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.”