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 – ago by the Folkestone Herald about a woman who bought an out-of-date pasty from her local 99p Store.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.