Oldham Chronicle: A warning to us all

It’s October 2016, I’m at the Society of Editors conference in Carlisle and something unusual is happening.

There’s a man on stage talking about his title and how his newsroom has had to adapt for the modern age. So far, so predictable.

But as he warms to his theme it becomes clear this is going to be a far cry from the standard boasts about Facebook Likes and audience engagement.

oldham

Instead, delegates listen attentively as he talks with a rare passion about the human cost of the changes his company has gone through to survive – the outsourcing, the redundancies and the feeling of helplessness as revenues continue to migrate to Google and Facebook.

The speaker was David Whaley, editor of the Oldham Evening Chronicle, and his session was the unexpected standout moment of a conference which all too often focused on frippery while ignoring the elephant in the room.

In the ensuing 11 months, I didn’t think about Oldham too much. We had plenty of work of our own to be getting on with back down south.

That changed on Thursday when I received an email announcing the closure of the Chronicle – a title which had served its community for 163 years.

The news became public a few hours later and, masochist that I am, I had a look on online to see what people were saying.

With a sense of inevitably, I read the first post.

‘It’s a shame, but it won’t make any difference really because I get all my news from Facebook.’

And so it continued.

‘I gave up with the local rag years ago because I just use Facebook to find out what’s going on now.’

‘It’s a shame for people that worked there but I can get all my news online now.’

Those three comments illustrate in blunt, brutal terms the biggest challenge all of us in the industry face – educating people that those stories they happily read on social media were produced by the self-same journalists who now find themselves out of work.

fbgrab

Educating people that independent journalism is not viable without revenue.

Educating people that if you visit our websites with your ad blocker switched on then you are the modern-day equivalent of those who stand in WH Smith reading our papers cover-to-cover before putting them back on the shelf.

When the journalists go, the stories go too folks – and the only people who benefit are those who would rather there was nobody keeping an independent eye on what they are up to or the decisions they are making which affect your life.

There have been signs lately that the world is waking up to the scale of the problem.

Publishers who were traditionally rivals are working together more closely than they ever have on groundbreaking initiatives such as the democracy reporter scheme, where 150 BBC licence fee-funded reporters will cover the activities of local councils.

It’s a scheme that hasn’t been without controversy, but if you take a big picture view it can only be a good thing if journalists remain able to keep an eye on what our elected representatives are doing.

And, announcing the launch of the Facebook Journalism project, Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged he has a responsibility to create an informed community and cannot do that without journalists.

So we are promised initiatives such as subscription models for content published on Facebook and greater prominence for publishers’ branding to firmly identify the source of those articles.

Will it come soon enough to prevent another Oldham Chronicle? I hope so, but I fear not.

I’ll leave the final words to Dave Whaley himself, taken from an interview in InPublishing from May of this year.

Asked about how he saw the industry evolving he replied, with the same honesty demonstrated in Carlisle, “I believe alternative funding models will be needed to keep a newspaper voice in towns across the country. The loss of newspapers would be devastating for the towns concerned. We don’t want to let some of the ‘lunatics’ on social media set the news agenda.

“Where newspapers were once cash cows, they now need support and we have looked at other revenue streams supporting the brand that is so trusted within the community.”

  • As an aside, I think the Society of Editors is a great organisation that does good work on all our behalf. However, at a time when we need to be talking to each other like never before, and at a time when nobody is splashing the cash, it’s a shame this year’s conference full package costs an eye-watering £660. I’m not sure too many people working at the coalface will be attending.
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Golden age? Don’t believe the hype

Many years ago I ran the newsdesk at a south coast publisher which had a daily title and a number of weeklies in its portfolio.

Those were the days when district offices were still a thing.

Small rooms, usually above or below a shop, housing one or two veteran reporters who had been dispatched there as punishment for some long-forgotten transgression.

Occasionally – very occasionally – I ventured out to those far-flung corners of the empire to update the troops on the latest sales figures, head office initiatives or advertising revenues.

On one occasion I arrived in the early afternoon to find the sole reporter asleep under his desk beneath a tatty picnic blanket.

pasty

After gently and repeatedly prodding him in the face with my foot, he eventually came around and grumpily complained I’d woken him from his customary post-deadline nap.

On another visit to another office, I turned up and found the reporting team had upended their desks and were using them as goals for their weekly game of football with the advertising reps.

Those were the days before the internet, and if you worked on a weekly title you had one deadline. Once that was gone the pressure was off and the picnic blankets and desk-goals came out.

I was reminded of those visits this week when I read yet another report bemoaning the state of the news industry, harking back to a mythical golden age of regional journalism.

In a chapter from a new book Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the death of print? university lecturer and former journalist Sean Dodson takes a swipe at today’s news values.

He accuses publishers of populating their websites and newspapers with ‘more listicles, more user-generated content and more stories without any recognisable news value.”

As part of the case for the prosecution, he digs out a story published five years – FIVE YEARS! – ago by the Folkestone Herald about a woman who bought an out-of-date pasty from her local 99p Store.

He states: “There is widespread academic consensus – a solitary piece of litter or a big chip or a stale pasty does not conform with any of the news values codified by either Galtung and Ruge or Harcup and O’Neill, whose work on news values is generally accepted as the gold standard for journalists.”

His piece was picked up by Media Guardian commentator Roy Greenslade who added his traditional cock-up (wrongly attributing the pasty story to my employers, the KM Group) and republished Sean’s views to a wider audience.

It’s touched a nerve for those of us still working in the industry – as opposed to sitting outside sniping at it –  and has inspired some great blogs by the likes of David Higgerson and Paul Wiltshire.

They both point out something that should be obvious to the likes of Mr Greenslade and Dodson. Today’s reporters, news editors and editors are harder working and more highly-skilled than those who went before them.

At the KM we expect our reporters to gather and edit video for our IPTV service, grab audio for our kmfm news bulletins, file stories for KentOnline, re-nose those stories for print and manage their social media profiles.

They simply wouldn’t recognise the concept of post-deadline downtime.

Sure, some of the stories we write could be deemed trivial.  KentOnline today ran pieces about an invasion of horny ladybirds and a model aeroplane crash.

It also ran shocking coverage of the aftermath of a double murder and a thug who poured bleach on the lover who spurned him. Light and shade, it existed long before the internet did.

Sure our industry has challenges, and how we deal with the audience-generating, revenue-destroying Facebook machine is chief among them.

But endlessly harking back to this so-called golden age, and by default implying those left in the industry have lost control of their news sense and their marbles, is lazy, insulting and plain wrong.

  • A final word on the reheated pasty story. The Folkestone Herald editor at the time was Simon Finlay, one of the industry’s most entertaining characters. I spoke to him today and he recalls it as ‘a crap splash in a crap news week.’ He’s as bemused as me that it’s being held up as anything more than that all these years on.