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.
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.