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'


Wednesday, April 04, 2018

Kickaround: A grown-up magazine for young footy fans


GROWING up in the 1960s I cadged Football Monthly whenever I could as it was beyond my pocket money and marvelled at Soccer Star with its full lists of results and teams from the newsagent’s shelf. 
So I learned my football from a daily newspaper (we had the Express at home, Alan Hoby included) and comics.
I still have the ‘World Cup scorebook’ that came with the Hornet in 1966 (below), complete with the scores entered a little clumsily in my 10-year-old’s excitable handwriting.
The other source of collective collectivism, knowledge, information and bad teeth were bubble gum cards. Cigarette cards had been and gone, but this was the pre-Panini era when a clutch of cards came in a waxed envelope with a piece of pink bubble gum.
My mum wasn’t very keen on the bubble gum and, to be honest, nor was I. But an aching jaw and sticky lips were a small price to pay for entry into another world. Exotic animals, indigenous peoples, flags and capital cities all arrived at 22 Second Avenue courtesy of those cards.
I was reminded of those thrilling times in Tegucigalpa and Tierra del Fuego when Britain’s newest football magazine, Kickaround, dropped through the letterbox last week.
It’s from the team that publish When Saturday Comes and in its promo blurb says it is aimed at boys and girls aged 7 to 12, and is about “getting involved, going to matches and kicking a ball, and offers a refreshing, fun, alternative look at the game for young fans”.
It runs to 52 pages and has so much high-quality content it is difficult to know where to start. There are 20 headings on the contents page and I was immediately drawn to Kelly Cates (aka Miss Dalglish) on the life of a TV presenter and the most sensible discussion I have yet seen on the use of video technology.
There is also how to control the ball like Harry Kane, the life and times of Sheffield United and three pages on the SheBelieves Cup. Somewhat bizarrely there’s also a biology lesson on why players ‘don’t need a poo during matches’ but, hey, this is WSC.
But what got my bubble-gum flavoured juices going again was the giant ‘World Football Map’ inserted in Issue One (see foot of page). Printed on quality paper this beautifully drawn poster featured every football-playing nation – all 208 of them – complete with national strip and flag. (Uzbekistan? I’ll be testing you later).
I wasn’t over impressed with the titles on offer to younger footy fans when I reviewed the sector for my Spotlight column last September. Match!, I wrote, ‘feels a bit thin, small and expensive’ while Match of the Day has ‘lots to look at, but all very quick reads’. 
And without going overboard too much this is a fantastic grown-up mag for younger people. In an age where the challenge is getting young people to look at a printed page rather than a screen this is a worthy flag-bearer for what we can only hope is a new era.




Monday, November 06, 2017

Heard the one about the Google man, the Facebook man and the Twitter man?

I HAVE and it’s no joke, especially if you run a business that is haemorrhaging ad revenue to the digital giants while they also take advantage of everybody else’s freely available content.
Henry Faure Walker, chief executive of regional publisher Newsquest, accused the web giants of “free-riding off of the great content that professional publishers produce” for years, adding: “If we are lucky we get a few crumbs off the table.”
ANIMATED: Henry Faure Walker from Newsquest
We’re at the Digital Journalism Summit 2017, held at News UK’s swanky headquarters in London Bridge, where media professionals from seasoned exponents to wide-eyed wannabes are eager to catch the latest trends and hear what those in the know really know.
Conference organiser and editor of Press Gazette, Dominic Ponsford, did a great job assembling representatives from all three digital behemoths that added an extra frisson to the expectation in the room. As one tweeted: “Panel of Google, Facebook and Twitter... suspect they may feel a bit of hostility from the room.”
Sadly for the non-combatants in the audience there was no blood on the conference floor. There were few answers from the assembled triumvirate – in fact it’s now getting difficult to even remember what the questions are.
Even when needled by Ponsford who asked what their thoughts were on Press Gazette’s Duopoly campaign calling on Google and Facebook to ‘stop destroying journalism’, Google’s UK director of news partnerships Madhav Chinnappa said he “did not accept the premise of the campaign”.
He said: “When it comes to display advertising, Google is a supplier, that means we only make money when publishers make money so we want that to grow. We are part of that ecosystem.”
Patrick Walker, Facebook’s head of media partnerships, said that a lot of the money the platform had been making from digital advertising was from new advertisers.
“The world is moving very quickly. This is explosion of digital advertising is an opportunity open to everyone,” said Walker. He also pointed to work Facebook was doing to help news outlets sell subscriptions on the platform and through the Facebook Journalism Project.
Meanwhile, out there in the real digital world Mary Hamilton posted a valedictory piece entitled ‘13 things I learned from six years at the Guardian’ from her time there as executive editor, audience.
Coming in at No 7 was: Platforms are not strategies, and they won’t save news.
“If someone else’s algorithm change could kill your traffic and/or your business model, then you’re already dead,” Hamilton wrote. “Google and Facebook are never going to subsidise news providers directly, and nor should they. Stop waiting for someone to make it go back to the way it was before.”

