Thursday, August 20, 2020

Reach for innovative thinking, 1992-style

Reach had some innovative thinking to share amidst cataloguing the departure of heavy hitter editors among 550 job losses revealing it is planning to launch its own ‘news wire’ as part of its plans to combine national and regional editorial teams across the UK and Ireland.

Editor-in-chief Lloyd Embley and Managing Director of Reach plc Regionals Alan Edmunds told staff the news wire will become “integral” to every Reach title and will “enable the sharing of our journalism across platforms and products”.

And commenting on the wider project to create one editorial team across Reach’s nationals, regionals, Embley and Edmunds said: “The aim of these changes is to protect our newsbrands for the long term and enable us to innovate and develop new products and services.”

Now, ex-cus-a-me for a little personal reflection, but this is exactly what the trailblazers at Thomson Regional Newspapers (TRN) did all the way back in the hazy days of 1992. Realising that there was a lot of duplication across the group, especially in entertainment and other feature areas like food, motoring and gardening, Thomson Online Feature Service (TOFS) was set up and I was installed as editor to make it work.

Glossing over the fact that there was no ‘online’ in 1992, TOFS was designed to provide a two-way syndication service with material coming in from the ‘subscribers’ and going out to them from a small core team based in the journalistic nirvana that is Watford, then headquarters of TRN and home to the great, good and sundry renegades, myself included.

First challenge was to win over the clientele which included big beast editors like Magnus Linklater, Ed Curran and Derek Tucker plus assembled MDs like Alan Scott, Bob Crane and Tony Hill. ‘Not invented here’ was the dismissive response from Watford when the papers - from the Aberdeen Press & Journal to the Newcastle Chronicle via The Scotsman and Belfast Telegraph - railed against this head office imposition.

But slowly and surely we made it happen. The people on the desk who had to make it work, including the aforementioned Alan Edmunds who was then news editor of the Western Mail, realised that they were getting quality, oven-ready copy and pictures for nothing. They could localise the submission or simply use as it came.

They key, and I’m sure Reach are all over this, was quality.

Our film reviews and TV interviews had to be better than PA and our motoring column superior to anything that came out of the syndicated services. It had to be error-free and on time – and largely it was.

Those mammoth TRN titles are now spread among the four winds of newspaper ownership, but it just goes to show that a good idea is always a good idea even 28 years and several newspaper lifetimes away.

This is part of 'Reasons to be cheerful' published in the August 2020 issue of PJ News

Wednesday, July 01, 2020

The (other) community news awards

Sadly, like many events this summer, newsawards 2020 was cancelled. The Independent Community News Network (ICNN) Newspaper of the Year, sponsored by Google News Initiative, drew a bumper crop of entries and rather than let them be forgotten ALAN GEERE has devised some special awards just to celebrate these amazing publications.

Most remote community served

Glenkens Gazette - news from Balmaclellan, Carsphairn, Mossdale, New Galloway and St John’s Town of Dalry. All of that in what some people still call Kirkcudbrightshire, south west Scotland with a population of 3,000. The Gazette prints 1,200 which are all eagerly gobbled up.


Most long-suffering husband and wife publishers…

Kristina and Jeff Nutbeem who founded Sussex Local magazine in 2007. Still going strong - both marriage and magazine – as evidenced by the joint signature on the page three editorial.

... and family most likely to succeed

Father and daughter journalistic team Philip and Francesca Evans who launched LymeOnline, a free fortnightly independent newspaper covering Lyme Regis in Dorset back in January 2018. Judging by the picture bylines, they are both doing well on it.


Most historic title

The Castle Douglas Journal, a local newspaper first published in the 19th century, was relaunched after 170 years. After starting with an initial grant of £3,000 the Journal is now self-sustaining after just three issues, entertaining and informing the people of Dumfries and Galloway.

 Best contribution to serious journalism

VIEW, an independent social affairs magazine from Ireland. As editor Brian Pelan says: “In a world where fake news is on the rise, VIEW believes in promoting responsible journalism in a non-sensational manner. We believe in serving our community of readers and helping to tell the stories of the most marginalized groups with in our society.”

Best self-promoting picture

Ben Norris editor of the Wotton Times beaming out of page three behind a sign that says ‘EDITOR Ben Norris’ to illustrate a piece celebrating the opening of their new office.

Biggest community paper – by a mile

Your Local Paper from West Norfolk which clocks in at 102 pages plus a 36-page insert called Your Local Business. It’s a free weekly with a distribution of 24,000, so two sets of numbers any publisher would be proud of.

