Lessons learnt from finding myself on the other side of the newsgathering fence

The other week I wrote a blog post in which I put across my opinion on the overnight printing of newspapers – and how, in my opinion, the idea that a newspaper – which had to be written, designed, printed, distributed and sold before reaching a reader – could act as an on-day breaking news medium competing with the internet, and particularly social media, was a little out-dated.

It was prompted by a newspaper review written by Steve Dyson, former editor of the Birmingham Mail and a big champion of on-day publishing. In his review, he’d suggested that overnight newspapers were out-of-date – a frustrating argument which ignored the fact that, regardless of when printed, most local news still begins in the local newspaper newsroom.

So far, so civil … until it became an article on Holdthefrontpage. Nothing wrong in HTFP picking up on a debate in which two people from within the profession disagree, but it was a rather strange experience to be on the other side of the journalism process. All of a sudden I was ‘hitting back’ at Steve and ‘accusing’ him of foster a dangerous attitude.

Ok, so I know it’s a bit rich for a journalist to point this out – as a councillor I reported on when working at the Lancashire Evening Telegraph was only too happy to point out on Twitter – as we are always after a hard word to harden up a story.

But it did make me wonder how regular members of the public feel when they find themselves in a news story. Why do we feel the need to harden up what has been actually said and done? Does it really only become news when we’ve given it a touch of the Alastair Campbells?

I guess it’s the old sensationalising point again but, in hindsight, maybe in 90% of stories I’ve written involving a councillor ‘hitting back’ he or she was probably, at best, putting across a counter argument.

Does hitting back sell more papers? Or does it, over time, lead to people becoming wary of speaking to a journalist, telling their friends that their comments have been taken out of context so that, in turn, their friends are also a little more wary of the local newspaper?

Furious row, demanded action, hit out, slammed, branded, enraged … they might make the story more dramatic in news conference and appeal to our sense of journalistic story telling … but do they help us reflect the world our readers know?

If you look at many hyperlocal websites – such as Lichfield Live, or Ventnor Blog or SE1 – they can report stories without falling into cliches – is there a lesson for the rest of us here?

Bring out the trolls

Whether changing the way we write so we truly reflect what is being said and done would change anything is a discussion I suspect will never reach a conclusion, so I’ll move on to the other point of this post:  Trolls.

I hesitated before calling people who criticise me in comments under an article about me trolls, but then looked up the definition Wikipedia offers and decided to go with it. In short, not the comments which disagree with what I said – that’s still called debate – but those who plump for just slagging someone off, although quite how much an insult being described as a ‘non journalist’ or ‘digital executive’ is supposed to be, I don’t know.

Again, for a journalist, it’s all water off a duck’s back but it is a surreal experience being on the other side of something we inadvertently expose the subjects of our stories to. In 1998, when I worked on the Preston Citizen – as noted by one of the nicer comments in the article – if someone came in with a story, they’d expect it in the paper, and, at a push, on Thisislancashire. They wouldn’t expect their story to be opened up to an anonymous discussion, largely un-moderated, where people feel comfortable to say what they want because they hide behind a user name.

A journalist at a non-TM title recently told me of his horror at seeing the first comment under a story about a teenaged girl who had died in a car crash. It read: “Phwoar, look at the pair on her.” The comment was, of course, removed and the user banned. But had the user been forced to reveal his/her real identity – via Facebook log-in for example – would he have left that comment? I doubt it.

We strive for audience engagement online and judge our success on the number of comments – but at what cost to real audience engagement? Of course, the comments posted anonymously under articles may be no different to the words uttered over a pint between mates, but when it’s under our brands, the reader – perhaps rightly – can expected to be aggrieved if they end up feeling abused?

It’s often dangerous to compare digital publishing to print publishing – but here goes: Real names are a basic requirement of most letters pages – what is different online? After all, if something is worth saying – it’s surely worth saying with your name attached. (And don’t be fooled by the ‘it’ll stop the whistleblower’ argument – there are many ways to skin that cat).

We live or die by the size of our audience – and the words we use, and the way we allow people to interact with our content is surely critical to ensuring that audience sticks with us, and wants to be part of what we do. In other words, they need to trust that we’ll treat them fairly. 

4 comments

  1. Very sensible stuff. I do have an observation though ( and it’s a general one) that it would also seem fair that the same transparency was demanded of all journos publishing stuff in print or online

    Maybe the level of anonymity that “writing for the paper” offers has given rise to the kind of hyperbole you talk about. How much slamming would go on if contact details where so obvious?

    1. I agree! I remember a few years ago being horrified by a suggestion that we’re a customer service industry – but it’s true. There are obvious exceptions to the contact details point – eg an undercover reporter – but they are few and far between.

  2. I agree with the point about reader comments. I remember following up a story we’d done with a woman whose young son had been sworn at by an iPhone on display in a shop. After the initial story she was furious and refused to co-operate. Not because the initial story had misrepresented her. But because of the comments below it (which were rather uncomplimentary about her physical appearance)

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