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.”

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:

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

Just put your lips together and blow…

May 14, 2009

The one story from the MPs expenses that has really annoyed me – and there are plenty – was the story about police being called in to investigate “the mole” who sold the details to The Telegraph.

Now, I’d rather that person had simply leaked the document, but there’s no arguing as to the importance of the information he gave to the press.

So it infuriated me that another whistleblower is probably going to be punished for revealing a story of vital interest to the public.

We’re supposed to be living in a society which supports a free press – but the heavy handed punishments and harrasment of whistleblowers flies in the face of this.

I was on the newsdesk of the Gloucestershire Echo when the Katherine Gunn case broke.

She was the GCHQ worker who leaked an email to from the NSA requesting British help to bug offices and homes of UN diplomats from countries whose support would be vital to win a resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq.

This was an incredibly important story. But what Katherine Gunn went through afterwards was scandalous.

Then of course there was David Kelly – the man hounded to suicide for leaking the ‘dodgier dossier’.

I also had conversations with Sally Murrer, the journalist arrested and detained for 48 hours for having an off the record chat with a whistleblowing police officer.

In the last couple of months we’ve seen a teacher sacked for filming incredible examples of poor behaviour in schools and a nurse struck off for filming the terrible conditions of a hospital – something she only did after her complaints were ignored by her bosses.

So it came as no surprise to me to hear that The Times is going to be punished for daring to point problems with our legal system.  The paper ran a piece from a foreman of a jury who showed how a controversial decision was reached in a manslaughter trial.

All journalists know that the jury is out of bounds when reporting on court cases. And most of us also know that the jury system is absurdly flawed.

 Having served on a jury, I’ve seen first hand how ludicrous a system it can be. In my case, one of the jurors stated, after just the prosecution’s opening statement, that he didn’t care about the evidence. He said that he trusted the police and as the man had been arrested, he had to have done something. He also believed that as it was a drugs case and the man was of a certain age and class, he was definitely guilty.

In the end, two days of arguments were settled by tiredness – the not guilty dissenters backed down because they wanted to go home.

The man was clearly guilty in my eyes, and the verdict reflected that, but the way it was settled was incredibly worrying.

So I think it is an incredible injustice that The Times and the foreman are going to be done for contempt of court for having the balls to say something. They’ve probably done the legal system a great service.

Too many whistleblowers are being punished for bringing important truths to light, and until they get greater protection, a free press will never be fully realised.

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.'”

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.

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.

Centralised subbing – could it work?

January 22, 2009

With our industry struggling to survive death by a thousand cuts (actually, it’s probably much higher than that), centralised subbing is again rearing its head.

Johnson Press backed up it’s claims this week that it is a company which “bases itself on localness” by announcing plans to move subs of several weekly titles miles away from the communities they serve. It’s easy to get angry at the 49 jobs being axed, and to recycle the old “owners are killing journalism” arguments, but I have to say I can see some merits in centralised production.

The biggest mistake the owners are going to make is voluntary redundancies. To misquote The Wire, you can do more with less – but not if you lose your best poeple.

In my (limited) experience of voluntary redundancies, the first to leave are often those who will have no trouble finding new work – ie the most skilled. The owners should targetting the deadwood first.

I know several papers which have people on their payroll who have been moved sideways into made-up and pointless positions. I know of plenty downtable subs with a much lower skill-set than their colleagues, and harsh as it sounds, this is usually through laziness. Most of us have found time to learn new technology and pick up some digital skills – we should be valued more those who are happy doing things as they’ve always done them and can’t even do a basic cut-out.

Similarly there is less room for the reporter who just rewrites press releases or stories he’s been handed by newsdesk.There is plenty of unemployed, hungry talent out there and we no longer have to settle for journeymen.

But job cuts aside, perhaps the most useful thing centralised subbing can do is free up an editor’s time.

I believe a large bank of centralised subs working on various titles will need fewer bums on seats than before.

My biggest frustration as a downtable sub was the downtime, waiting for newsdesk and editors to get their arses into gear and make decisions/send us copy. You could argue that this was just poor organisation, but the fact is if there is always work to be getting on with, productivity will be much higher.

Obviously it’s important to make sure you still have enough staff as an overworked sub is prone to errors, but my point is that centralised subs are more productive.

Done properly (and we all know it wont be), there should be little need for an editor to get involved in production and more time to get involved in the news agenda. They could be free to guide reporters properly, set the tone and strategy of the paper, meet and greet the great and good. And of course time to check through each page properly and pick up any errors that the centralised sub without local knowledge may have made. But these are things which many editors are struggling to do as we are having to plough through pages as a priority.

 Speaking to a wise-old ex-colleague this week, he told me this is what an editor’s role used to be like.

I’ve only worked with one editor who had this old-fashioned approach (or more to the point had the time), and her paper was so much better for it. It was a fantastic product because she paid such close attention to the news content and got to know her audience. Of course there wasn’t enough people to do the rest of the work, so our quality of life suffered as we struggled to meet her very high standards.

Unfortunately I doubt I’ll be seeing any of my time being freed up anytime soon.

I know the “more with less” mantra won’t be thoroughly thought through. And I know I’ll be expected to keep churning out pages ahead of all my other duties.

Centralised subbing could work – but sadly it’s going to be more about improving profit margins than the news content.