  • A full conference report appears in the next issue of Production Journal. To subscribe click here 


ALAN GEERE has been to the summit but also toiled in the foothills of journalism in his 40-year career. E: alan@alan-geere.com T: @alangeere


Monday, October 16, 2017

Justice of the piece: Are bad, bad people getting away with murder because their cases are no longer reported in the local paper?

I CUT my teeth – and my name in the Press bench – at magistrates court in the Essex market town of Witham, just off the A12 between Chelmsford and Colchester.
Every Tuesday I would point my moped north and join at least one, but sometimes two or three, other reporters at the historic courthouse to hear a litany of hard-luck stories, life gone bad or simply people who done wrong.
Forty years later I am back in court watching summary justice 2017 style. Much is largely unchanged: officious officials, bemused members of the public and a singular lack of timekeeping or the sense that anyone knows what is going on.

'Sending offensive and distressing Facebook messages'

We assemble at 10.30 – that’s a reporter from the local paper, two harassed looking lawyers flicking diligently through their tablets (computers, not pills), the clerk, the court usher and me – but nothing much happens until 10.55 when the magistrates file in.
They are two kindly-looking middle-aged men, smartly dressed in dark suits and colourful ties looking all the world like they are queuing up for hospitality at a rugby international. They too are swiping at tablets and at 11.02 we get going, hearing a drunk and disorderly case with no defendant present.

COURT IN THE ACT: Thirteen stories on one
page from court in The Orcadian, including
that perennial court staple 'No insurance'.
This followed by another drunken exploit, this one about a woman who punched a pub landlady. She was in court and after sounding duly apologetic was sent away with a conditional discharge, a sentence that was patiently explained to her.
My fellow reporter tells me the main action is about to follow. He is the title’s only reporter filling the paper and feeding the website and so far he has spent an hour gleaning two downpage stories at best. But his shorthand dances across the page as the court hears how a woman admitted sending offensive and distressing Facebook messages to the owner of a restaurant.

Is covering court sustainable?

The posts were seen by 77,000 people – quite a result by anyone’s standards – and led to her pleading guilty to an offence under the little known Malicious Communications Act.
This story is squirrelled away to appear in the paper, which does not publish for another week. Like many publications, anything that is not ‘out there’ – ie from a press release or the emergency services – is kept for the paper as an exclusive for the dwindling band of £1.30 a week purchasers.
It gets a good show as a page lead and reads well for the 99 per cent of readers who have never been near court. But is it all worthwhile and is covering court sustainable in these times of fewer staff and different demands and expectations of customers?
Some research last year yielded the headline: “More than half of local newspapers don’t have a court reporter.”

'Not essential to have a dedicated court reporter'

Brian Thornton, a journalism lecturer at Winchester University, wrote an article for Proof magazine which draws on a survey of editors of daily local newspapers in relation to court reports in their respective newspapers. Some 57 newspapers editors responded to the survey conducted by journalism students.
Editors were asked to agree or disagree with the assertion by the legal journalist Marcel Berlins that it was ‘abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported’. More than half of editors agreed, including 11% who agreed strongly. More than four out of 10 editors reckoned it was not essential to have a dedicated court reporter.
Less than half of editors said that their papers had a dedicated shorthand court reporter (44%) and more than half admitted that they had relied on a police press release in the absence of having their own reporter in court or else drawing on an agency report (55%).
“The fact that the media is engaging less and less with the everyday workings of the criminal justice system means that journalists are increasing unaware of what actually happens in such important settings as crown courts or coroner’s courts,” says Thornton.
“I would argue that this ignorance is dangerous because it spreads to the public. If the public aren’t being informed about what’s happening in courts, how can they be expected to know?”
Adding to the debate is Guy Toyn from agency Court News UK who says the number of serious stories going unheard is a “tragedy” for the democratic process, adding regional papers not covering even big cases were neglecting a “central, civic function of the press”.
He said this was “not only a dreadful shame because people aren’t being informed, but a tragedy for the democratic process as a whole”. Said Guy: “Court reporting does take a long time, and a local paper can’t really sit around day-in, day-out and do it any more.”
'Justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by
the public': Andrew Langdon QC
Even the legal profession is weighing into the debate. Andrew Langdon QC says court reporters are in decline and may soon be “largely a thing of the past”. He says members of the public are getting “no professional narrative” of the “way we arrive at justice”.
Langdon, chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, wrote in a legal magazine: “Due to the decline in court reporters, justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by the public.
“Court reporters, and especially court reporters from local newspapers, have been declining in number for years and may soon be largely a thing of the past.”
He adds: “The large majority of cases, although conducted in public hearings up and down the land, and although producing outcomes that often dramatically affect the lives of the citizens concerned, operate essentially unseen and unheard by the public.
“The way in which the outcomes are arrived at is thus something of a mystery for the large majority of the uninitiated public. Worse, outcomes are often supposed to be influenced by factors that are by and large mythical.”
Langdon highlights what could become a problem for all concerned: “Increasingly and perplexingly, into the vacuum drop one-sided reports via social media, not from professional journalists, but from aggrieved parties who, like single-issue campaigners or nefarious pressure groups with their own agenda, have access to mass communication and so can feed a narrative that often grossly distorts reality,” he says.
Phew. Not sure how much reality was distorted on my visit to court, but you get the idea from m’learned friend.
And as for Witham Magistrates Court I’ll leave the last word with the estate agents: “FIVE PLOTS REMAINING - reserve now to avoid disappointment. The Old Magistrates Court is proving a popular new development, with over half now sold…”

