Journalists: We know we care, but do our readers?

Kent Brockman, TV newsreader on The Simpsons, is famous for looking bored but do journalists need to make sure they show they care?

At the news:rewired conference in London, there was a panel discussion about data at a local level. Philip John, one of the brains behind the Lichfield Blog was among those on the panel.

When the panel was asked how to get local journalists interested in data, Philip launched into what he almost instantly told Twitter was a ‘rant.’

He suggested that a problem for local journalists was that they often don’t care about local issues. He cited as an example a recent protest he’d attended in Lichfield against plans to stick the High Speed 2 rail track through the area. Ross Hawkes, the journalist who co-runs the Lichfield Blog, was covering the event for the site.

Philip told the new:rewired conference that there were four journalists from mainstream organisations there – local papers, TV and so on – and they remained in a huddle, talking amongst themselves while Ross went and spoke to the campaigners, getting several good stories as a result.

The quote from the newsrewired live blog of the session goes like this?

Phillip John says it’s a ‘lack of passion from local journalists’. ‘You’re meant to care about the community and tell their story’ and data is a big part of that. Knowing your immediate locality allows you to ‘create cool stuff’ that residents find useful.

The journalist in me instantly disagreed with Philip. Many local journalists care a lot about what goes on around them. They do care about the things, the people and the issues they write about. For many, the chance exists for much better paid jobs thanks to their university education but they choose to remain in local journalism for a variety of reasons.

But two facts meant I thought again during the train journey home. 1) My experience of working with Philip is that he’s rarely wrong and b) the fact he’s not a journalist. Maybe the issue Philip spotted wasn’t so much the fact local journalists don’t care about their local area, but the fact they don’t show it.

Basing assumptions on one anecdote is always dangerous, and in the case Philip referred to, we don’t know if the journalists already had their stories and were just attending to see if anything happened. We don’t know what interviews took place away from other journalists, or indeed what other involvement the journalists attending had with the campaign.

The Great Harwood Show. (Picture from the Blackburn Citizen)

But the picture Philip painted is one I recognise – having been there myself. As a trainee reporter during my first year on the Lancashire Evening Telegraph, I was sent to cover the Great Harwood Show. It wasn’t my idea of a good day out, and on more than one occasion people there told me I looked bored. Collecting details of who won the ‘best speckled hen’ or ‘most woolie sheep’ may not have been my idea of interesting news, but why had the paper sent me? Presumably because they knew a lot of readers did care about it. Did I care about doing my job well and covering my patch? Yes.

Here’s another example of what I’m getting at: At every election count, be it for local or national elections, you’ll get a gaggle of journalists who talk among themselves. Often, I’ve seen enthusiastic reporters chasing as many candidates as possible to get quotes while others just talk among themselves. The gaggle normally includes more experienced hands who clearly know the drill. But does that mean they don’t care? No.

My point here is that what Philip observed, I’d argue wasn’t an example of journalists not caring, but not demonstrating they care. And maybe that’s something we, as journalists, have to work on.

Circulation figures demonstrate that many people feel that what we do isn’t an essential part of their lives any more. How many readers my bored attitude at that agriculture show cost the paper I’ll never know, maybe none, maybe a dozen. But if we aren’t showing we care about the things our readers care about, then we’re only making the situation worse.

There are examples of how demonstrating that we care about the things readers do can drive sales. I’ve mentioned the Birmingham Mail’s Race for a School Place series before, but it helped drive sales because the paper demonstrated it was interested in devoting a large amount of space to an issue which involved thousands of people every year.  The same paper found itself inundated with hundreds of pictures from high school proms after it produced on supplement of proms pictures last year – generating two more supplements as a result.

I’d argue that shows that people respond when they see we’re interested in the things involving them. Another newspaper I work with doesn’t say ‘sorry, we don’t do cheque presentations’ when people ring in, rightly proud of the several hundred pounds they’ve work very hard to raise. Instead, they say ‘sorry, we can’t attend but if you can send a picture, we’ll do our best to publish it.’ It also provides tips on how to improve the quality of a picture. There’s the difference between a reader becoming disaffected with the newspaper and feeling that it still cares.

