Monday, October 16, 2017

Justice of the piece: Are bad, bad people getting away with murder because their cases are no longer reported in the local paper?

I CUT my teeth – and my name in the Press bench – at magistrates court in the Essex market town of Witham, just off the A12 between Chelmsford and Colchester.
Every Tuesday I would point my moped north and join at least one, but sometimes two or three, other reporters at the historic courthouse to hear a litany of hard-luck stories, life gone bad or simply people who done wrong.
Forty years later I am back in court watching summary justice 2017 style. Much is largely unchanged: officious officials, bemused members of the public and a singular lack of timekeeping or the sense that anyone knows what is going on.

'Sending offensive and distressing Facebook messages'

We assemble at 10.30 – that’s a reporter from the local paper, two harassed looking lawyers flicking diligently through their tablets (computers, not pills), the clerk, the court usher and me – but nothing much happens until 10.55 when the magistrates file in.
They are two kindly-looking middle-aged men, smartly dressed in dark suits and colourful ties looking all the world like they are queuing up for hospitality at a rugby international. They too are swiping at tablets and at 11.02 we get going, hearing a drunk and disorderly case with no defendant present.

COURT IN THE ACT: Thirteen stories on one
page from court in The Orcadian, including
that perennial court staple 'No insurance'.
This followed by another drunken exploit, this one about a woman who punched a pub landlady. She was in court and after sounding duly apologetic was sent away with a conditional discharge, a sentence that was patiently explained to her.
My fellow reporter tells me the main action is about to follow. He is the title’s only reporter filling the paper and feeding the website and so far he has spent an hour gleaning two downpage stories at best. But his shorthand dances across the page as the court hears how a woman admitted sending offensive and distressing Facebook messages to the owner of a restaurant.

Is covering court sustainable?

The posts were seen by 77,000 people – quite a result by anyone’s standards – and led to her pleading guilty to an offence under the little known Malicious Communications Act.
This story is squirrelled away to appear in the paper, which does not publish for another week. Like many publications, anything that is not ‘out there’ – ie from a press release or the emergency services – is kept for the paper as an exclusive for the dwindling band of £1.30 a week purchasers.
It gets a good show as a page lead and reads well for the 99 per cent of readers who have never been near court. But is it all worthwhile and is covering court sustainable in these times of fewer staff and different demands and expectations of customers?
Some research last year yielded the headline: “More than half of local newspapers don’t have a court reporter.”

'Not essential to have a dedicated court reporter'

Brian Thornton, a journalism lecturer at Winchester University, wrote an article for Proof magazine which draws on a survey of editors of daily local newspapers in relation to court reports in their respective newspapers. Some 57 newspapers editors responded to the survey conducted by journalism students.
Editors were asked to agree or disagree with the assertion by the legal journalist Marcel Berlins that it was ‘abundantly clear that the courts are no longer being properly reported’. More than half of editors agreed, including 11% who agreed strongly. More than four out of 10 editors reckoned it was not essential to have a dedicated court reporter.
Less than half of editors said that their papers had a dedicated shorthand court reporter (44%) and more than half admitted that they had relied on a police press release in the absence of having their own reporter in court or else drawing on an agency report (55%).
“The fact that the media is engaging less and less with the everyday workings of the criminal justice system means that journalists are increasing unaware of what actually happens in such important settings as crown courts or coroner’s courts,” says Thornton.
“I would argue that this ignorance is dangerous because it spreads to the public. If the public aren’t being informed about what’s happening in courts, how can they be expected to know?”
Adding to the debate is Guy Toyn from agency Court News UK who says the number of serious stories going unheard is a “tragedy” for the democratic process, adding regional papers not covering even big cases were neglecting a “central, civic function of the press”.
He said this was “not only a dreadful shame because people aren’t being informed, but a tragedy for the democratic process as a whole”. Said Guy: “Court reporting does take a long time, and a local paper can’t really sit around day-in, day-out and do it any more.”
'Justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by
the public': Andrew Langdon QC
Even the legal profession is weighing into the debate. Andrew Langdon QC says court reporters are in decline and may soon be “largely a thing of the past”. He says members of the public are getting “no professional narrative” of the “way we arrive at justice”.
Langdon, chairman of the Bar Council, which represents barristers in England and Wales, wrote in a legal magazine: “Due to the decline in court reporters, justice operates essentially unseen and unheard by the public.
“Court reporters, and especially court reporters from local newspapers, have been declining in number for years and may soon be largely a thing of the past.”
He adds: “The large majority of cases, although conducted in public hearings up and down the land, and although producing outcomes that often dramatically affect the lives of the citizens concerned, operate essentially unseen and unheard by the public.
“The way in which the outcomes are arrived at is thus something of a mystery for the large majority of the uninitiated public. Worse, outcomes are often supposed to be influenced by factors that are by and large mythical.”
Langdon highlights what could become a problem for all concerned: “Increasingly and perplexingly, into the vacuum drop one-sided reports via social media, not from professional journalists, but from aggrieved parties who, like single-issue campaigners or nefarious pressure groups with their own agenda, have access to mass communication and so can feed a narrative that often grossly distorts reality,” he says.
Phew. Not sure how much reality was distorted on my visit to court, but you get the idea from m’learned friend.
And as for Witham Magistrates Court I’ll leave the last word with the estate agents: “FIVE PLOTS REMAINING - reserve now to avoid disappointment. The Old Magistrates Court is proving a popular new development, with over half now sold…”


