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.
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.
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.