The question to ask when an expert criticises modern local journalism

You don’t have to look far to find criticism and commentary about how journalism isn’t what it used to be. It’s all clicks, disconnected from communities, no real news and so on.

And, of course, things in journalism aren’t how they used to be. My own view is that trying to keep things the way they were is one of the things which held our industry back in the late 90s and early 2000s – and something we’ve had to run hard to catch up from.

Yet just because things aren’t how others remember the industry doesn’t mean it’s all bad. It is probably the most challenging time to be a local journalist for many reasons – but there is still a lot to be proud of, if only those who spend their time commentating chose to get inside and have a look.

Which is exactly what Alan Geere, an editorial consultant and (in my limited dealings with him) a passionate tour de force of local journalism, did when he visited Trinity Mirror’s Newcastle newsroom ahead of publishing a piece for Production Journal.

Alan sums up his piece thus:

Rather like they used to say that all young people should do National Service I think all journalists over 50 – especially those not involved in front-line newspaper journalism – should go and spend some time in a thoroughly modern newsroom like this.

They will find committed, capable people confidently handling all the channels of delivery with a dexterity that can only be marvelled at.

Much has changed. All those blinking screens telling you what’s hot and what’s not are a far cry from the “I know what my readers like” finger in the wind editor of not that long ago.

But much is the same too. The excitement when a big story breaks, the leadership needed to steer it in the right direction and the boots on ground skills of talking to people and delivering what you find out quickly and succinctly.

I hear similar stories from academics and ex-editors – and sometimes even academic ex-editors – after they’ve spent time back in our newsrooms and other newsrooms too.

It’s easy to create a view of the world based on headlines and the understandable grumbles of those letting off steam away from the office. But it’s also wrong to do so  when as an industry we face so many challenges from those who wish to question our legitimacy to scrutinise and perform local journalism.

‘It’s all clickbait now’ is a common refrain from politicians who claim to want scrutiny but who also stand to benefit from those doing the scrutinised being diminished in the eyes of readers.

‘Nobody reads you anymore’ is the pathetic claim used by those publishing council newspapers, handily ignoring the fact that even publishers with the most basic of digital plans reach far more people than they have done for decades.

And all too often we get people coming to us on work experience who end up by saying ‘It’s not at all how I was told it would be at university.’ There are exceptions of course, such as students who have learnt from people like Andy Dickinson, Paul Wiltshire or Paul Bradshaw to name but three academics who spend time understanding a modern industry and how they can equip their students to thrive in it now.

And it’s the universities which put stock on how much time their teams spend in our industry which produce the students most likely to flourish in our industry. It’s not about rose-tinted glasses when looking at our industry. It’s about making sure the sepia-tinted ones aren’t colouring your view either.

Alan’s experience of the Newcastle experience resonates with the feedback received when various senior local figures are invited into newsrooms I work with. They invariably leave with a very different view of the world (and often ready to challenge their advisors who have told them the local Press really isn’t important or doing ‘real’ journalism any more).

Of course, how relevant such old world views are to the people who matter – readers – becomes obvious when audience data demonstrates local publishers across the UK are more reaching people for longer and more often than ever before.

So next time someone tells you local journalism isn’t what it once was, ask them when they last spent time in a local newsroom beyond a fleeting hour for a meeting or two. Far too often the answer will be a good while ago.

And that’s a real shame.


5 thoughts on “The question to ask when an expert criticises modern local journalism

  1. This is all very valid and I would urge anyone who’s not been inside a newsroom to spend time in one, absolutely. But we all consume news so are entitled to have a view without doing so, I hope. I must say I really take issue at your much overused stereotype that newsrooms of yore had no idea what readers really wanted, relying not on 24/7 data but instead using that much maligned professional ‘news sense’ and ‘talking to people’ and ‘being part of the community’ – what Alan Grier condescends to call the ‘finger in the air’ mentality. If news publishers continue to withdraw from communities in reality and rely on virtual contact they will fail their readership and allow majority views and interests to dominate at the expense of the less vocal and visible. It’s got to be a careful balance – and why many of those people, like me, that you sneeringly refer to as ‘commentators’ get narked is because we fear the balance is wrong. Most of us ex news eds and journalists desperately want newspapers to thrive – by dismissing anyone who points out failings in our local papers in print or online as has-beens or out of touch is really not helpful.

    1. Hi Jane, thanks. By commentators, I’m talking about the people who make a living from commentating, and who increasingly I feel live on past knowledge, not current reality.

      I think there’s a difference between saying newsrooms way back when had no idea what readers wanted (which I’m not saying) is very different to saying we know far more now than we did, and that knowledge should make us question what we thought we knew (which is what I am saying).

      Too often, use of audience data is dismissed as inferior to gut instinct or journalistic knowhow. As Alan points out, it’s actually about using both well.

      Criticism always welcome (as far as I’m concerned) but informed criticism, which to me must involve actually looking into newsrooms, not just relying on headlines from outside. In other words, helpful criticism. And at no point did I describe anyone as a has been.

      1. Hi David, appreciate your response to my reply – you’re right, you’ve never used the term has-been, I was obviously feeling over-sensitive! We both see the vital role that audience data can play – I guess I am more sceptical about how some publishers are using it and worry about the impact on communities. But I definitely accept the challenge of your initial post – it has been five years since I was directly involved in news publishing. My forays into newsrooms since have been as a student or as a friend visiting colleagues so I’ll be seeking out the opportunity to do so in the very near future.

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