BBC regional – it’s all take and no give

July 3, 2009

There is a clear and strong need for the excellent national news the BBC provides. It’s indepth and more importantly it strives for neutrality. It’s excellent value for money.

But in my view, it’s regional coverage is anything but good value.

Far too often the BBC regional sites simply take stories from local newspapers, cut them right down and then pass them off as its own work. How is that a public service exactly? At best it’s a news aggregator of a county – at worse it’s taking audience away from other local news websites, many of which have more in depth and detailed stories.

Now I’m the first to admit that many regional paper websites are poor, some extremely so. But most aren’t as poor as the BBC’s.
 They are poor because they offers less news, less in-depth news, and more boring versions of stories.

Take BBC Cambridgeshire today – http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/england/cambridgeshire/default.stm (this page may have changed by the time you’re reading this).
There are five stories on there, three of which are four line crime nibs. These have probably either come from police press releases or a phone call to the press office. Between them they would have taken ten minutes to write (and that’s being generous).

One of the stories is a decent enough local business story with a short video clip.

And the fifth is a blatant example of a newspaper story being ripped off.

The headline reads: “Historian ‘posed as a war hero’.” And underneath “A Cambridge-based military historian who posed as a war hero has been exposed as a fantasist, BBC Look East reveals.”

But further examination of the story and it’s not a Look East revelation at all – it’s a Cambridge News story (or rather Cambridge Evening News as the BBC wrongly refers to it). Worse, the story actually appeared in the daily paper last week.

Now it’s bad enough taking credit for ‘revealing’ a story already in the public domain, but to make it worse, the BBC has refused to share a video clip of an old interview with the ‘war hero’ with the paper.

So like the bully in the sandpit, it’s ok for the Beeb to steal from everyone else and pass work off as its own, but it wont share its own toys.

So I have to say, perhaps Alastair Stewart has a point. Let’s take a proper look at the many parts of the BBC and see if they really are all necessary. http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/jul/03/itn-alastair-stewart-bbc-beeching

My only concern is what happens when more regional papers go to the wall? If all we’ve got to fill the gap is the BBC regional then regional news is stuffed.


Inquiry into council newspapers

June 17, 2009

Just a short one but I’m delighted to see that the politicians are awake to the threat of council run newspapers.

According to holdthefrontpage: “The Digital Britain report said it would be “against the public interest” for local papers to be rendered unviable by the flight of paid-for advertising to local authority publications.” http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/news/090616digbritreact.shtml

I’ve said before that I have no problem with council newsletters. Indeed, I can see the strong value of informing tax payers of what their money is being spent on.

My issue has always been the council’s pursuit of advertising revenues and dressing council sheets up as proper newspapers.

I’ve addressed my arguments before here: https://monkeysandtypewriters.wordpress.com/2009/03/26/council-journalists-arent-best-value/

But I still haven’t heard a convincing argument as to why councils need newspapers rather than newsletters.


Dream a little dream…

May 6, 2009

Today I’m taking a quick trip to Cloud Cuckoo Land as I’ve decided that I’m going to win the £110 million Euro Lottery jackpot on Friday.

After treating myself a nice little mansion (complete with an indoor five-a-side football pitch) and a swanky pair of leather trousers (always a good look for a 30-something chubster), I’m going to use the change to buy myself a fair sized regional newspaper.

But this wont be a rich man’s folly (ok, maybe it will be a bit), as I honestly believe my newspaper will make healthy money. And if doesn’t, then at least I’ll still be doing something worthwhile with my not-very-hard-earned cash.

Yes, I’ve read all the blogs, articles and listened to the poisonous pundits predicting the inevitable demise of the regional newspaper. And I’ve seen the depressing financial statements of the big players.
I’m also a paid up member of the adapt-to-new-technology-or-die school.
But I think the reason many newspapers will cease to be is not because the newspaper is a dying platform.

It’s purely down to greed.

If the big companies could accept that the 30% profit margins of five and ten years ago will soon be about 10% to 15%, and that that the £180million of 2005 could fall as low as £80million in the 2010, then they’d have a chance at survival.

