JOURNALISM Matters Week is organised by the News Media Association and seeks to celebrate the vital role journalism plays in our society.
With that in mind, here is my response to 10 of the most frequent jibes levelled at local journalism.
Almost all come from social media users. I know the vast majority of local newspaper readers (in print and online) appreciate what we do, and I am so very grateful for their support
1. You only care about selling newspapers
I do care very much about selling newspapers, and growing our website audience too. After all, if I didn’t do that my employers wouldn’t have a business, I wouldn’t have a job, and the community wouldn’t have a local newspaper.
But it is not true that it is all I care about. I care deeply about the important role that local newspapers like the Hereford Times play in society:
- I care that we shine a light on local life without fear or favour, illuminating the bad as well as the good
- I care about the campaigns we run to bring about worthwhile change
- I care that we report the courts so that people see justice being done: the guilty punished and the innocent acquitted.
- I care that we report inquests so the circumstances of deaths are scrutinised and lessons learned from tragedies
- I care that we report on councils and health authorities so voters know what local councillors and bureaucrats are doing in their name, and with their money
- I care that we recognise the achievements of our schoolchildren and young people
- I care that we trumpet the successes of businesses, on whom the prosperity of us all depends
- I care that we provide a platform for rural communities, clubs, charities and fund-raisers to publicise their activities free of charge
The list could go on, but you probably get my drift by now.
2. It must be a slow news day
This is a tedious sneer delivered by those who find fault with a report they find uninteresting or not worthy of publication.
We cater for a broad audience of varying ages, genders and interests, so there are clearly going to be items that do not interest some people.
But the great thing about online news in particular is that there is space for everything.
There may be things on our website that do not interest you, but you can be sure there are plenty of other things that do!
The great irony, though, of the ‘slow news day’ jibe is the frequency with which it is aimed at stories that turn out to be wildly popular (we have digital tools that tell us exactly how many times an item on our website has been viewed, and for how long people have looked at it).
So we know when the things we publish are striking a chord with people.
3. You publish stories from the courts so you can name and shame people
No, we publish stories from the courts so that justice is seen to be done: the guilty punished and the innocent acquitted.
We believe that few – save those embarrassed by their own behaviour or that of their friends and family – would want to live in a society where criminal proceedings are held behind closed doors.
Courts in the UK are, mercifully, open to the public. In practice, that means the Press are encouraged to report on what goes on to help maintain faith in the system.
Like most people, we are relieved to see those responsible for causing great harm punished.
But we do not revel in the appearance of people before magistrates or judges.
We recognise that human frailties, poverty and environment are the root causes of most crime, and that it damages the society in which we all live.
We would prefer a world in which we reported fewer cases from the courts, not more.
People who appear in the courts, or their friends and family, sometimes ask us not to publish details of their case.
We cannot do this. Hearings are held in public and information about what happens is freely available.
It is the job of the police and justice system to decide if someone deserves to be there, not journalists.
Very occasionally magistrates or judges may rule that personal details should not be made public (this is usually to protect victims or children) and journalists must obey these instructions.
Journalists cannot omit or add details to court reports at the request of those who appear in proceedings, however worthy those requests might be.
Newspapers do not remove details of historic court cases from their archive, which forms an important record of events.
They are not obliged to do so under legislation surrounding spent convictions or by GDPR, the European Union data protection law.
People may, however, apply to Google to have indexing to an individual report removed. More details here.
4. You are only interested in bad news
This is a misconception, although ideas of what is ‘bad’ news will differ from person to person.
I have, many times, gone through local newspapers and graded stories along these lines: good news, bad news and neutral.
Admittedly, this is a highly subjective exercise: whether news is good or bad depends a lot on the standpoint from which you are reading it.
Nevertheless, in my surveys the number of good news and bad news stories always tend to balance up, with by far the greater number being neutral.
The perception may come from our tendency to choose dramatic stories for the front page. News is often by its nature dramatic, and sadly can include an element of misfortune for the parties involved.
But our reporting also makes such a positive contribution to the community too.
We shine a light on wrong-doing, campaign to change things for the better, and provide a responsible platform for our readers’ views and opinions.
We are not here to exploit our community, but to be a good influence, to help people find solutions and to highlight the things that bind them together not divide them.
We want to make our community an even better place.
5. Don’t you use proof readers any more?
No, we don’t. Local newspapers have not employed proof readers for a great many years.
You don’t see many lift attendants these days either. It’s not that proof readers or lift attendants wouldn’t come in handy; it’s because the competitive environment in which companies now operate – combined with technological improvements – means jobs like that can no longer be justified.
We try very hard not to make the sort of silly spelling or grammatical mistakes that are understandably annoying.
But some errors of this sort are unavoidable given the breakneck speed at which newspapers have to be produced.
It is also something of a myth that newspapers make more mistakes than they used to.
I worked through the time (not so long ago) when the industry had ranks of journalists checking and re-checking text … and mistakes still slipped through!
One of my most cherished moments of triumph came when I was a lowly freelance sub-editor on The Mail on Sunday.
It was during the very early days in the career of Harry Potter author JK Rowling.
A short item about her had been checked and re-checked during the paper’s extremely exacting editing process.
