Northcliffe local news: not so local, less of the news

dirtypaper by Just_Luc on flickr(Photo by just.Luc, licensed under Creative Commons)

Northcliffe Media are cutting the equivalent of 30 full time posts on their West and Wales titles, including nine jobs from my area, Bath. One ex-employee of the Chronicle believes this will leave the Chron with an editorial staff of 12 – including the editor, dep ed, four reporters, sport, subs and pictures – to cover a city of 80,000 people. Some of the subbing will be moved to a Bristol-based hub, where four “sticklers for detail with a flair for layout” are being recruited to cover the Chron, BEP, WDP, Gloucester Citizen, Gloucestershire Echo and the Western Gazette.

Consolidation is superficially appealing when a business is trying to hold down its losses – and as the West and Wales papers already share content and some subbing will remain in-house, this central unit won’t be expected to do the work of seven distinct daily and weekly papers. And perhaps Northcliffe subs can be a tiny bit relieved that their entire profession hasn’t yet been rationalised our of existence, per Greenslade. But it does mean that local news production will be still further removed from the area it’s supposed to cover.

Does that matter? Sly Bailey, chief executive of Trinity Mirror Group, spoke to the Media Show about TMG’s closure of nine local papers, and was asked whether these “rationalisations” would affect the quality of local journalism. She answered:

I think that’s a great misnomer […] the new technology that we’re equipping our journalists with now means that they don’t actually have to come to a building necessarily. They can spend more time on their patch, spend more time in their communities.

Bailey’s comforting vision of reporters filing copy to a faraway office from deep within their region leaves the newsrooms as ghost towns. No face-to-face communication between the team, every decision mediated by email and telephone, no opportunity for an editor to oversee and train his staff.

That’s one way in which cuts hurt local news. It’s also likely that reporters will simply be too stretched to know their area fully: if the Bath Chronicle has four reporters, it seems impossible that they can give dedicated coverage to the courts, council, schools, hospital and all the other authorities and services that make up an area. Is it really possible for four hacks to know enough people in Bath to find out everything that’s going on?

The same goes for subs. How will subs in another city be able to pick up on a geographically implausible street name, or a misspelt parish councillor? Probably they won’t. And as over time errors and omissions accumulate and readers realise that, actually, their local paper isn’t anything of the sort anymore, probably they will stop buying. Journalism is what newspapers sell. Fewer editorial staff means less journalism, of lower quality – immediate savings that must be balanced by long-term, incalculable losses.

© Sarah Ditum 2009. Thanks to Phil Chamberlain for help researching this post.

The Bath Chronicle: even better news

Sam Holliday’s column in the Bath Chronicle this week is the shining opposite to the report that originally got me all exercised: it’s thoughtful, impassioned – and best of all, it’s drawn from a hustings meeting he attended and reported on himself. The BNP candidate appeared alongside representatives of the English Democrats Party, Libertas and the Christian Party, but protests outside the venue stopped most of the participants (and the audience) from getting inside.

Holliday’s reflections on how well the debate and protest served democracy are excellent on their own. But the last section is strong stuff:

As for the BNP, well, it just left me deeply depressed. Unlike many of the protesters, I did hear the debate (because I believe you have to hear what people say before judging them) and the moment the party’s spokesperson tried to claim he wasn’t a racist but called black people “Negroes” was the moment I realised this party is wedded to racism – despite the fact that many of them now wear nice suits. Negroes is the language of the American Civil War and not 21st century British politics – and I felt chilled and angry.

BNP? Beyond Normal Politics.

Newspapers can afford to be partisan about the politics of hate, just as Holliday is here. It’s impressive journalism, and it’s put me back in the paper’s circulation figures.

Update: Tristan Cork (the reporter who turned BNP ideology into editorial in the first place) has a column up on the website which I should have noticed before: it seems to begin with self-justification but ends by telling you everything he missed out first time around.

