Local journalism’s biggest challenge is still waiting to be solved

Here’s my prediction for 2019: We’re going to spend a lot of time talking about how to fund local journalism. Not perhaps the most remarkable of predictions – and certainly in the same league as that of BBC Media Editor Amol Rajan, who says he doesn’t expect the Cairncross Review into quality journalism to save a single local newspaper.

Or this one from Jay Rosen in the US, echoing the thoughts of Rasmus Kleis, predicting that nobody is going to ride to the rescue of journalism:

Cheery huh? But in focusing, as we so often do, on solving the economic problem local journalism faces (actually all journalism, but perhaps most acutely in local journalism), we often neglect to the problem which sits behind it: Whether people care enough about what we do in the first place.

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FOI Friday: How the Local Democracy Reporter scheme is making the most of FOI


It’s just under a year since the contracts were awarded for the Local Democracy Reporting Service, the scheme funded by the BBC which is aiming to ensure more councils are covered in more depth.

But it’s not just through council meeting reports that authorities are being scrutinised – the LDRS reporters are also making fine use of the Freedom of Information Act.

In a rare return for the FOI Friday blog, here are 10 stories shared with the public via the LDRS based on FOI results:

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Journalism is too important to just ignore the money question

The other week, I tried to explain some changes we’d made to the way we cover football in London. It was in response to a post on a Brentford FC fan site by a journalist called Jim Levack, who was annoyed that the titles I work with no longer send a dedicated reporter to every game.

The reason for doing this was simple: The audience being generated from Brentford FC coverage wasn’t big enough to cover the costs of covering Brentford home and away. It’s not the first time such a situation has arisen in journalism, nor will be it be the last.

I also argued that being present at every game, home and away, is not the thing which makes your coverage of a club credible. There are journalists up and down the country, and plenty of people doing the jobs of journalists in non-traditional ways, who prove that. It’s important, of course, but not THE defining attribute of credible club journalism.

This view generated howls of protest from journalism’s online commentators, some still working in the trade, some not. Very few, if any, were typical readers – as we know, real readers rarely enter such debates.

In various debates on various platforms, I was told I didn’t believe in sending people to football matches (wrong), wanted all journalists to copy and paste from a desk (wrong) and that I clearly didn’t have a clue about journalism to think such thoughts (again, wrong, I hope).

I was also told, on more than one occasion, that journalism shouldn’t be about money. That some things are more important than being able to afford doing it.

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What if a degree in PR and journalism was actually good for journalism?

It emerged this week that the University of Salford was running a degree course which combines both PR and journalism, two professions/trades/jobs which are inextricably linked through the skills they are built upon, but poles apart from the view of the world they take.

For as long as I can remember, it’s been reasonably common for people to decide a leap to ‘the dark side’ into public relations is right for them. The reasons are entirely understandable: better hours, better pay, better perks are among the common explanations offered.

Generally, people don’t come back the other way. Why would they? Yet when I have encountered people who have come back the other way, back into newsrooms, they’ve been the people I’ve learnt most from.

I can also think of several occasions where people with journalism degrees chose to work in private companies in what we’d see as PR – be it as copy writers, social media managers or whatever – and they’ve shone when they do decide to land in a regular newsroom, because they bring something different to the newsroom when they arrive.

Salford is not the only university with such a course. Leeds Beckett, University of West of England, Lincoln and Bedfordshire all appear to have similar courses.

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Football journalism and press boxes part 2: The quest for sustainable local journalism

It’s taken two weeks, a lot of hot air (from me included) to get to a place where we can have a sensible debate about how to make football journalism work in the digital age.

What started with a disgruntled journalist’s claims of clickbait, low-quality content and the linking of not covering Brentford to not being on the ground ahead of the Grenfell tragedy, has matured into a debate into a sensible discussion, assuming you don’t spend too much time on holdthefrontpage.

Here’s what triggered Jim Levack’s disquiet: Reach, the company I work for, has changed the way it covers football in London over the last two years. This has resulted in the launch of the rapidly-growing Football.London site, which focuses on Premier League clubs but has also begun to cover Championship clubs and those in other leagues in more depth. 

