lies Hartlepool where another unlikely start-up is challenging the accepted norms.

"We are deliberately retro"

Hartlepool Life was launched in March 2017 by former Hartlepool Mail news editor Steve Hartley, picture editor Dirk Van Der Werff and newspaper sales manager Paul Healey, along with two local businessmen.
The free weekly, with a 25,000 print run of 32 pages comes out every Wednesday, and pledges to focus on good news about people, businesses and schools in the Hartlepool area.
Since its launch in March 2017, Hartlepool Life has taken on 18 people, including journalists, and is now distributed at 200 locations.
Says Dirk: “Our local newspaper had 130 plus years to report bad news, which it still does with abandon. Sadly for them, their readers have abandoned them wholesale over the years – along with the readers of a hundred other regional newspapers.
“We are a free local community newspaper that is doing things different. I am a huge fan of local democracy and holding the council and the police and quangos and other public bodies to account, which we do not do with this newspaper – but we have never said that we won’t hold them to account one day.”
As well as pages packed with names and faces, Hartlepool Life also has two pages of lucrative announcements, surely a testament to the paper’s popularity.
It has a website but no content, just a contact us box, and while it is on both Twitter and Facebook engagement is limited.
“This is totally deliberate, we don't do digital,” Dirk told PJ. “We do in a very small way, but that's just to keep readers in touch with what we are doing – we don't share anyone else's material or retweet stuff.
“We are deliberately retro. We are from an age of newspapers when editorial staff were astonished that managements were giving news stories away for free on the internet - that could only end in disaster, and we were not wrong! 
“People have to pick-up their copy of Hartlepool Life to find out what is happening, they don't click on a phone or an iPad.”
And how does Dirk and the launch team reflect on the experience?
“You have to risk everything, sadly, to make a new newspaper work from scratch without a major investor from the beginning,” he says.
“The first three issues we knocked out in the back room of a pub, literally. On Issue 50 we were without broadband for three days in the office and still managed to get the newspaper out on time.
“You have to want success so much and then still have luck and determination to not fail. Looking back, we were more naive in many ways than I would like to admit to. But our vision and friendship and experience in the heyday of local newspapers has seen us to the next stage.”

“Grassroots, on-the-ground reporting"

It’s all very well to have a great idea, enthusiastic and experienced staff and the support of the community – but how are you going to pay for it?
In South London, two entrepreneurs, Kate White and Mark McGinlay, have gone around with the digital hat not just once but three times to fund the launch of The Peckham Peculiar, The Dulwich Diverter and now the Lewisham Ledger.
They devised a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign to raise £5,000, the minimum amount they needed to cover the costs of the first two issues of the new Lewisham Ledger – including journalism, photography, design, illustration and printing.
By mid-March they had £6,500 pledged so hope to be able to substantially increase the size of the first two editions.
“We're really happy – and relieved – to have reached our crowdfunding target and to have raised a little bit more than we were hoping for too,” Kate told PJ. “We're very grateful to all the local residents and businesses who have pledged their hard-earned cash to make the paper a reality.
“Now the crowdfunding has finished, we are in the process of commissioning news, features and photography and working on the design of the paper. It's very exciting seeing it all coming to life. We're still aiming to bring the first issue out at the end of May.”
The publishers promise the pages will be filled with “grassroots, on-the-ground reporting and unique stories and interviews” that are 100 per cent about Lewisham and its people, rather than generic content driven by press releases.  “The paper will shine a spotlight on people and places whose stories have never before been told, with a strong focus on design and lots of great photography. It will be stocked by a wide variety of more than 100 local businesses and will be free so the whole of the community can read it.” 
Comment on the pledge page from Positive Ageing: “This is EXCELLENT. Much as we are doing everything we can to support older people to get online who want to, we realise how important print media still is for many. Will be in touch in the new year. Whoop.” 

This piece appears in the April 2018 edition of PJ News - 'The home of the printed and digital world of news media'