No one likes to be called a racist

Not even the BNP. Which is why they’ve wrapped up their race hate message in a tissue-paper parcel of culture wars speak (with some BNP material aimed exploitatively at children) and done it so successfully that even some of their own candidates didn’t realise quite what they signed up for. Corinne Tovey-Jones, a BNP candidate in Worcester, says she was persuaded to join the BNP after her husband was made redundant, but after having her electoral statement rewritten to criticise the “anti-social behaviour” of “an unruly minority”, she has tried to withdraw her candidacy and is now asking people not to vote for her. She says:

I don’t want people thinking I’m racist when I’m not. My sister’s married to an Italian – how could I be? My mum and dad are religious – they don’t need the upset.

Of course, it’s a lot easier for people like Tovey-Jones to remain ignorant if the reporting they’re exposed to is the uninquisitive fluff I looked at last week rather than the sort of work the Manchester Evening News has been doing. MEN editor Peter Horrocks says:

We took the decision to expose more details on their policies and, when we tried to speak to the deputy leader, Simon Darby, to confirm the BNP’s manifesto in 2005, when it wanted all non-white Britons to leave the country, he essentially said ‘Yes’ but refused to talk about the issue any further. When you think about that, to try and suggest that in multi-cultural Britain we in effect ‘repatriate’ society, it’s just an outrage and we felt it right to bring details like that to our readers’ attention.

The BNP really don’t like having that sort of thing brought to anyone’s attention. In fact, they’re so unhappy with it, they’ve attempted to orchestrate a campaign against the  MEN’s advertisers. From the BNP’s email to supporters:

If enough people do this, the companies in question will moan and groan to the Manchester Evening News’ business directors, forcing a behavioural change vis-à-vis the editorial team and journalists. We are calling on all genuine British Nationalists to heed this call and complain to one of the companies.

The BNP knows that its views are unacceptable. They recognise that “racist” is one of the most dismally pejorative labels anyone can pick up, and they’ve made a distinct rhetorical choice to explicitly deny being racist while expounding policies based on tortuously-defined ethnic groupings. And in turn, that’s why it’s so important that journalists aren’t satisfied with the simplistic point and counterpoint journalism which lets falsehood glide through under cover of “balance”.

Obviously, I agree with the MEN’s stance – but more importantly than that, what they’re doing is good journalism because it gives their readers information they can’t get from the official source. Hopefully, the MEN’s advertiser’s will recognise the value of that, and the perfect worthlessness of bending to a marketplace of bitter bigots.

BNP reporting: the wrap-up at Liberal Conspiracy

Over at Liberal Conspiracy, I’ve wrapped up my recent adventures in local news:

The BNP is a repugnant, racist organisation that is somehow able to present itself as a legitimate political party despite having a leader with a conviction for distributing Holocast-denying literature, a London Assembly member who spouts made-up crime stories and a track-record of misogyny that could keep Jim Davidson in material for the rest of his life.

The BNP is detestable, and it knows as much – which is why the party has been making exerted attempts to rebrand itself, dressing up racism as a culture war and claiming to stand up for the white man on the street against political correctness, immigration, and all those other half-lit monsters that loom from the national press.

There’s a commonly-made argument that the BNP thrive on being ostracised, that presenting them as bigots is playing into their hands. This is rubbish, of course.

Read the rest at Liberal Conspiracy

Good news

Bad reporting is always regrettable for the good reporting it replaces. In the case of the Bath Chronicle and the Western Daily Press’ BNP family story, though, something much worse happened. Poor journalism led to the papers publishing editorial that obscured the politics of electoral candidates and presented three proponents of racist policies as “caring” individuals. The BNP candidate was so happy with the initial report that he celebrated its appearance on wire services: essentially, the reporter (Tristan Cork, who hasn’t replied to my email) has written the equivalent of a press release for the BNP, and done it at the WDP’s expense.