VERDICT

I love a good court story – but I see too many bad court stories, or no stories at all. I even once devised an excel spreadsheet formula to write an automated court story just to show how predictable many of them had become.
Like much of journalism writing an engaging court story – within the confines of what can legally be reported, of course – is a skill that can be learned, but is honed by doing it.
The NCTJ’s Media Law Court Reporting module continues to be popular among students and trainees showing both an appetite for the craft and a continued demand from editors for court reporting expertise.
My friends at The Orcadian diligently report every case at sheriff court and other papers just run the ‘results’ as provided by court staff. I suspect the answer may be somewhere in the middle. It’s not easy to pick and choose when all that is provided are names and charge, but specialist reporters will know the difference when they see it.
Court reporting can be a time-consuming gamble, but probably one that’s worth taking even in these headline-a-minute digital days.
  • A full version of this story appears in the October issue of PJ magazine

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Those blinking screens & 24-hour news: why journalism is STILL great

ROAD TO SUCCESS: Editor-in-chief Darren Thwaites outside the 
NCJ Media offices in central Newcastle
IT'S 10.30 on an ordinary Tuesday morning and, in a scenario repeated in newsrooms throughout the country, morning conference is about to start.
I am back on home territory, in the Newcastle newsroom where 25 years ago I helped The Journal convert from a traditional broadsheet to a bright, modern tabloid heralding similar moves throughout the country.
Now, as well as still home to three newspapers the office marches to the beat of ChronicleLive, one of the biggest regional digital media operations in the country providing news, views, video and interaction to an audience of millions every month.
Strangely for such a state-of-the-art operation the conference guest list is largely unchanged from time immemorial with representatives from news, production, business, sport and entertainment all sharing the table to sing for their supper.
But behind them the league table of story hits, as compiled by Chartbeat, flickers and burps its way through real-time consumption showing how many people are engaged with a particular story and how long they spend looking.
IN COMMAND: ChronicleLive  editor Helen Dalby driving
the desk in 
the middle of the newsroom
It is incessant and relentless and impossible not keep glancing at it.
There is a newslist, a complex matrix of who’s doing what and when, which continually evolves during the day. But the editor of ChronicleLive, Helen Dalby, kicks off with a review of the numbers from yesterday revealing which stories captured attention and for how long.
Flying the flag for sport is Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas. There is no longer a sports editor, a reflection that the Toon (plus Sunderland AFC to a certain extent) are the biggest games in town. By the close of conference, the top three stories in the all-seeing chart behind him are all Newcastle United – and this on a day when nothing has really happened.
Content editor Sophie Barley confidently chaperones the meeting through the news list, which probably isn’t the most exciting ever seen but does lend itself adding some creativity. She knows not to worry. In just the next 24 hours headlines like ‘Suspect on the run’, ‘Body found in house’, ‘Police seize thousands of cannabis plants’ will be dominating the news agenda.
Business, Production and Entertainments have their say too and all of it under the watching, cajoling eye of Darren Thwaites, editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror North East and the man charged with driving this unremitting beast of hits and hopes.
Darren’s cheerful demeanour and twinkling countenance bely his 49 years but are a testament to his lifetime of experience in the regional media from hometown Huddersfield to Aberdeen and then 12 years editing in the north east, six in Teesside and six in Newcastle.
Back in the day, Thomson House as it was then, was home to three independent newsrooms all with their own reporters, photographers and production teams. The Evening Chronicle printed multiple editions during the day, the Journal printed during the night for morning delivery and the Sunday Sun was its own adrenaline fuelled version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
NO HIDING PLACE: Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas
prepares for morning conference under the all-seeing eyes of the
Chartbeat monitor registering real-time audience engagement
The system thrived on competition, rather than co-operation. Sometimes three reporters from the same building were at the same event chasing the same people. With advent of computers skills were acquired at the dark arts of hacking into a ‘rival’ database to look at their stories.
But for a modern media business this was a bonkers way to run the operation and in 2009 the newsrooms were combined into a single entity and in 2012 Darren was appointed to run the show.
There is still a sizeable number of journalists – 120 in all across Tyneside and Teesside – involved from hunter gatherer reporters to ‘story editors’, the latest incarnation of the endangered species of sub-editor.
Print is by no means a poor relation here. The production desk has the pick of all the stories that have been created during the day. The usual mix of breaking news, diary jobs and stories put forward by specialists from environment to entertainment.
