Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Web Summit: How old school journalism was given new world treatment

Were you at Web Summit 2020? No, thought not. Luckily for you Alan Geere was among the 104,328 attendees at one of the world’s biggest online love-ins and sends this verdict


Sometimes it felt like you had wandered into a zeitgeist TV show – think ‘Industry’ the BBC2 drama currently airing about life in the bonking, sorry, banking world – with impossibly attractive and intelligent young people sharing the secrets of their life in a totally confident and competent way.

Of course, there were older people there too.

Sir Tim Berners-Lee (65), casually billed as ‘inventor of World Wide Web’ was there touting his new business, but grumpy old man of the day award goes to Norman Pearlstine (79) the outgoing (as in shortly leaving, not party animal) executive editor of The Los Angeles Times, who pessimistically presaged the demise of journalism.

“There is an existential crisis of journalism,” he said. “Government handouts or altruistic benefactors seem the only way to go. Large numbers of the population do not have the money to pay for information.”

Probably from his perspective things do look a bit grim, especially as he revealed that 20 years ago the LA Times had 1,250 journalists – yes one thousand two hundred and fifty – and today just has a fraction of that.

But it wasn’t difficult to see that Norman might have missed the point. Here were more than a Wembley Stadium-full of people who had paid up to 999 euros to practise their own individual journalism – listening to information and weighing up the interest, importance and effect of that knowledge.

Wed Summit isn’t going to change attitudes and approaches to journalism and publishing overnight. But like its heavyweight political and financial counterpart – Davos – anything that treats the problems with both seriousness and positivity has to be applauded.

And, yes, I’m ready for Web Summit 2021 – hopefully at the Altice Arena in Lisbon which I hear is very nice in December!

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

From hiring and firing to balancing the books: Editing 2020

Jeremy Tunstall, writing in his seminal 1971 work Journalists at Work, chose to feature the ‘personnel management decisions’ in his dissection of the constituent roles of the editor. Calling these decisions ‘considerable’ he highlights the ‘hiring and promoting of wide range of journalists’ and the financial responsibility of ‘controlling salaries and expenses of over £1 million a year’, which equates to around £13.8 million a year in 2019 when taking inflation into account, according to the Bank of England (Bank of England, 2019).

While Tunstall was basing his comments around national newspaper editors there is still a considerable financial burden for regional newspaper editorial leaders to bear. For instance, a mid-sized newspaper with 50 journalists earning an average of £30,000 per annum would leave the editor looking after a wages budget of £1,500,000. Jeremy Clifford, editor-in-chief of JPI Media, has overall control of 800 journalists, so using the same formula he is ‘controlling salaries’ totalling £24,000,000.

Recruitment is also taking up a good proportion of the working life of the editorial leader. At the time of interview Marc Reeves, West Midlands Editor-in-Chief for Reach, said he had invested in the past five weeks “a good 50 or 60 per cent of my time to recruitment”.


What employers are looking for

Like many of the facets of the editorial leader’s job, recruitment is a skill that has to be acquired, either through training or practice, but is an expertise that publishers expect to be in place, even if the individual in charge has relatively little experience. Everyone appears to have their own style and approach, especially as there is no necessity to follow a ‘fixed formula’ of questioning as required of public institutions like the police, health service or universities who could find themselves on the wrong end of a Freedom of Information request by a disgruntled unsuccessful candidate.

There are a range of qualities that editorial leaders are looking for in recruits, including:

·         Flexibility

·         Inquisitiveness

·         Energy

·         Intelligence

·         Spark

·         Passion

·         Hunger

·         Can-do attitude

·         Self-motivation

These conceptual qualities are difficult to assess at interview and a candidate may end being ruled out by nervousness, unfamiliarity of surroundings or a lack of understanding of the process.