Most feisty publication

Faversham Eye, which even has an investigations team who seem to find plenty to investigate – ‘Rugby club shenanigans’ anyone? - in this small Kent town. As the publishers say, “a blend of top-quality investigative reporting and laugh out loud humour has made us hugely popular”.

 Most democratic publication

The Hastings Independent, which has no overall editor in chief. Section editors, aged 17 to over 70, are individually responsible for the content of each section and rotate as sign-off editor. 

 Most innovative distribution model

One household on almost every street on Hayling Island takes a delivery of the Hayling Herald and delivers it to their neighbours in this Hampshire community. Some people take a few hundred copies to deliver to the surrounding roads. The rest of the 11,000 print run goes to community centres, the library, shops, supermarkets, beachside kiosks, cafés and restaurants.

 Most out-there names for a newspaper

Goes to the team behind the Peckham Peculiar, the Dulwich Diverter and the Lewisham Ledger which are taking South London by storm.

Most innovative staffing arrangement

The Wokingham Paper which has a series of a rolling, paid traineeships for two people every three months in part-time roles. The sports reporter, news reporter, graphic designer and social media manager of all joined the paper in permanent roles after completing the traineeship.

Most hard-hitting investigations 

The Waltham Forest Echo which has in the past year looked into fire safety in council owned tower blocks revealing half of them posed a substantial risk, exposed the extent of the local council’s fossil fuel investments and revealed threats to redevelop a much-loved community centre. 

 Back to basics award

The Caerphilly Observer for their commitment to covering local courts, brought into sharp focus with the story of an amateur dramatics director who was jailed for sharing images of child abuse online. They were the only newspaper to cover this story which shocked readers, as he was a well-known and respected member of the community.

 Most wide-ranging appointments

The Hackney Citizen, which this year signed up a gardening columnist as well as an illustrator who produces a monthly comic. They join a long-time food history columnist and all of them bring fresh and interesting ways for the Citizen to interact with and support its readers.

 Biggest typographical concession to readers

The Cranfield & Marston Vale Chronicle’s tabloid layout was scientifically developed by owner John Guinn after consulting friends and family. One major difference from other local newspapers is the increased font size (aka HUGE) making it far easier to read for the good people of Bedfordshire.

Most egalitarian entertainment reviews

The South Leeds Life offers theatre press tickets on a show-by-show basis. Rather than having just one reviewer they call the program South Leeds Goes To The Playhouse and offer free tickets in return for a written review or conversation with one of the reporters. The scheme, not unsurprisingly, is very popular and tickets are snapped up quickly.

 Most promising new revenue stream

The Week In, from East Bristol and North East Somerset, has had some success selling on stories and photos to other media outlets and agencies. Better than just being ripped off, eh?

Most humble beginnings

The Bristol Cable began in a front room as a collection of bullet points on a piece of A4 paper, sketching out an idea to redefine local journalism. Five years later the Cable prints a quarterly newspaper of 30,000 copies as well as regularly publishing online.

 100 not out

Filtonvoice published its one hundredth issue in January this year. With a mission to bring local news to local people in the town of Filton, near Bristol, the monthly magazine often features stories that are not covered by the big publishers and media outlets. The format has proved so successful other voice partnerships have been set up around the south west. 


Alan Geere published his own newspaper – the Long Stratton Community News – from his home in Norfolk while moonlighting from his day job at the Eastern Daily Press in Norwich (he was the night editor so it wasn’t exactly a day job, but you get the idea). It was printed by the formidable Micropress – then in Halesworth, now in Southwold – and still run today by the indomitable Mike Cross. It was a beautiful thing. That one and only issue is now a collector’s piece.

  • This piece appears in the June & July 2020 issue of PJ News

Friday, February 28, 2020

Why journalism needs ‘weirdos and misfits’ too

I NEVER thought I’d commit this in writing, but I do have a certain sympathy for Dominic Cummings.
You may recall that Cummings, widely acknowledged as the power behind the throne at No 10, put out the most unusual recruitment ad of the year (so far) calling for ‘Weirdos and misfits with odd skills’ to apply for a job at the seat of Government.
“We want to hire an unusual set of people with different skills and backgrounds to work in Downing Street…we’re hiring data scientists, project managers, policy experts, assorted weirdos,” the Prime Minister’s chief adviser wrote in a beguilingly readable 3,000-word blog post.
By way of explanation, subsection G. of the off-the-wall job ad is entitled ‘Super-talented weirdos’ and goes on to explain: “People in SW1 talk a lot about ‘diversity’ but they rarely mean ‘true cognitive diversity’. They are usually babbling about ‘gender identity diversity blah blah’. What SW1 needs is not more drivel about ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ from Oxbridge humanities graduates but more genuine cognitive diversity.”