It wont happen of course. The shareholders are still demanding unrealistic dividends so the bosses will keep making cuts to try and meet them. They’ll do so until the last remaning journalist dies of exhaustion or it dawns on the final reader that he’s simply being fed rewritten press releases.

But I still believe in newspapers as a medium. TV didn’t kill the cinema or radio, and the internet didn’t kill books. Audiences fell, but they remained viable.
The smarter among you will point out that newspaper audiences are falling at a more alarming rate than those, but I think the figures will eventually bottom out.

And if you marry the remaining audiences to other platforms, then the product might still work.

So, how would my newspaper work? Well, basically as a not-for-profit venture.
I’m already stupidly wealthy remember and I’m pretty sure I could live with just the one hoveryacht.

I’m well aware that a stand-alone product probably wouldn’t cut it, but as I’ve not completed the internet yet, I’d employ smarter people than myself to play around with the multi-platform diversification malarky.

My goal is simple – a newspaper (or news product) which can sustain local journalism. While I wont care about increasing my profits every year, I’m not completely stupid and I’d want it to at the very least break even, rather than eating into the tens of millions of pounds sitting in my Barclays Super Saver account.

In very simplistic terms, the paper I work for currently can pay all its staff and overheads for the year in about six or seven months. Everything else is money in the bank (or rather subsidises other parts of the business and keeps the shareholders in hand cream). And this is in the middle of a recession.
Things would have to get a lot worse for it to start losing money.

My last post but one explains a bit about how my current paper is making money so I wont bore you too much here. Basically it’s by not being (as much of) a slave to rigid corporate policies and not giving away adverts so cheaply it harms the product.

So with the profit I think I can make, I can strengthen the business by reinvestment, putting cash aside for bleaker times and even sharing some of it about with those who helped to make it – either with genuinely fair salaries or, God forbid, bonuses.

As for staff, I’ve already got a mental list of the most talented individuals I’ve worked with for the more plum positions.

It’s a dream and a very flawed, naïve dream. But maybe one of us die-hard news types will strike it lucky and give something like this a go.

In the meantime I better get back to doing three people’s jobs.


Council ‘propaganda’

April 23, 2009

Just a quick one stolen from Roy Greenslade, about the council newspaper debate.

Roy quotes from Jon Slattery’s blog:

“When I interviewed the editor of a local council paper for a piece on town halls and the local press in The Journalist he told me:

‘Some council papers are trying to ape the look and feel of a local paper, but what we do is propaganda. When I report the council’s budget proposals I look for positive stories and don’t mention the £6m worth of cuts. If I reported that I would be sacked. I don’t tell lies, but I always look for positive stories.'”


Now for some good news

April 15, 2009

At a rather frustrating distribution meeting last week, I was pleased to get some good news about how well my paper is doing commercially.

 

It is now the third most profitable free weekly paper in the group. That may sound like a small thing, but to me it’s a massive milestone.

 

It’s important to note that although my rag is a free paper, it’s still a proper newspaper with 30 pages of news, two pages of letters, six pages of ents and five pages of sport. Pretty much all of which is original, local content.

It’s also worth mentioning that one of the more profitable frees is recycled content from the daily with virtually no overheads attached to it.

 

This post may sound rather self-congratulatory, but its point is to show how far my paper has come. And more importantly, how a little bit of leeway from the non-editorial bigwigs has helped the paper blossomed.

 

Those who know me will be aware that this is my first editorship. I’ve been in the chair for two years now, but six months ago I was terrified that my short career as the big man was about to come to an abrupt end.

 

The paper was losing money, pagination had plummeted and the editorial space was constantly being squeezed.

 

The paper in itself wasn’t too bad and it was the second biggest in a market of three free papers.

But more and more the obsession with margins and targets started pushing the importance of its editorial content way down the list of priorities.

 

The advertising ratio targets in particular became the bane of my life. 65% of all space had to be filled by ads. The target was set during a time when the paper had 20 full pages of property advertising. This had fallen to just four pages by the time I took over.

But the bean counters were adamant that these targets had to be met. Arguments that we could get a higher yield per ad with a better news product fell on deaf ears.