On top of this recruiters are looking for more tangible skills that can be tested, either by looking at previous work or in a live interview scenario:

·         Communication skills

·         Skilled multi-tasker

·         Practical skills

·         Story-telling online basics

Also evident was the requirement for a ‘good news sense’, which is both a quality and a skill but continues to defy definition despite academic efforts.


Exploring the ‘qualities’ expected in recruits

Clifford offers this clear outline of what he is looking for, citing communication is a core skill, especially verbal communication:

“The first think I still look for is something I’ve always looked for and that’s passion, because you can teach a lot of the other things but you can’t teach a hunger and a passion.” 

Along with that enigmatic ‘news sense’ Ian Carter, Editorial director of the KM Media Group wants potential recruits to demonstrate ‘flexibility’:

“Probably flexibility is the thing that slightly differs nowadays, because I need to know that if they stumble across a story on the walk home from the pub, that it will be on the website by the time they’ve got through the front door.”

The recruitment process will typically start with an application, and things can go wrong even before they have started. Helen Dalby, Senior Editor and Head of Digital for Reach North East, says the basics are as important as ever:

“I will reject a CV with a spelling mistake out of hand, as if a would-be reporter can’t manage to proofread a document as important as that, I can have little faith that their copy will be clean.”

Even at interview it may not be what the candidate says that matters, but how they present themselves. Clifford is looking for “really good signs of communication”. 

“I remember when I was interviewing someone for a job, I told him there and then he wasn’t going to get it because at no point did he make any eye contact with me. I said if you are not going to look me in the face, or not make any eye contact you’re never going to get a story off anybody.”

Dalby feels it is important for interview candidates to be well-prepared: to know the websites and newspapers, to have followed the outlet on social media and to be ready to express a view on a recent story or Facebook post. “Considered criticism is far preferable to the dispiriting response of, ‘I’m not sure’ or, worst of all, ‘I haven’t looked’,” she says.

Carter turns the tables on applicants and researches them a lot more thoroughly:

“They quite often again look shocked when you repeat something they put on Twitter or Facebook a week ago and they sometimes feel quite awkward and embarrassed by it. You might say ‘I see you went to see Ed Sheeran last week’ – nothing wrong with that at all, but they seem to be quite surprised that you’re reading it. It’s a useful skill to learn that what you put on social media people are looking at and taking notice of and its yes, we are more fully armed with stuff about them that we can that we can throw them sometimes.”


Journalism education and “young dinosaurs”.

As if cementing stereotypes, there seems little love lost between employers and the further education colleges and higher education universities sending out people with journalism qualifications.

While acknowledging that young people are getting better equipped as the educators belatedly recognise the role as it is now, Reeves has this forthright view:

“Sometimes the colleges were giving us young dinosaurs because they were training them for an industry that stopped existing 10 years previously.  Colleges have now largely caught up or are catching up so those online story-telling digital basics are now being much better baked in.”

Carter is a little more forgiving of the candidates, saying that sometimes people are not prepared for life in a newsroom through no fault of their own.

“One of the things you get at university is usually state of the art equipment and you’re used to operating on Macs. Sometimes people come to us and they finish up working in our Gravesend office, which has still got an outside toilet and old equipment and they think ‘wow!’ and you can see the shock in their faces.”

Carter complains that the recently qualified students are not fully prepared for the commercial realities or the expected workload because they demand a lot from people.

“We get students from the university of Kent come in and spend two weeks with us and I think even after that period they don’t quite get what the expectations are from a journalist in this day and age.”



Can they do the job?

Reeves says the trainees his company takes on have already completed “pre-entry stuff” at various establishments around the country. They’ve had an immersion in law, public admin and other elements, such as shorthand. He says they make sure that the candidates have experience in different story-telling, have a view about how things can be told and have an ability and an interest in exploring different ways to get their content to people via Instagram, Facebook and other channels. But his message is:

“At the heart of it: Do they know what a story is? Do they have a view of what people will be interested in?  It’s what it’s always been, it really, really is.”