As journalists, we often dismiss criticism of what we do from people who aren’t journalists by saying ‘they’re not journalists, they don’t understand.’ In this case, I think Philip’s hit on something – precisely because he isn’t a journalist. It’s not that journalists don’t care, it’s that we’re not always that good at showing it.

6 comments

  1. Blame, I really need to stop ranting at news retired! If only because I end up wanting to explain myself. You’ve done that for me very well though.

    On the HS2 example, Ross got some great personal stories that the other media simply didn’t. It’s one of many examples where our own volunteer-created coverage has dwarfed that of trad media.

    I partly wonder whether the cause is a culture/morale thing. Given the attitude from some regionals towards the question of sustainability I wonder if their ‘must make money’

  2. Blimey, I really need to stop ranting at news rewired! If only because I end up wanting to explain myself. You’ve done that for me very well though.

    On the HS2 example, Ross got some great personal stories that the other media simply didn’t. It’s one of many examples where our own volunteer-created coverage has dwarfed that of trad media. The reasons for that though are many and generalising like I managed to do with my comments isn’t right.

    I partly wonder whether the cause is a culture/morale thing. Given the attitude from some regionals (management, I mean) towards the question of sustainability I wonder if their approach (seemingly sacrificing good journalism to keep making a profit) has filtered down somehow.

    I’m not suggesting journalists are only interested in money (you’ve already pointed out why that’s pointless) but perhaps journalists are more conscious that they need to make money for the paper so they are subconsciously changing their attitude towards stories they perhaps don’t see as profitable.

    You’ve given examples that show you’ve identified where your passion for reporting influences sales of the paper. So perhaps what I’m trying to get across is that regionals need to be looking at why the paper sells and helping its journalists to see that. The passion would tie directly into a successful paper as well as a well-served community.

    You’ve written on this before David so it’ll be nothing new to you. If only all regionals involved their journalists like that, instead of sacking them and replacing journalism with glorified discussion forums.

    1. Really interesting point. Many newsrooms are geared up so reporters chase for the front page, and the assumption is the front page sells papers. But perhaps we need to get better at articulating the value of other content within the newspaper. Reader research time and again points to how much readers value community news pages, yet there’s not much glory to be had there for a reporter if the newsroom is geared up to praise the person who gets the front page. Interestingly, this is an area where web analytics can help, because it can demonstrate more accurately what people are interested in.

  3. Do journalists care about what they are writing about and who they are writing for? Yes, in nearly every case. The ones who don’t are normally well known within a newsroom.
    But here’s they key. Everybody knows that one of the main factors that determines how well a news website will be is how well it engages with its readers. It’s an old point made over and over again.
    Regional journalists need to start building their online profile – they are after all some of the most informed and objective people when it comes to quite complex local issues (eg health, crime, local government, local news).
    By profile I mean talking to readers on Twitter and Facebook, blogging and commenting on stories they write.
    Sports writers seem to be way ahead of their news colleagues in this area.
    So, if the huddle at the HS2 (and David at the Great Harwood Show) were tweeting and blogging on their stories then readers would know they cared.
    But it is 100 percent against the nature of a reporter to do this. Reporters are not supposed to be part of the story, we are told when we are trained.
    Traditional media is trying to build its online communities and audiences. It’s time more patch and specialist reporters made themselves as well-known and respected online even if they can’t always live up to it offline.
    Then people will know we care.

    1. Apply the same rules of social media to the people, on the ground, standing outside the Guildhall waiting to ask the secretary of state why he wants to demolish their homes and businesses.

      There’s a saying I love and can never remember where I picked it up from – “no involvement, no commitment” and it applies so well here. If you’re not involved in the community you show a lack of commitment to that community. You communicate to those people that you don’t care beyond getting a story to fill the front page.

      Demonstrate you do care and you’ll earn respect and garner a loyal following who will buy the paper every week to read that piece you wrote after visiting the church fate and chatting to the perishioners.

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