Anton Vowl explains just how indefensible this approach is:

Let me explain to this newspaper editor why the BNP thinks the press are against them. They think that not because they are paranoid fools – although that may well be true – but because it’s true. Why? Well the press are against the BNP because the press is composed of human beings, most of whom are intelligent and rational people, most of whom despise fascism, racism, prejudice and hatred. It’s not a liberal-left leaning of the local press; it’s not some New Labour plot to infiltrate newspapers with lefties. No, most right-wing people hate the BNP too, and quite rightly so.

I was really pleased that Sam Holliday, editor of the Bath Chronicle, turned up in the comments to my post about his paper to defend his work and debate journalism – and even more pleased when he went to and reported on a debate between council candidates (and managed to get all the quotes in quotation marks this time). The report is a strong example of what local news can do well: it involved going out to the meeting, breaching the protest to get inside, listening to the debate and (I would guess) taking shorthand notes as it went along. That’s an evening of the editor’s time at least, and the story the paper gets is only obvious after the work’s been put in.

That sort of reporting costs resources. I can’t comment specifically on the Chron, but in general resources are not that abundant on local papers. And the “Mum, dad and son to stand for BNP” story was cheap in comparison. The Chronicle acquired it from a sister paper (the Western Daily Press). Copy and picture arrived intact, and all it took was a little editing and a new headline to get it on page nine of the Chron. Even for the WDP, which sent a reporter and photographer to meet South-West Family Racism, this was bargain journalism: maybe an hour out of the office for Tristan Cork, and the piece to be written determined in advance with no requirement for additional reporting. The most budgetarily-constrained editor can probably justify that as a way to fill half a page.

But what Tristan Cork produced barely qualifies as reporting. It told me nothing I couldn’t have found out direct from the candidate’s own blog. It was empty puffery, without journalistic merit and without any value to the reader who wants to be better informed about their local area. In fact, the only group it served was the BNP, by haplessly reinforcing the “People like you” line from the BNP’s election literature and letting racists who don’t like to be called racists luxuriate in their bigotry.

Papers that print stories like the “Caring family” one are failing. Not just morally, but financially: in Media Week, Sue Unwin of MediaCom (a company which organises ad campaigns and places press spots) calls the Telegraph expenses scoop

magnificent evidence of the importance of newspapers and proper journalism. […] It is clear that whatever the commercial outcomes of the transition from paid-for newsprint to free online content, we cannot expect to continue to live in a democracy without proper journalists dedicated to annoying the elected members of Parliament.

That’s a person who’s responsible for placing the ads that pay for the papers saying that journalists should be scrutinising politics. Not recycling press releases, and not inadvertantly writing them, but showing up and asking questions. I hope Sam Holliday’s hustings report is the beginning of more coverage like that – because it’s the sort of journalism I want to see, and because it’s the only sort of journalism that can justify the continued existence of the local press.

My local paper’s racist friends

Edit 11 June 2009: the Bath Chronicle has resolved this issue. Please see this post on the further reporting that has been done.

They shouldn’t take the BNP’s ads, but how should papers report on the BNP? They’re a legal political entity (inexplicably, but there you are) and a matter of interest to your readership – both good arguments for publishing stories about them, and that’s before you get into the idea that it’s better to address their arguments publicly than drive them underground. So, let’s say you’re an editor with news items about the BNP’s council election campaigns and the controversy among the mainstream parties about how to engage in debate with a racist organisation. What are you going to do?

Well, how about definitely not doing what this week’s Bath Chronicle did on page nine:

"Mum, dad and son to stand for BNP"

Top story: “Mum, dad and son to stand for BNP”. Bottom story: “Meeting change to avert MEP hopefuls’ walkout”. Not featured: any response to the BNP’s policies, although the top piece helpfully informs us that the party “only lets white ethnic indigenous people join” – a catagory so meaningless it’s surely come straight from the BNP handbook.