Carter says news recruits can learn new technology in a matter of weeks, but for him they have got to come in with and demonstrate good news sense and flexibility, which he rates as most important:

 “So often now people come into an interview … but when you say give me a story, they look at you like you’ve asked them to grow a second head. It’s just, you know, that’s what I want, everything else you can teach them.”

The contemporary reporter is a skilled multi-tasker, maintains Dalby. Writing, taking photographs, shooting and editing video, broadcasting via Facebook Live and managing their outreach on social media are all part of the day job. The technical elements of that can all be taught, she says, “so above all we’re always looking for can-do attitude and self-motivation”. 


Funded reporters, apprentices and diversity

Financial input from the BBC, via the Local Democracy Reporting Scheme, and Facebook, which has given £4.5 million to fund the Community News Project has changed the nature of editorial recruitment in the UK regional press. Now there are other avenues into a job, rather than the traditional FE/HE/NCTJ qualification route, with apprenticeships also gaining traction.

With the £4.5m ‘charitable donation’ from Facebook, 82 newsrooms across Britain were able to recruit new reporters under the umbrella of the Community News Project, managed by the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

The 82 new appointments are dominated by the big three publishers with Reach having 28, Newsquest 23 and JPIMedia 19. The others go to Archant (4), MNA Media (3) and a little belatedly KM Group (2) and one each for Baylis Media, Barnsley Chronicle and Newbury Weekly News. The publishers have received more than 4,200 applications, averaging out at more than 50 for each job (NCTJ, 2019).  The positions were open to people with no journalism experience, or some training, and those who have passed their preliminary NCTJ exams.

Clifford, as one influential editorial leader, is a supporter of the apprenticeship route and when interviewed reported that his organisation had taken on 10 apprentices in the previous 12-15 months. He said:

“These are young people, kids if you like, who are at college or finished school and have not gone to university. They are desperate to come into a newsroom and these are people who’ve almost been brought up with the brands. As kids their parents have got it into the homes. I remember someone who was interviewing them said she felt quite emotional listening to them. I see absolutely hunger in these people and I see it as an absolute privilege to walk in a newsroom and work with them. We don’t know what will happen during their training programme but if you can just bottle that and keep it and point them in the right direction then I think they’ll succeed.”

Clifford concedes that apprenticeships have been ‘faddish’, but attributes the success of the movement to onerous university fees and the pressures on students through education. He feels apprenticeships have become re-established, much like the traditional indentureship programme.

Carter takes a dynamic approach to the recruitment process with apprentices:

“When we’re recruiting apprentices, we kick them out into middle of Medway at some point and do what we’ve done before, and tell them to   come back with a story.  If they do brilliant – even if they don’t as long as they’ve gone out and spoken to somebody and demonstrated that they can talk to them – that counts in their favour.”

In a more philosophical reflection Clifford feels all these schemes enables newsrooms to tackle some of the diversity issues of newsrooms dominated by “white, middle class, university graduates”. He continues: “We get people who may never have gone to university, never had the opportunity, but actually are part of, brought up in their community, so I think it will help diversity as well.”


Wider HR and financial responsibility

Returning to Tunstall’s assertion that ‘the personnel management decisions are considerable’, Reeves reflects that things may not have changed that much: “You know your staff costs budget and your freelance budget, there’s nothing new there. Both have been under more pressure and you know constant pressure, in the past 15 years, so there’s nothing new there.” 

Joy Yates, Editorial Director of Johnston Press North East, has learned to understand circles of influence and control as part of her editorial leadership role. “What is out of control just don’t worry yourself about, just concentrate on the things that you can make a difference with and influence. You do you want to be involved in everything, you do want to change the world and do this and do that, but you just have to be sensible,” she says.

