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Counting the cost of content

Gary Cullum says journalistic strength on the streets is essential 

TOP marks to media commentator Roy Greenslade who in his Guardian blog on September 23 said that publishers and journalists must work together to save journalism.

“From a commercial perspective reporters are too expensive and are therefore taking the brunt of newspaper cutbacks,” he wrote, adding: “But they perform a vital public service.” 

In a thought-provoking article Greenslade says that no publisher, despite differing motivations (profit, prestige, political clout), can escape the commercial effects of a technological revolution that is in the process of destroying the funding mechanism that has underpinned newspaper companies for more than 150 years. Journalists are aware of this, he says, but tend to turn a blind eye to reality.

Indeed, journalists blame publishers for necessary cutbacks, certainly during the structural and cyclical change that has impacted hugely on our industry since 2007.

It’s easy for someone like me to look back on a near 40-year career in newspapers and remember the golden days of vibrant local journalism and the buzz we got from beating rivals to stories, getting a fresh angle on the headlines, discovering something ‘off diary’ or what used to be referred to as a ‘human interest story’.

An equally long-in-the-tooth colleague from those days recently commented to me: “I worry about how accountable local authorities will be in the future now that they are able to hide behind their own press officers and their own council publications.”

She acknowledged that some councils make their activities available to the public by webcasting committee and full council meetings but then drew my attention to this paragraph from the fiction novel ‘The Girl Who Kicked the Hornets Nest’ where the editor-in-chief of Svenska Morgon-Posten, Erika Berger, tells a reporter: ‘Your job description as a journalist is to question and to scrutinise most critically. And never repeat claims uncritically, no matter how highly placed the sources in the bureaucracy...’

Said my colleague: “Reporters in the future must be given the time, support and ability to publish the results of this kind of questioning and scrutiny in local newspapers. If not, local councils are given a free hand to push decisions through to committee and full council stage unchallenged because their local voters are under-informed.”

Okay, money these days is tight in comparison to the 70s and 80s when shareholders were very happy people, and newspaper publishers are not in the business of subsidising a public service. Nor do my colleague and I expect a re-play of the pre-digital days when the only way local reporters could get stories was to get out of the office and speak to ‘contacts’. 

But economic woes are nothing new; national and local newspapers launched and flourished during the harsh financial times in the mid 19th century, the 1900s, 1920s and 1930s, and they were essential reading during both world wars.

Community heartbeat

The reading habit remains strong, and nowhere is that greater than in tight-knit rural areas where there is real sense of community and engagement with newspapers, in print and via a plethora of digital platforms.  In holiday destinations, in Norfolk and Cornwall, for example, you can spot non-locals picking up a packed local paper and tapping into local news websites in cafés and restaurants where possible because these brands are the heartbeat of the community.

Present-day content directors, digital tsars and the like have investigated (and invested much in) all kinds of future-proofing digital solutions that are starting to yield real revenues. If publishers continue invest in their people - give them resources, keep them local where possible – then that will pay dividends. Local people buy in to local news. 

As veteran publisher Sir Ray Tindle, 70 years a newspaperman and on the eve of his 90th birthday, says in an article written especially for PJ: “There are no if or buts about it in my opinion. Newspapers are here to stay.” He writes about the importance of quality journalism, saying: “If contents be local, locals be content.”

Talking of local content and ‘beating rivals to stories’ I am sure we will all watch the Cambridge newspaper scene unfold where Edward Iliffe has launched back into the city with the Cambridge Independent, a new title but one that can trace its roots to 1819, in a vibrant ‘town and gown’ city in which the Iliffe family have been deeply rooted in the community since 1922.  Through new business Iliffe Media, established earlier this year, Mr Iliffe says the aim is to launch ‘exciting new publications for the area’.

The Independent competes with the daily rival Cambridge News, for so many years part of the Iliffe group, but subsequently merged into Local World and is now part of Trinity Mirror. I’m sure the journalists on both titles will be on the streets seeking local scoops, and will return to the office with that gut-wrenching churn of nervousness until publication in the hope of breaking the exclusive.

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