The Journal and the Chronicle have a distinctiveness that the team seem to know intuitively what treatment will work best. Designers still craft individual pages and template pages are a guide rather than a leader. Story editors still lovingly craft headlines and captions, although they are now as likely to be from the new breed of ‘grow your own’ as from the grizzled grey cardigan variety.
“Print must be as successful as it can be,” says Darren from his neat, tidy and respectfully not expansive office next to the newsroom. “And we need to have the same standards online as we’ve always had for print.
“There is still an appetite for edgy, challenging journalism and the quality standards are still there.”
Darren passionately explains how the audience is spread over five areas: print, desktop, mobile, app and distributed platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Different masters with different demands, but behind it all is the content generation that has always been the heart of the operation.
He has the realism learned over 25 years in regional journalism and is not afraid to tackle some of the current concerns head on. “The economic reality is that we've had to find ways to cut the cost of our newsrooms right across the industry,” he says.
FAST PACED: News editor Sophie Barley and a two-screen life
“It's never easy to make those kinds of decisions but I'm pleased that our newsrooms have retained the skill and scale to do the job properly. Without our investment and belief in digital, we simply wouldn't have been able to maintain the quality we have.”
Helen Dalby has made it to Regional Head of Digital for Trinity Mirror North East as well as Editor of ChronicleLive through a digital route rather than traditional journalism, but that doesn’t stop her getting caught up in the thrill of it all.
“The job consumes me,” she admits “and I find it difficult to imagine not being in the thick of news publishing. The buzz in a newsroom when everyone is pulling together on a developing story is quite intoxicating.
“It’s a cliché, but no two days are the same and that’s hugely exciting. I’m proud of the content we publish, and it’s gratifying to have at our disposal analytics which prove that we’re answering the questions local people are asking, and doing so responsibly, ethically and with strong brand values at our core.”
Both Darren and Helen exude authority and friendliness and take great satisfaction from the people they have brought on and the systems in place to make it happen. Helen leads most of the monthly skills workshops that staff attend and every reporter has a quarterly one-to-one to look at their own individual progress.
“I get a lot of job satisfaction from seeing the training I’ve delivered helping both experienced and new reporters to reach the biggest possible audiences,” says Helen.
Those monthly sessions are an opportunity for each department and run through their audience figures. “We invite everyone in the team - managers and reporters - so we can all learn together about what worked and why,” says Darren.
“We look at why some stories didn't do as well as we thought they should. It might be something simple such as a headline that had no search value, poor timing of publication or a failure to engage fully on social.”
HOME FROM HOME: The Printer's pie in its
newly-painted pomp back in the mid-nineties
“We also sit down quarterly with individuals to learn from their data and reinforce good practice. They're positive and constructive meetings, supported by monthly training modules. Our pledge to the team is for them to be the best trained and most informed in regional media. We're fortunate to have a positive bunch that want to succeed.”
It has a been, to use Helen’s words, a thrilling and intoxicating day for me too. To see the daily dramas unfold first hand under the all-seeing eye of the metrics counter reminds me how far journalism has come.
But I don’t want to leave the Toon without two trips down memory lane. First to the Printer's Pie pub built into the ground floor of the NCJ building where many a newsroom experience has been shared over the years. But, now renamed, it is dark, dingy and shut with its secrets locked away behind the grimy curtains.
So, on to Northumberland Street, Newcastle’s main shopping thoroughfare where I am searching for the street vendor joyfully singing out the charms of that day’s Chronicle.
Unsuccessful, I ask a patrolling police officer. “Oh, I don’t think they do that sort of thing any more.” Maybe not, but they do a lot more instead…

THE VERDICT

Rather like they used to say that all young people should do National Service I think all journalists over 50 – especially those not involved in front-line newspaper journalism – should go and spend some time in a thoroughly modern newsroom like this.
They will find committed, capable people confidently handling all the channels of delivery with a dexterity that can only be marvelled at.
Much has changed. All those blinking screens telling you what’s hot and what’s not are a far cry from the “I know what my readers like” finger in the wind editor of not that long ago.
But much is the same too. The excitement when a big story breaks, the leadership needed to steer it in the right direction and the boots on ground skills of talking to people and delivering what you find out quickly and succinctly.

  • This article appears in the September 2017 edition of PJ 'The voice of news publishing and printing'.