She acknowledges that she is open to challenge and thinks it is really important for people to know that. “Just because I have the title of divisional director doesn’t mean I’m not infallible,” she says. “We’ve got people who can recognise people’s strengths, so whereas I can direct and advise and guide do the HR element of sport, I don’t know what those guys know. A combination of our talents and what we do gets us there.”  


Wednesday, November 11, 2020

Editor update: Time for a commercial break

Bottom line and audience

Newspapers have long had editorial staff whose role is to service commercial interests. Titles ranging from ‘commercial editor’ to ‘special projects editor’ and the more straightforward ‘advertising writer’, but now there is an expectation that the traditional editorial leader will take a much more significant stance in the commercial wellbeing of the title and business.

“Editors do need to be more commercially savvy,” says Ian Carter, Editorial Director of Iliffe Media. He recalled a meeting he had with a group of editors:

“I was saying to them that they have to be aware that now more so than ever that increasing your web audience has a direct impact on the bottom line.  I was saying to them if you increase your digital audience three-fold, which is quite easy from where they are now, that means £400,000 to the bottom line, just through increased revenue. They have to understand that and they can’t operate in isolation.” 

Editors have always been commercial, maintains Joy Yates, Editorial Director of JPIMedia in the North East who says they understand private sector businesses and the need to make the bottom line. However, to attract the commercial revenues “more and more we’re finding that it’s the editorial route into some of these big players that really works, so it’s all about collaboration”. And that ‘collaboration’ can take different forms, as she explains:

“It’s not every customer that is suited to a 15 x 4 [a quarter page display advertisement] but they might be suited to an online piece of content which a reader is not thinking is an advert. It’s just more interesting …so its constantly going back to content being key and that’s one of the drivers that we find. So, it’s working closer with our commercial friends but understanding our place in it.” 

Jeremy Clifford, Editor-in-Chief of JPIMedia, acknowledges there is pressure to create content that’s going to attract advertising but maintains it can be done in a positive way, explaining:

“If you write a story which attracts a page view for you then that’s got a commercial pressure with it, because then you’re going to be directed to say ‘right I want more of that content over there’ because I’m going to get more page views which generate more revenue as a result of that. So that’s one of the financial pressures which is a good pressure because you listen to your audience and you monetise it that way.”

Marc Reeves, Marketplace publisher, Midlands & Wales for Reach plc. says that the ultimate direct lever pulled to influence the commercial success of the business is the scale of the audience generated. Instant, contemporaneous metrics are available showing audience engagement online and Reeves admits: “I’m held to account on those numbers every single day, so that’s a new thing.” He further reflects:

“You could say ‘well, that just replaces the old focus on circulation’. It does, it’s really the same thing in a different guise with different economics beneath it and I think on the journey to those editor/publisher roles, I think a more sophisticated understanding of the commercial levers that everyone pulls is probably more necessary.”


The rise of native advertising
Clifford agrees there is commercial pressure in terms of sponsored content and invokes the ‘church and state’ concept too. “I think we’ve got to be really careful and aware of those pressures and we need to still be cognisant of the church and state so that we write content which is there because of journalistic reasons.  That said, I do think there is relationship with commercial organisations that you have as long as you clearly label it, I think that’s also okay as well,” he says.
Reeves thinks it’s important that journalists understand how the economics work. “For too long we had that church and state where editorial just wrote the stories and was quite antipathetic to the commercial side of things, which sort of worked when we were a monopoly and the money was being delivered in lorries every day,” he says.
There is an acknowledgment from Carter that they are quite far into the world of native advertising which brings all kind of commercial awareness and sensitivities. “They [editors] need to wear two hats, they need to be able to wear a commercial hat but also know when to put those Chinese walls up and say, just because my website is carrying a piece of promoted content about your double glazing company we’re still going to be covering you when a house that you’re working on burns down.”
But he denies the accusation ‘why are you doing disguised adverts editorially?’. “We’re not. We have run editorials about local chip shop week since the dawn of time and it’s just a new twist on that really.”