And as I was only allowed to bring the paper up or down by eight pages at a time, I was spending more time sitting with the advertising manager, calculater in hand, to try and meet these ridiculous goals than I was sorting out the editorial content of the paper.

The paper got steadily smaller and tighter, and while the we actually increased the number of ads, we were making much less per page than ever before.

 

I was also working without any full-time reporters as both my talented young hacks had moved on and weren’t replaced. We survived for six months with myself, my deputy, a two-day-a-week reporter and one freelancer a week. I was lucky to find exceptional freelancers at various stages (and only the one turkey), and the paper was surprisingly not actually that bad.

 

But with the industry making drastic cuts across the board, I could feel the axeman not just breathing but hyperventilating down my neck.

 

Worse, I had bought my first house just a few months before the credit crunch kicked in and my wife was expecting our first child.

 

So when I was called in during a week of annual leave to meet the MD, I was mentally rewriting my CV and praying for a not-too-souless PR job.

 

Instead I was shocked to be told that the paper had been sold to one of my rival papers – and a smaller paper at that.

Bizarrely, I was not best pleased with this at first. I had spent months trying to best these guys and they had become if not quite an Arsenal, then a West Ham to my beloved Spurs.

 

But my initial reaction was wrong, once the papers had merged, with myself and my deputy keeping our jobs, life and the paper got better. I now have two full time reporters again and I can also take county-wide copy from the daily title. For the first time in years, my paper is also covering court stories again.

 

The best thing about the merger was how much emphasis was put on the editorial side of the paper.

The thinking was to create a good quality, open newspaper, and then to try to make it work financially.

News was put before profit, even if it was just while the paper bedded in.

It was expected that it wouldn’t even make money to start with, but the profits would grow along with the paper’s reputation. In actual fact the paper made a small profit straight away.

 

The first edition looked superb (despite a few minor irritations), with twice as many pages as before and more open pages. More importantly the advertisers were prepared to pay proper rates for as their ads were not competing with five or six others on a page.

Our weekly revenues are now twice that of my old paper, and this is in the middle of a recession.

 

It’s not all been plain sailing and for the first few weeks I didn’t think I’d be able to cope with the longer commute and extended hours. But my week is now perfectly manageable, and more importantly I’m proud of what I’m doing again.

 

The paper is a long way from being perfect – another reporter would vastly improve things – but we’re holding the local authorities to account better; we’re getting good debates going in our letters page; feedback has been largely positive and I feel like an editor once more rather than a manager, a firefighter or a ‘news facilitor’.

 

So with all the doom and gloom about at the moment, I still have some faith papers can survive, but only if their editorial content is treated with respect.

The days of the 30 % profits margins have gone, and yes, that £180m profit is now just £120m.

But the fact is profits can still be had, and good profits at that.

 

 


Council journalists aren’t ‘best value’.

March 26, 2009

I had a quick Twitter debate this week with two associates regarding the Dagenham council ‘newspaper’ jobs and how I was outraged at the ridiculously high wages it was going to pay its ‘reporters’.

The 140 character limit of Twitter can make such debates tricky, and I don’t think I made my case clearly enough, so it’s a good job I have a blog, read by at least four people, where I can win such arguments (even if it’s in my own head).

As you may or may not be aware, the London Borough of Barking and Dagenham is launching The News, a “new fortnightly community newspaper”.

I can see nothing wrong with the council newsletters most local authorities put up, as they don’t pretend to be anything other than the council communicating its message (I’ve read so many press releases I’m starting to sound like a press officer here).

But this newspaper idea is very dangerous and will undoubtely be confusing for many readers.
A council spokesman said The News would be a newspaper concentrating “on community rather than hard news”. 
In other words it will still be a pro-council product which will carry only positive council stories, but it will be posing as a professional vehicle driven by journalists

If that’s not bad enough, The News will have a very damaging effect on exisiting local newspapers – if not put them out of business entirely.
Not only will the council pull some of its own advertising away from the local press (even without statutory advertising this could be several tens of thousands of pounds), but according to the Press Gazette, the paper will seek to be “self-financing by competing for advertising from the commercial market”. In other words it will actively look to steal advertisers from the Dagenham Post.