From this page of newsprint, you’d get the impression that the BNP is some sort of loveable family concern squaring up to the grey suits of mainstream politics with a bit of underdog spirit. If you’re going to read about the repatriation policy or Nick Griffin’s criminal record, it won’t be in The Bath Chronicle. Sam Holliday, editor of the Chronicle (edit 11 June 2009 to remove email, as Sam has resolved this issue) has decided that his readers need to be informed about the jolly face of the BNP and not their despicable principles. The writer of the “Meeting change” story, Laura Tremelling (edit 20 May 2009: Laura would prefer that her email not appear here, although it is published in her byline in the paper) has spoken to representatives of Labour, the Tories, the Lib Dems and the Greens and either not questioned them – or not quoted them – on the specific reasons they refused to share a stage with a BNP candidate.

That’s lousy journalism anyway, barely adequate to the coverage of a flower show. But when the subject is the BNP, it’s lousy, tacitly racist journalism. I don’t have a local paper anymore.

Edit 20 May 2009 to clarify that Tremelling is only responsible for the “Meeting change” story. The family profile is uncredited.

British johns for British working girls

Local papers are in a bad way. The pressure to cut costs at the expense of editorial has gutted them of their local content, and driven away their readers. And while circulation has collapsed, advertising has headed the same way – eBay, Craigslist and Freecycle have swallowed the market in classifieds, and now there’s a recession, companies are hacking back their publicity budgets. So it takes a brave business to make a principled decision about what advertising they will accept, and Newsquest won lots of admiring comments when they announced that they would no longer accept ads from the sex trade:

Andy Parkes, group editor of Newsquest’s south London papers, is quoted: “Despite operating in accordance with industry guidelines, the company has taken a decision to no longer publish adult services advertisements, either in print or on its websites. Increasing concerns regarding the appalling issue of human trafficking has been significant in this decision, which is effective immediately.”

So what’s a brave company like that doing running banner ads for the BNP on their websites? Maybe it wasn’t the exploitation of the sex trade that got to them. Maybe they were actually taking a stand against the illegal immigrants offering five-quid oral and taking British johns from British workers.

The BNP is a racist party. They might be legal, but all their policies aim to restrict rights on the basis of ethnicity: Newsquest is associating with a brand whose main values are “viciousness”, “stupidity” and “hate-mongering”, and lending them the legitimacy of trusted local titles.

Such stupidity should create its own punishment by repelling readers who abhor the BNP, hurting circulation and pushing your reader profile downmarket where even fewer legitimate advertisers will want to buy a piece of your hopelessly damaged newspaper. But just in case the Newsquest management is too dim to figure out cause and effect, email them and let them know why you’ll never be taking one of their hate-friendly trash-rags again.

Your friendly neighbourhood newspaper

When I was doing my GCSEs, I wanted to be a journalist. I told one of my teachers this: she shuddered as if I’d said I was planning a career in the brothel over the kebab shop, and then said, “You do know that journalists have to do some awful things.” I was 14, so I wasn’t quite savvy enough to explain that I was after a job writing well-informed topical essays rather than one where I had to doorstep the bereaved.

Anyway, the summer after that and before I started college, I did three stints of work experience at the other sort of journalism: three local papers took me on and assigned a patient hack to show me around their world. I interviewed a new lady priest. I scammed sandwiches and wrote the restaurant review. I turned police reports into crime stories (getting bollocked by the sub for my sloppy tabloidese) and magicked interminable NFU press releases into news-in-briefs. I went to the magistrates court, and I went to county council meetings, and found them both fascinatingly banal.

Some of the journalists who taught me were middle-aged and comfortably cynical; some of them were young and ambitiously cynical. But importantly, there was lots of cynicism and a fair amount of smoking at desks, which is what counts when your idea of glamour is mostly derived from Brighton Rock. Ian Jack wrote a good column this weekend about why the local paper matters. Ignore the junior Marxists in the comments: they’re only half right, and Jack’s half is more important.