Yates recalls that when she first started in the industry 30 years ago “it was commercial and editorial and never the twain meet. That just can’t happen any more”.


Into the future
Helen Dalby, Audience & Content Director for Reach in the North East thinks the commercial collaboration undertaken by newsroom leaders will develop further in future. She says that it will become increasingly important strategically that the focus as editors is on growing and developing audiences in the ways that they can control. Expanding in her theme, she said:

“We need to use loyalty services such as apps and email newsletters and via a total commitment to a good user experience online and to driving up engagement. The rigours of search engine optimisation have meant that we’ve had to become very disciplined at managing detailed seasonal publishing and republishing. Our increasing commercial collaboration also means it’s important that we as a newsroom are well planned, as good planning and communication gives our colleagues in advertising departments the time they need to monetise the audience opportunities we’re delivering.”

Reeves reflects on the changes of the scale of the newspaper business, where numbers have shrunk from 500 people in an organisation. “We are now down to a newsroom out there with 50 people in it and that includes some commercial people so you can’t have that demarcation anymore. Therefore, the better informed and equipped people are to them make those decisions around the whole of the business the better decisions those will be.”

There is also a concern about the proliferation of primarily internet-based competition. Yates describes the advent of the ‘bedroom journalist’:

“Everybody can create content; everybody can pick up a smartphone and take video and post it on any channels they want to or and anybody is a bedroom journalist. We can all post every day on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat. By doing that you’re creating content so competition is really, really everywhere.”

One of the direct consequences of the drive to become more commercially aware has been the transformation of straightforward ‘editor’ roles into ‘creative content director’, ‘brand editor’ and ‘audience editor’. Whether the world outside the media business has any appreciation of the subtleties of these naming conventions is debateable, but the biggest impact is the message sent to journalists that their vision and scope has to be extended to appreciate that they work for a business that needs to demonstrate it is receptive to commercial concerns.

The multiple channels of the delivery, as outlined by Yates above, also make it important that editorial leaders have a working knowledge of how these applications operate and the advantages they bring to their business as well as the beneficial impact for rival competitors.

Editorial leaders tend, almost by definition, to be a confident breed. The individuals in this study are no exception and by the very nature of their survival in tough times have shown themselves to be astute and commercially aware, although Carter is grateful for what he calls ‘the great stock in editorial freedom’ placed by his company. “I suspect that may not be the case at some other companies where we have seen very good, probably difficult, truculent editors leaving and possibly, and I’m making big assumptions here, slightly more malleable people are in key positions in some companies,” he said.

There is no suggestion that editorial leaders today need to be ‘malleable’ but they do need to be probably more commercially aware than their predecessors.  


Thursday, October 29, 2020

The ‘hands-on’ role of the editor

How does a commitment to a hands-on role translate itself to the editor who has oversight of sophisticated and complicated technology? Jeremy Clifford, editor-in-chief of Johnston Press, is concerned that editorial leaders do not spend time and effort keeping up with the latest technologies that drive the industry. “I don’t know how to fix my car if it breaks…you just need to know how to drive it,” he says. “If you waste your time trying to work out how to use Crowntag or learn Socialflow [analytical tools] and that sort of thing, you won’t concentrate on the core part of what your job is which is making sure that you find the best journalism. You create the best content that you can and that’s all that a real leader needs to do, the tools of the job, they just need to know what tools and how to apply them.”

This attitude could be construed as a minimalist approach to challenges that might appear either too complicated, difficult to learn or time-consuming to perform. Professional engagement with craft skills or technical know-how is not a new issue for editorial leaders. Tasks as relatively simple as ‘cropping’ a picture [deciding which part of a full image to use for publication] and writing headlines that fit in the available space were often performed by the editor, who was able to exert authority and gain credibility by executing them with a high degree of skill. With the advent of computerised newsrooms in the 1980s, some editors chose to engage with the ‘new technology’ while others remained outside.