As a result, coverage of clubs traditionally associated with Reach’s weekly London titles has moved to football.london. Our aim is deliver large enough audiences through the mass-reach Premier League clubs to be able to sustain full coverage of clubs with smaller fanbases.

Sadly, at the same time, it was clear the way we covered Brentford – Jim’s club – wasn’t sustainable because the audience needed wasn’t there. So we’re trying to find new ways to cover a club whose fans weren’t turning to us in large enough numbers to maintain the status quo.

I can see where Jim’s frustrations come from, even if his analysis of digital journalism is somewhat off the mark. If you value something, and it’s taken away, it makes you cross.

It is a microcosm of the challenge facing the industry: When our belief in what’s important meets business reality, what do you do?

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The story behind Football.London that was just waiting to be told

At the company I work for, we have a website called Football.London. We launched it at the start of 2017. We consider it a success. It’s profitable, growing rapidly and drawing in a loyal audience. It also tries to be different, and mix what we know works elsewhere in the country with new ideas. In short, we think it’s a success.

But success drawn from trying to be different often comes with criticism. And football.london is no exception.

While on holiday, I read that a former journalist at the company, and ardent Brentford fan, had taken issue with the fact that there was no local media in the press box for Championship side Brentford’s opening day fixture against Rotherham.

Jim Levack lamented on Brentford fan site Beesotted: 

It’s a damning indictment of the lack of investment in local and regional media, but also a tragedy for the club and its fans at a time when the side’s potential has never been greater.

Trinity Mirror, owners of the Chronicle for which I was proud to work for almost two decades, have pulled the plug on anything worthwhile journalistically… and it breaks my heart.

The company, now well advanced down the insulting and loyalty losing clickbait route, are far from the only guilty party though as cost cutting and clickbait copy take precedence. And I’m sure – in fact I know  – their journalists are as frustrated as I am by the cuts.

I’m a great believer in accountability and genuinely feel that had there been a strong local media presence in Kensington, the views of the families living in Grenfell Tower whose pleas for help fell on deaf ears would have been picked up and taken higher.

Football clearly isn’t as important as life and death despite what Shankly once said, but it’s a terrible shame that the once vital local reporter no longer exists at Griffin Park.

That’s right, a new football website, employing 16 people with more to come, which is profitable, and which didn’t exist 18 months ago, is somehow painted as an example of lack of investment in the regional press.

The Grenfell line – which also overlooks the fact Kensington and Chelsea Council threatened legal action against the bloggers who did raise concerns about the tower block, thus suggesting they did know about the concerns but were more interested in closing discussion down – ensured the blog post became news first on Press Gazette, which highlighted the ‘lack of investment’ claim, and then the next day on the Hold the front page, which rightly spotted something to feed its grumpy commenters with.

So what’s the background to football.london? Is it all about taking cost out and providing clickbait, as Levack suggests? The fact I’m writing this blog suggests not, so here goes:

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That precious thing when journalism helps to save lives

March 6, 2018 should have been my Dad’s 69th birthday. I say should have, because he died, several hours after my Mum had too, last September. It’s safe to say it’s a day I won’t forget.

The thumping on the front door was the first sign something was wrong. My daughters were in the bath, the doorbell it turns out wasn’t working, and I suspect the police officers at the door had been trying to get my attention for a while.

While my youngsters made the most of the sudden break from the bath-time routine to play noisily upstairs, the two incredibly caring officers gave me perhaps the worst news I’ve ever received. As a journalist, I’ve sat with people in the days after they’ve received terrible news (and far worse news in many respects) about a loved one and wondered how on earth they were coping. Over the next few days I was to learn how they do it: You just cope. And it helps massively when you having an amazingly supportive wife, too.

In hindsight, the next few days were a bit of a blur. There is a process which so many of you reading this will have been through, where every professional involved knows their part, and for me it was relatively smooth. Speaking to the coroner, speaking to doctors, speaking to nurses, speaking to the register office, speaking to the duty undertakers (I had no idea such a rota existed) and to a vicar who gave us such strength by listening, advising but never preaching.

Then there are the phone calls you have to make. To family, to friends, to my parents’ friends, there is no easy way of asking your Dad’s best mate to pull over on a dual carriageway several hundred miles away because you’re worried how he’s going to take the news and you’d rather he was stationary when he heard.

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