I saw an excellent comment on one story about this. The commenter made the analogy of you owning a sweetshop, and then the council opening a sweetshop next door using tax payers money to get started. The council sweetshop can continue to be subsidised by taxpayers money as long as it needs to, so it will have none of the risks of your sweetshop and can sell its sweets cheaper.
Your only hope of survival is that your strawberry bon-bons might taste a bit nicer as they wont have been pumped full of artificial chemicals. But will enough people notice that your lemon sherberts are better for you when they cost so much more?

Councils are supposed to be there to serve their communities. But this move is doing the exact opposite.
Not only will it potentially kill off an exisiting business, it will also seriously damage local democracy in the process because without the Dagenham Post, who is going to hold the politicians and bureacrats to account?
It certainly wont be The News.

Back to my original point – the salaries The News will be paying its staff.
It’s journalists will be paid between £29,223 to £31,353, its sub editor £30,591 – £33,081 and its deputy editor £33,081 – £35,841.

To put this into context – a trainee journalist on a regional paper can currently expect to earn £14,500 – £16,000. A newly qualified senior about £18,500 – £19,000.
I’m the editor of a weekly paper, and I’d be on parity (give or take a grand) with one of these council ‘journalists’.

So my question is, how can the council justify paying so much above the going market rate?

The obvious argument that most people (well, most journalists) will make is that actually the council is paying a fair wage and its newspapers who are the Scrooges.
And they’d be right. The knowledge and amount of work put in by the modern journalist is woefully rewarded. We’re being ripped off, we all know that.

But that argument can only be taken so far. My point is that these council journalists – who are actually going to be doing less indepth, less challenging jobs than the rest of us – will be rewarded far too richly with taxpayers money for essentially betraying their trade.

To steal an awful councilese phrase, the taxpayer is clearly not going to be getting ‘Best Value’ (and I wonder whether The News will be littered with such awful language).

The council could easily fill those jobs by paying ten grand a head less.
I guess one the reason they’re paying so much is that they are hoping to attract some quality journalists, and they know that such reporters will see through their dirty little agitprop rag but will be tempted by the filthy lucre.

I won’t resent anyone who takes up one of these posts as it’s hard to live on a reporter’s wage, but I won’t be able to respect them.


Two things MPs can do for journalism

March 19, 2009

I’ve just read Dan Mason’s blog regarding MPs debating the future of the regional press. He suggests three things that they can do to start. http://www.danmason.co.uk/?p=664

Some interesting ideas, and it’s inspired me to come up with a couple of my own.

1. Talk to actual journalists. My biggest fear is that the MPs will simply listen to the owners rather than those at the coalface.

During these dark times, journalists seem to be further away than ever from their employers and many believe the owners are the ones responsible for the dire state of the industry in the first place.

I do appreciate how important it is for papers to make money, but the need to keep shareholders happy with unsustainable margins has become much, much more important than the journalism itself.

Just look at one of the greatest issues being raised by the owners at the moment – the relaxation of rules on how much media they can own. They want bigger empires so they can make more money.

Journalists biggest desires is much simpler – they want enough resources to be able to do their jobs properly.

So if the MPs debate is about protecting journalism, talk to the journalists, not the businessmen.

2. Help journalists set up not-for-profit companies.

The changes to the way council housing stock was handled during the 90s, while not perfect, had an incredible effect on the lives of council tenants. Housing associations were given grants from the Government to get started, and most are now self-sustaining and making money. But this is done without profits being the main goal.

So why not a similar business model for newspapers?
The Government could give grants (or loans) to allow journalists to either set up their own not-for-profit papers, or to buy existing papers and turn them into not-for-profits.

Answerable to a trust of local, independent (non-political) individuals, such papers would need to make a certain amount each year to keep going, but the push for greater or unrealistic profits would not affect the quality of journalism.

Indeed, any profits could be reinvested in technology or more staff, and perhaps even in years of greater than expected profit, staff could be given bonuses (perhaps like the John Lewis partner system).

Oh well, one can but dream.