Many editors around the country are responsible for a complex collection of newspapers and websites. Joy Yates, Editorial Director of Johnston Press North East, says: “I run eight titles and that wouldn’t have necessarily been the case before. I edit three daily titles and when I first became an editor you had one title whether it be a weekly or a daily so I think the scale has very much changed and it makes the approach to what we do is very different. The management structure is far leaner because content is our USP and we have to drive content.”
In order to keep on top of that content Yates relies on what appears to be a traditional news conference, or meeting of editorial department heads, in both the morning and afternoon. “I will always know what’s on the front pages as we have quite a strict conference structure. I might not always get into all of the conferences because if I’ve got a meeting like this but I’m not going to say to the team ‘oh you’ll need to put the conference back an hour’, I have to trust, entrust the power the team that I have to do that so I would never change the structure that we have just to suit my diary for that day.”
For Helen Dalby, Senior Editor and Head of Digital Reach North East who is not a trained journalist but came up through a digital route, there are different concerns. “Moving from a primarily operational role to a more strategic one brings with it the difficulty of letting go of the reins, but I’m lucky to have an outstanding team of digital publishing editors and content editors to work with,” she says.

 Not just ‘how’, but ‘where’

The physical location of the editorial leader can have immediate impact for both the individual and those he is working with. “Do I have an office? No, I can’t stand working in office,” says Ian Carter, Editorial director, KM Media Group. “There is an office that we share and we use it if someone is about to get hired or fired but by and large I like to sit on the news desk and be in the thick of it, because why on earth would you want to lock yourself away from where the fun is?”
But that fun can have a downside. “The toughest part of my job is the fact you are never, ever off duty and it is tough and it puts a strain on everything but equally its self-inflicted because I can’t ignore a story if it breaks. There’s no end point anymore. In one sense there’s no end to it,” says Carter.
Upon arriving for the interview with Marc Reeves, West Midlands Editor-in-Chief, Reach Midlands Media Ltd. who has direct responsibility for eight daily titles, 30 weeklies and their attendant websites, he was sitting in the middle of the newsroom alternately looking at a computer screen and engaging with colleagues. “I sit on the desk all the time when I’m here, if I can. It’s a conscious effort to find time to do some journalism because otherwise it would be squeezed out,” he says.
“I think that it’s really important for me to continue to be active, particularly in Birmingham with the titles I’m directly editing and managing. I think a good editor will walk down the street and come back with a few stories sticking to him or her and I think that you’ve got to be able to do that. It doesn’t mean that you’re writing all the time, of course it doesn’t.” Echoing Tunstall’s observations of the editor as ‘chief processor’ Reeves says he no longer writes headlines. “I used to be a production sort of focussed editor, you just can’t do that anymore and neither should you be because there are people way better at doing those functional things than you are. But first and foremost, your job has to be rooted in the journalism that you’re doing.”

Wednesday, October 21, 2020

“God bless journalists, every one!" - Reflections on A World Without News

‘The research’, a bit like ‘The Science’, can sometimes end up going up its own wazoo and leading us precisely nowhere. There’s also the nagging suspicion that researchers sometimes know the destination and are just trying to find a robust route to locate it.

There’s no doubting that all the right spadework has gone into this piece of research. A nine-page methodology document sets out to clarify its credentials, covering semiotics, behavioural experiments and quantitative surveys.

And the results are unequivocal. We love news and we want it to stay. Journalists, even when the bearers of sad and well as glad tidings, are doing a great job keeping the country both informed and entertained while shining lights in dark corners.

Sadly, as an old friend of mine often says: ‘Fine words butter no parsnips’. While the philosophical argument about the value of journalism will be encouraged no end by this report, the struggle for the financial future in this uncertain world will go on.

But, as Tiny Tim didn’t quite say in A Christmas Carol: “God bless journalists, every one!"

Reflections on A World Without News

Full report in the November issue of PJ News

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