Ten things I learnt at the Society of Editors Conference

So I’ve had a few days to think about the things I heard at the Society of Editors Conference in Egham, Surrey. I have two other posts to write about it, but I thought I’d rattle off a list of things which have been going through my brain:

1. The politicians that matter still believe in self-regulation of the Press. This is perhaps THE achievement of the Society of Editors conference. A succession of senior Tory figures, including Attorney General Dominic Grieve, justice secretary Ken Clarke and Conservative grandee Lord Patten, now of chairman of the BBC Trust, all advocated self-regulation, which is a big shift on a couple of months ago.

2. Politicians keep inventing a non-existent link between the MPs expenses scandal and phone hacking. On more than one occasion, senior politicians attempted to draw some sort of parallel between the MPs expenses scandal and phone hacking. Most notably, Ken Clarke remarked that just as not all journalists were involved in phone-hacking, not all MPs were involved in the expenses scandal but they still ended up with IPSA (the post-expenses scandal body set up to deal with expenses). It’s a nonsense link. If nothing else, a tiny minority of journalists were involved in phone hacking. Looking at the Telegraph’s expenses archive again, it would appear a majority of MPs got their expenses wrong.

3. The Press needs to watch out for trouble on the back benches. Helen Goodman, the shadow media minister, was in the audience for the SoE. She was the only person in the audience who felt the need to try and shout down people on the stage, most notably new PCC chairman Lord Hunt, as he tried to make the point that the PCC has done a good job for a lot of people. I didn’t catch his response to her statement of the bleeding obvious ‘it didn’t do a marvellous job with phone hacking did it’ because I was distracted by her gurning and head-shaking in the audience. It’s a poor do when a politician is the rudest person in a room full of journalists, and worrying if someone who thinks such behaviour is acceptable is actually trusted to hold a (minor) shadow ministerial brief. I suspect her ‘won’t hear anything good about the PCC’ attitude is common on the back benches, and probably PCC related.

4. Politicians weren’t surprised about phone hacking. That’s what Ken Clarke said, although he did qualify it by adding that the scale and targets of the hacking had shocked him. This then begs the question why they didn’t seek to do something about it sooner.

5. Everyone seems to know the public mood on phone hacking. Many of the speakers seemed to believe they knew the public mood on phone hacking. Richard Wallace, editor of the Mirror, put some evidence behind his suggestion that it hadn’t really changed the way people use newspapers, because he said that circulation performance hadn’t got worse as a result. Others, such as Charlotte Harris, one of the lawyers pursuing claims for alleged victims, said the public was outraged by it. Everyone, in short, seemed to know the public mood.

6. People have more than one emotion towards the Press. Ian Murray, editor of the Southern Daily Echo, summed up brilliantly the point that people have different feelings towards different parts of the press. “It is a bit like the MPs expenses scandal,” he said. “People would say ‘a plague on all your houses’ about MPs but then say that they like their MP and it’s the same with the Press – A plague on all your houses, but I do like my local newspaper.”

7. We need to get better at showing people that we take being censured by the PCC seriously. Back to Miss Goodman again, although she wasn’t alone in expressing this notion that a ruling against a publication by the PCC doesn’t really bother those at the publications. Having only worked in the regional press, I can only go off my experience, but a PCC adjudication is a serious thing. Neil Hodgkinson, the newly-appointed editor of the Hull Daily Mail, made a similar point, while Gerry Keighley, editor of the South Wales Argus, pointed about the regional press did listen to the PCC – citing the more sensitive way inquests are covered now than in the past. Getting the point across that self-regulation – especially around mediation – has worked in many cases still appears to be a work in progress.

8. The BBC is confused about local. Away from regulation now, and Lord Patten said the BBC was committed to making the corporation more reflective of the nations and regions it serves. He cited the move to Salford as one such example, but is moving whole departments from one BBC building in London to one in Salford really going to make the BBC more reflective? I think the answer is no, especially when the BBC is slashing local radio budgets, axing the Politics Show – the only politics programme with a regional output – and almost halving budgets on BBC Inside Out, pretty much the only regional BBC format which breaks regional stories. I’ve blogged more about this here.

9. The ‘web is killing our traditional stuff’ argument isn’t confined to print newsrooms. Alastair Stewart, acting as moderator for the final session (the only one which didn’t look at regulation) revealed an interesting insight into thinking in TV newsrooms when he went off on a tangent about the role of websites in TV newsrooms. He talked of frustration at the website ‘scooping’ the evening TV news by putting out content first. It was comforting to know that web journalists in TV newsrooms face similar arguments to some of their print-based counterparts.

10. The ‘stick two pars on the web and make them buy the rest in print’ dinosaurs are still around. Jim Chisholm, a media consultant, presented the findings of his survey of editors attitudes. In the section marked ‘what I’d do if I was on the board’ one editor had written: “I would go back to on-day editions and only the first two pars of any story on the internet. The public can buy the paper to read the rest. We are giving our content away for nothing, it’s ridiculous.”

I’ve no problem with the first bit – on-day editions can be exciting but do people really turn to papers for breaking news now – but is the first two pars only on the internet to make public buy the paper  view really alive and kicking still? My guess would be the editor who had written this hasn’t really studied his or her web stats.

They perhaps know the number of unique users they get a day, but a geographical split of audience and the number of pages consumed per user should really be enough to convince any of the two par brigade that people simply don’t stop reading newspapers and consume it all online instead.

What this editor is effectively saying is: “I want to produce the paper I’ve always produced. It may have something in it you like but you’ll have to buy the whole thing if you want to find out.” That’s not a problem if there aren’t rivals offering debundled articles online elsewhere, but there are. So the choice is more stark: Either try and establish a presence online, or just disappear. Focusing on ways of making the print product more indispensable would be a better investment in time.  The internet is only the enemy if you’re running out of ideas.



One thought on “Ten things I learnt at the Society of Editors Conference

  1. Some valid points here. I was reporting at the event on behalf of the Society of Editors and I found the debates rather interesting. I quite liked what The Independent editor Chris Blackhurst said in the Phase One debate: “Journalists are considered as somewhere above double glazing salesmen and below MPs in terms of rankings and reputation.” That really stood out for me.

    And I really enjoyed Kenneth Clarke’s keynote speech, most notably because of the odd moments of humour. But I agree with the point you made- politicians definitely declared a non-existent link between MPs and journalists.

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