Cummings and Goings: Apply now to be a No 10 influencer

The point he was making is that it takes all sorts to make a Government – and the same is true for journalism. Sadly, like many professions – no, let's not start that debate again now – journalism is still a rich young person’s game, dominated by expensive university programmes and accredited training courses plus unpaid work experience and internships.
But the fightback is on.
When I started as a junior reporter on a weekly newspaper group in the mid-70s I was one of six – yes SIX – trainees all fresh from school ranging in age from 16 to 18. We were chaperoned by the redoubtable David Scott who was the training editor. On the trainee intake just in front of me was Mike Parker, who went on to be the Daily Express man in Los Angeles, and behind me was Lisa Hampele who forged a long and successful career at the BBC.
We had all grown up in the area and been to school there. While we may not have had much credibility in the street as naïve teenagers, we certainly had some street cred, knowing our way around the towns and villages we covered. One accidental diversity box checked was one for youth, with the average age of the newsroom instantly plummeting
I’m not saying it was right or wrong, or better or worse than today, it was just different.
Now there is a concerted move to regain some of that ground and attract recruits into journalism who have more to offer than simply the ability to pay.
Apprenticeship schemes, like at major newspaper groups Iliffe and JPI Media, are gaining traction and the NCTJ’s Journalism Diversity Fund continues to plug a diversity-sized gap with a small ‘d’.
The fund was set up in 2005 with a donation of £100,000 from the Newspaper Licensing Agency (now NLA media access), with the aim of encouraging more diverse people to train as journalists and making newsrooms better reflect the communities they serve.
“Journalism is a typically white, middle class profession, which needs to change. If you feel you could bring something different to a newsroom – such as your social background, life experiences or ethnicity – then we want to hear from you,” says the promotional blurb for potential applicants.
Eight bursaries were awarded in the final round of 2019 taking the total number of people helped into a new career to 347. These aspiring journalists were awarded funding to begin their journalism training at NCTJ-accredited courses and bursaries that can help fund their course fees and living expenses.

Claire French: " I have always believed in speaking out"

One of those recipients was Claire French who completed her journalism training at City College Brighton and Hove and went on to be the business editor at The News in Portsmouth.
“I was awarded the bursary for arguing that my background – being brought up in an unemployed, single-parent household – was not a particularly well-represented demographic in the industry,” she said. “As well as being made up of white men, the news media industry as a whole continues to be rather middle class. I have always believed in speaking out, and about, the people who have the least power in society.”
Now media relations manager at Royal Bank of Scotland, French reflects: “It was such a great privilege that has unlocked a lot of opportunities for my career.”
Over at the BBC they take their Diversity – with a big D – very seriously and have just appointed presenter June Sarpong as the BBC’s first ‘director of creative diversity’.  Sarpong sees her role to rapidly increase black, Asian, and minority ethnic (BAME) representation at senior levels and also boost disability representation on and off screen in the next year.
“Diversity is not a “nice to have” but an essential part of the BBC’s agenda and positive action is already underway with urgency,” she says.
“In the pursuit of diversity we are not looking to exclude those who have already succeeded, but to allow room for new voices to be included. Ultimately, I believe the BBC’s window into the UK will be all the richer as a result, and hopefully one that more people see themselves reflected in too,” says Sarpong. 
Cummings’s approach cued wailing and gnashing at from predictable corners – political opposition, unions, civil service types – but also some support from unlikely quarters, including broadcaster and former newspaper editor Janet Street-Porter.
“I would never have passed an interview for a post at the BBC – or in Whitehall for that matter,” she wrote. “I didn’t have a degree when I was appointed directly by the director general and was probably the only senior executive without one for almost a decade.
“I was stroppy, and overconfident that the BBC was lucky to have me, rather than the other way around.
“As an editor I made radical changes to The Independent on Sunday. New people were chosen for their ability to argue and challenge my way of thinking, to have confidence in their own intelligence. Of course, this method attracts annoying people, people who might not look right or have social graces, but if they are loyal and signed up to your project you could not wish for better workers.”

  • This article first appeared in the February 2020 issue of PJ News