Yet it was just about to go to press when, with a page proof in hand, I tentatively approached the fearsome chief sub-editor to point out that throughout the piece the then little-known Miss Rowling had been given the pronoun ‘he’.
6. None of your reporters are local
We have detractors on social media who unashamedly encourage this nonsense, perhaps for their own ends. Our small team of reporters at the Hereford Times all live in Herefordshire, and most were born in the county.
Not that it necessarily makes a difference. A good journalist is employed for his or her skill and enthusiasm.
Someone recruited from outside a local newspaper’s patch will soon become absorbed in the life of the local community, and care as passionately as a native resident about its wellbeing.
I have lived and worked in several different towns and cities throughout my career, and have never felt at a great disadvantage for long because I was not born and bred where I worked.
On the contrary, I feel privileged to have experienced different places and have learned things in each that have made me a better journalist.
7. Local newspapers are dying
Newspapers, like a great many industries, face considerable challenges because of profound changes unleashed by the internet. But they are adapting to these changes, not being overwhelmed by them.
The vast majority of local newspapers such as the Hereford Times remain profitable businesses, and are among the most recognised and trusted brands in the geographical areas they serve. Interest in news is greater than ever.
In some ways the news business is similar to the music business.
Sales of compact discs may have fallen dramatically, but we have not fallen out of love with music. We just access it in a different way – by streaming over the internet.
We sell fewer newspapers now, but largely because more people get their news online.
The truth is that the Hereford Times audience is growing: our online readership now outstrips many times over what we achieved in print, even going back several years.
8. You get all your stories from social media
Social media has changed the way we all communicate, including organisations such as local councils and emergency services.
In the past they would have informed news organisations like us about important developments by typing a press release on paper and posting it to us.
Now they issue their updates immediately on social media, so of course we follow their accounts to see what they are up to.
Crucially, though, we question what they have to say on behalf of our readers. We add context and background. We do not simply re-publish everything they say.
We also find news from keeping a watching brief on everyday activity on social media.
Why on earth wouldn’t we? It forms a very public conversation that reflects the concerns and interests of local people, and it is right that it is reflected in their local news service.
When I was a young reporter, I would meet the local police inspector and we would together go through his or her incident book over a cup of tea to find out what had been going on.
Now I follow their Twitter account.
Many of my news stories used to originate from chats I had with people in the pub. Now they come from conversations I have on social media.
We have not become lazy, we have just changed with a changing world. As you have.
9. You publish too many ‘trivial’ and non-local stories
One person’s ‘trivial’ item may be of great interest to someone else. That is one of the challenges of producing content for the broad range of people who follow local news.
But it is important to remember that not everyone wants a diet of serious news. Most prefer light and shade: something substantial alongside something that makes them smile or lightens their mood.
We have always provided this. Horoscopes, recipes, quizzes, children’s clubs and cartoons have been our staples for decades!
In fact, my love of newspapers began when I was a child listening at my grandmother’s knee while she read aloud to me the cartoons from the Sunday Post.
I graduated from listening to stories of Our Wullie and The Brooms to buying The Sunday Times from the local newsagent. I would spread it out to read on the sitting room carpet every Sunday morning, marvelling at journalists’ ability to help me understand an exciting but complex world.
We do publish stories that are not directly about Herefordshire, but only because people here are affected by and interested in what goes on further afield.
For instance, we regularly feature items about familiar high street brands. We do that because they are as relevant to people here in Herefordshire as they are to anyone.
We sometimes publish stories from our neighbouring counties.
We do this partly because the Hereford Times is popular as a source of trusted news beyond the county boundaries, and partly because many people who live in Herefordshire also have an interest in the place where they work, which may be outside the county.
10. You’d trample over anyone to get a story
Journalism, like many professions, is often dramatised inaccurately on TV and in films. The cynical reporter bending the rules to get a story has become a pantomime villain.
But the portrayal bears little resemblance to the truth.
British reporters work within some of the strictest legislative restraints in Western democracies.
We cannot write whatever we want, because libel laws correctly forbid the publication of damaging untruths about people.
Our reporting of the courts is governed by strict rules too. We cannot, and would not, name children involved in criminal cases, or the victims of sexual assaults.
Alongside these and other legal restrictions is a strict ethical code of practice to which we adhere.
We are subject to a regulator called the Independent Press Standards Organisation, which has the power to impose large fines and order corrections if we breach the code.
We are professional people who take our responsibilities seriously. We work hard for modest financial rewards because we enjoy being part of a community and contributing to its wellbeing.
There is no doubt that the reputation of journalism has been tainted by the phone hacking scandal, and the evidence that was heard in the Leveson Inquiry into the Culture, Practices and Ethics of the British press (its findings were published in 2012).
But only a comparatively tiny number of journalists – all of them in the national press – were responsible for the malpractice exposed.
Arguably, there was no need for a showtrial-style inquiry. Phone hacking is a criminal offence, and those few guilty of it could have been prosecuted without dragging the whole industry through the mud.
- I know the workings of the media arouse strong feelings in some people, who will want to challenge what I have written here. I will answer as many of your politely-put questions as I can, but I do NOT respond to trolls. Please leave your comments below.