When I worked at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, there was one phrase I dreaded more than most when the news editor came out of conference: “Get a boffin quote for that story.”
I guess (or I hope) that it wasn’t unique to the LET – a desire to get an independent expert opinion on a particular story. So out came the university experts contacts book and the hunt was on for someone who could add another few paragraphs to the story.
The assumption was that, as they worked in the university and spent their working time studying an issue, they were experts in their areas. Of course, apply that principle to people working in journalism departments and you’d get a smattering of rolled eyes around the newsroom (that’s any newsroom, not just the ones I’ve worked in).
Generally I’ve learnt that such a reaction to journalism experts at universities is unfair. In the last couple of years, it seems as though the industry has been more keen than ever to listen to the ideas of ‘boffins’ in the hope it might help uncover an answer to current problems.
But with that sense of respect surely comes the need to act responsibily. Which brings me to Andy Williams, the research fellow at Cardiff University who has done a very good job for drawing attention to himself this week with a full-on attack of Media Wales, the company which runs the Western Mail, South Wales Echo, Wales on Sunday and various weeklies in South Wales. (Disclosure: It is owned by Trinity Mirror, which employs me as head of multimedia. As ever, I’m trying to write in a personal capacity here).
The thrust of his argument is that the need to make high returns to satisfy shareholders is at the expense of newspaper quality. Not a new argument, and like many of the other people who have made this point, he doesn’t actually come up with a way to solve the problem he has identified.
He also tries to draw a direct parallel in what he describes as editorial quality with the declining sales of titles. Now this is something a lot of journalists also believe, but it’s not actually proven. Surely, the time of a research fellow would be much better spent proving something beyond doubt rather than making an assumption which has yet to be proved beyond doubt?
Those points and others have already been discussed at length by people elsewhere, but the point I wanted to look at was this statement from Williams:
[reporters] are desk-bound, passive, and reliant on resource-rich news sources with efficient public relations teams willing to feed them press releases which can easily be “re-nosed” into shallow and inoffensive news stories.
When challenged on this by Alan Edmunds, the editorial director at Media Wales, Williams responded by producing an open letter inviting Edmunds to have an open debate with him on the issue. His open letter went on to back up his press release claim by saying
I was particularly troubled you thought my point about re-hashing press releases was untrue, and insulting to journalists at Media Wales. Sadly, my comment was rooted in fact. Much (not all, of course) of the news that gets published these days is re-hashed PR.
How do I know this is the case at Cardiff? Because journalists there have told me (both in interviews and survey responses). The research mentioned above shows that 92% of survey respondents said the use of PR copy in the news had increased in the last decade.
So he’s upped the ante to say that much of the content comes from press releases and this is based on his survey for a study which was funded by the NUJ? The question posed in that survey – which was of NUJ members in Cardiff, and the correct assumption applied to surveys generally is that people who are dis-satisfied are more likely to take part – was:
Survey: How has journalists’ use of wire copy and PR material changed across the last decade?
Answers (for press releases): More frequent (92%), Constant (6%), Less frequent (2%)
That isn’t the same as journalists admitting they write ‘shallow and inoffensive news stories.’ It’s not even the same as saying that ‘much’ of its news comes from press releases. To say that all journalists do is re-write press releases to produce inoffensive news is, in itself, massively offensive to many of the reporters who Williams, I suspect, believes he is a champion of when he waves his fist towards the City.
Press releases may well play a bigger role in newsrooms, but there is a multitude of reasons for this – not least the astonishing growth of the PR sector in recent years.
It’s as though this was a simple re-nose based on a survey of people who expressed an opinion several years ago. To then turn what they said into an attack on the quality of their journalism is very sad. And it begs the question as to what his motivation was. With a lack of proposed [realistic] ideas for solving the problems he identifies, it comes across as little more than an attempt to whip up publicity – and the spin on his own findings suggests there’s little value in anyone accepting his invitation to debate his point. What’s that phrase about never letting facts get in the way of a good story?
Williams, on Twitter, appears to have been surprised at how forcefully Trinity Mirror was to respond to his work. What did he really expect? And what has his recent work done to justify his call for a debate in a public forum? Or for the opinion held by many in the industry of Cardiff University’s journalism school?
I believe that regional journalism can learn a lot from those working in universities. People like Francois Nel, Andy Dickinson and Paul Bradshaw are proof of that. But they back up their opinions with fact and come up with ideas which can be delivered. They rightly generate headlines as a result.
Press Gazette, as is the way there these days, went to town with it – not surprising – while Roy Greenslade ‘made no apology’ for repeatedly covering an important debate. Is it an important debate? That’s hard to call when one side seems hell bent on whipping up a row based on old research and a series of prejudices towards regional newspapers – even if that involves being highly and unfairly critical of the work of those he claims to be fighting for.
A chance to make a positive difference lost, it would appear. It’s one thing to punch a company, another to turn on the hard-working reporters who, a quick glance at any of the titles criticised will reveal, don’t sit there creating inoffensive news from press releases.