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.

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Society of Editors: Lord Patten says the BBC cares about regions, but where will it get its stories from?


At the Society of Editors conference, Lord Patten, chairman of the BBC Trust, was at pains to be friendly to the Press. For example, he stressed that local newspaper journalism simply could not be further removed from the alleged phone-hacking activities at the News of the World. Those of us who work in the regional already knew this, but it’s nice to hear it from someone else.

But there were other moments in his speech which left me confused about where the BBC stands locally. He suggested that the proposed cutbacks at the BBC wouldn’t hurt the quality of journalism, thanks to making better use of material gathered locally, nationally and internationally.

He went on that the BBC’s main concern shouldn’t be defending allegations of bias, but making sure that the voices of people across the UK were heard and reflected on the BBC. Continue reading

Data: Can journalists get as excited by freely-available data as they do finding secrets?

Christopher Graham, the Information Commissioner, said something at the Society of Editors conference which struck a chord.

He asked a question, during the democracy session about whether journalists will get as excited by freely-available data as they do about getting hold of information which isn’t already out in the open.

Every journalist will relate to that sense of delight when a good FOI comes through, or when a contact delivers a bit of information which stands up your story. I used to love receiving anonymous letters from a contact inside Blackburn with Darwen Council who provided just enough information to stand a story up.

But will journalists get excited about wading through the data which is becoming available? Hopefully, the answer will be yes.

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Society of Editors Conference: Chasing the right audience

In one discussion yesterday, Kevin Ward, editor of the Worcester News, raised a point which I thought had been a long time coming.

He described a story from a couple of months ago which told how a number of students dressed in fancy dress costumes had smashed up cars in a street.

The story attracted vast amounts of traffic after being picked up by an ‘American aggregator’ – I suspect Fark.com. Ward said that he felt like the Grinch in the room when his commercial and web teams got excited by the spike in numbers. ‘Those people aren’t our audience,’ Ward said.

Of course, it’s hard not to get excited – especially in an industry used to seeing minus signs next to circulation figures – when a story goes bonkers. But rather like the hangover after a good night, you do end up wondering whether the pain of trying to match that high figure the next day, week or month is really worth the delight at a temporary blip.

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Society of Editors Conference: About university training

There was much grinding of teeth when Derek Tucker, editor of the Aberdeen Press & Journal launched his attack on university journalism courses:

“It frustrates me – and I know many other editors feel the same – that a lot of the young people leaving so-called university journalism degree courses are totally not suited for coming into newspapers.

“Very few possess the street cunning and inquisitiveness that is the hallmark of good journalists and it often appears that English is a second language.

“Unfortunately though we also washed our hands of the careful selection process which places the attributes of a good journalist above or at least equal to educational qualifications.

“Tomorrow’s journalists must be identified and trained by today’s journalists not yesterday’s enthusiastic amateurs.”

One thing which has always struck me as odd about the SOE conference is the sheer number of university types who are there – they probably outnumber editors.

And given the way the newspaper industry is used to getting criticism by the bucketload from some university experts, you’d have thought those in the room would have been able to reply with some sort of sensible reply.

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Society of Editors conference: Blaming just the internet for circulation decline is lazy

At the Society of Editors conference, Derek Tucker, the soon-to-retire editor of the Press and Journal in Aberdeen, argued that the regional press had made a mess of online because ‘no other industry would sell what it made one way, but give it away in another.’

He argued that the relatively strong sales performance of his titles in Aberdeen was down in part to the fact that they  restrict the amount of content which goes online, along with the time that it goes online. He said circulation decline was greater on titles where the amount of content online was greater.

It’s a discussion Tucker has clearly had many times before, because he preempted the usual response of ‘if we’re not online, someone else will be’ by arguing that nobody covers news in his part of Scotland as well as the P&J. In his words, citizen journalists and bloggers aren’t on courts bench or in the football press conferences.

There were some nods at this. But to go along with the argument is to misunderstand the different ways in which people use news in print and online. Rivals online – be it the BBC or a hyperlocal site – don’t need to cover as much news as a newspaper does, they just need to provide enough to fulfil the need of the user.

In print, the reader buys a bundle of content, only some of which will appeal to them. Trial and error tells us the content people want in that mix. Online, they can seek out just what they want. Four ‘local’ stories on the BBC site can leave a reader feeling they know all they need to know.  In that scenario, is it the internet that might put off a reader buying the local newspaper, or the fact the local newspaper is online? I’m inclined to think that if it is either, it’s the former.

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