We need to get better at telling our own story

The short version: If we’re going to thrive as an industry, local journalism needs to become more representative to ensure we reach, and reflect, the lives of as many people as possible. We have a positive story to tell to help us here, but need to be ready to tell it, and also be prepared to listen more.

James Mitchinson, the editor of the Yorkshire Post, last week announced he was looking for a new chief sports reporter. His tweet, which has been much talked about since, said:

That the response from some quarters was predictable tells us a lot about where our industry, or rather those who speak loudly about our industry, is – and probably why editors like James need to shout even louder about their determination to change a business which stands and falls entirely on whether the wider public appreciate what you do.

We stand a far greater chance of being appreciated by the wider public if we are overtly making attempts to appreciate the wider public which we claim to serve. Bluntly, if your newsroom doesn’t reflect the community it claims to serve, you’ve probably got a problem.

Over a decade ago, I remember being sat in a ‘how do we improve newspaper sales’ meetings (back when ‘lets put less on the internet, that’ll win ’em over’ was still considered a viable strategy) and the idea of beefing up the weekly women’s supplement was floated – female readership of this particular title was considered low. Amid approving nods around the table, a marketing executive (a woman in her 20s) asked: “Aren’t we just saying we don’t write news or sport for women then?”

Those are the sorts of discussions we need to be having now, and which I think we are having more – partly thanks to the digital revolution. Digital analytics bring into sharp focus what people want to read, while social media has meant we hear a lot more about what people think about what we’re doing.  But we’ve a long way to go yet.

Digital analytics cut the other way too. Knowing the most popular stories can result in writing more of the most popular stories, thus narrowing down to the readers who are most loyal or most likely to come back. This is why it’s so important to have a suite of metrics which look beyond the unique user and page view headlines.  If our ability to remain in business is based on generating ever more page views, then it stands to reason we have to get better at reaching people who aren’t turning to us at the moment – we’re in the business of relevancy. 

To that end, James Mitchinson’s wish in Yorkshire makes complete sense. As he says, in a team of 25 sports journalists, it seems odd not to have at least one woman. The wider challenge, however, is to get a wider representation of people into journalism in the first place.

This tweet from Amol Rajan, the BBC’s media editor, is startling:

I can see where he’s coming from – but I think his conclusion is damaging. I came straight into journalism at the age 18, having spent every Tuesday for two years at the Chorley Citizen while studying for my A-Levels. In the Lancashire town I grew up in, most people went on to some form of sixth-form education.  That route into journalism, which David Banks alludes to above, largely doesn’t exist now.

But after a Blair government set out to make it the norm for 50% of the population to go to university, surely entering journalism with a degree is to enter journalism with an ordinary education. I work with newsrooms, regional and national, across the UK, and I can think of dozens of people I know who went to state school (although I don’t make a point of asking!), and then entered journalism via a number of routes, although via university is most common. I also know many whose parents scrimped and saved to get their children into a fee-paying school, before they went on into journalism (and several whose parents were disappointed by that outcome!) In short, we need to be very careful when looking to become more representative that we don’t inadvertently say journalism, particular popular or local journalism, is an elite. 

But it is fair to say that a university education probably points to a middle class upbringing, and at least some financial stability to get through three to four expensive years at university. I don’t think that creates an elite in journalism, but it does pose two key questions: Is a university degree really essential to become a journalist? and What about those who can’t afford to go to university?

The university challenge

The challenge we face, as an industry, is to be more representative – and the only probable way of tackling that is to go beyond recruiting from university as standard. There are excellent journalism schools in this country, but we should be asking what they are doing to help make our industry more representative. Running a successful journalism school must involve doing more than filling enough £9,000-a-year seats to remain in financial credit for the university’s accountants – courses need to play their part in attracting people into an industry who otherwise wouldn’t.

Even then, we as journalists need to ensure we’re not just relying on universities to do the work for us – the make-up of our industry has probably suffered due to us over-relying on universities serving up the candidates entering our newsrooms.

Indeed, you don’t have to look far on Twitter to find university academics who discourage local journalism as a career route because of their often out-dated views of what it’s like, still fighting battles a decade old, and seemingly not feeling the need to spend time understanding what the newsrooms which offer the highest volume of vacancies are up to, and trying to achieve. From the outside in, it can sometimes feel that there’s a sense of job done once the student has signed up to their £27k course.

A journalism lecturer told me a while ago that ‘no-one on my course wants to work in your newsrooms’ before spending several minutes telling me everything that was wrong with local journalism. I’m sure you can make the connection too.

The need to go beyond universities is made all the more critical when editorial directors note that many job applicants for trainee reporter roles aren’t actually comfortable talking to people:

Quoted in a recent Reuters report, Ian Carter, editorial director at Iliffe Media,  said: “The two most important things I look for in a reporter are the ability to have one-to-one conversations with people from all walks of life. And that is something that has really changed over the past few years because people come in to us with lots of technical skills.

“But because they live their lives on social media, they are absolutely terrified of picking up the telephone and talking to somebody or talking to someone face-to face. They are so used to doing everything via instant messaging or Facebook or Twitter or Instagram or whatever.”

Ian, by the way, is an industry leader in ensuring new routes into journalism open up – with great success too.

So if, as an industry, we feel that universities (in some cases) aren’t providing students with the right skills, and the pool of people from which to choose the next generation isn’t representative enough, then the challenge returns to us to sell our own story.

We need to spend time selling why journalism, be it local, regional or national journalism, is relevant to anyone who wants to make a difference. If we feel communities aren’t connecting with us, we need to ask why. Mike Norton, editor of the Bristol Post, did this in parts of the city where his title struggled to connect with readers – and found a 21-year-old front page was to blame.


At the time, Mike wrote: “To the people who produced it nearly quarter of a century ago, it was just another Bristol Evening Post front page.

But the effect of that page was so powerful that it offended and ostracised a large section of the city’s community. So much so, that it continues to do so.

Even now, if you go to St Pauls or Easton and ask about the Bristol Post, it won’t be long before someone mentions the Faces of Evil front page of Wednesday, April 17, 1996.

Many of them can still see its simple design in their mind’s eye. Alongside that now-notorious headline stared back 16 police pictures of black men jailed for dealing in crack cocaine.

I don’t blame the journalists who conceived it. I wasn’t the editor then but – if I had been – I’m sure I would have published the page, too.

But it was a huge mistake. That one image essentially destroyed what little credibility and trust the Post had within Bristol’s African and Afro-Caribbean community.”

Mike describes his action as an attempt to reset the relationship with communities. For many communities across the country, it’s not about resetting a relationship – it’s about building one in the first place.

This is why the Facebook-funded Community reporters scheme is so important. It has given publishers large and small the chance to get out into communities and say ‘if you think your community is under-represented, come and work for us.’

The number of people who applied outstripped the places by 48 to 1. But it showed that when the offer is made, there are plenty of people ready to step forward and help make journalism more representative. Our challenge is to make sure more such opportunities emerge, and that we get better at telling our own story.

Shouting from the rooftops that we want to challenge our status quo – as James has done in Leeds – is as good a place to start as any.  That’s what telling our own story is surely all about.



One thought on “We need to get better at telling our own story

  1. For me its all about diversity. If you don’t have representatives of the different elements of the community you seek to serve then at some stage you will hit problems.

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