I love a good court story – but I see too many bad court stories, or no stories at all. I even once devised an excel spreadsheet formula to write an automated court story just to show how predictable many of them had become.
Like much of journalism writing an engaging court story – within the confines of what can legally be reported, of course – is a skill that can be learned, but is honed by doing it.
The NCTJ’s Media Law Court Reporting module continues to be popular among students and trainees showing both an appetite for the craft and a continued demand from editors for court reporting expertise.
My friends at The Orcadian diligently report every case at sheriff court and other papers just run the ‘results’ as provided by court staff. I suspect the answer may be somewhere in the middle. It’s not easy to pick and choose when all that is provided are names and charge, but specialist reporters will know the difference when they see it.
Court reporting can be a time-consuming gamble, but probably one that’s worth taking even in these headline-a-minute digital days.
  • A full version of this story appears in the October issue of PJ magazine

Sunday, September 10, 2017

Those blinking screens & 24-hour news: why journalism is STILL great

ROAD TO SUCCESS: Editor-in-chief Darren Thwaites outside the 
NCJ Media offices in central Newcastle
IT'S 10.30 on an ordinary Tuesday morning and, in a scenario repeated in newsrooms throughout the country, morning conference is about to start.
I am back on home territory, in the Newcastle newsroom where 25 years ago I helped The Journal convert from a traditional broadsheet to a bright, modern tabloid heralding similar moves throughout the country.
Now, as well as still home to three newspapers the office marches to the beat of ChronicleLive, one of the biggest regional digital media operations in the country providing news, views, video and interaction to an audience of millions every month.
Strangely for such a state-of-the-art operation the conference guest list is largely unchanged from time immemorial with representatives from news, production, business, sport and entertainment all sharing the table to sing for their supper.
But behind them the league table of story hits, as compiled by Chartbeat, flickers and burps its way through real-time consumption showing how many people are engaged with a particular story and how long they spend looking.
IN COMMAND: ChronicleLive  editor Helen Dalby driving
the desk in 
the middle of the newsroom
It is incessant and relentless and impossible not keep glancing at it.
There is a newslist, a complex matrix of who’s doing what and when, which continually evolves during the day. But the editor of ChronicleLive, Helen Dalby, kicks off with a review of the numbers from yesterday revealing which stories captured attention and for how long.
Flying the flag for sport is Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas. There is no longer a sports editor, a reflection that the Toon (plus Sunderland AFC to a certain extent) are the biggest games in town. By the close of conference, the top three stories in the all-seeing chart behind him are all Newcastle United – and this on a day when nothing has really happened.
Content editor Sophie Barley confidently chaperones the meeting through the news list, which probably isn’t the most exciting ever seen but does lend itself adding some creativity. She knows not to worry. In just the next 24 hours headlines like ‘Suspect on the run’, ‘Body found in house’, ‘Police seize thousands of cannabis plants’ will be dominating the news agenda.
Business, Production and Entertainments have their say too and all of it under the watching, cajoling eye of Darren Thwaites, editor-in-chief of Trinity Mirror North East and the man charged with driving this unremitting beast of hits and hopes.
Darren’s cheerful demeanour and twinkling countenance bely his 49 years but are a testament to his lifetime of experience in the regional media from hometown Huddersfield to Aberdeen and then 12 years editing in the north east, six in Teesside and six in Newcastle.
Back in the day, Thomson House as it was then, was home to three independent newsrooms all with their own reporters, photographers and production teams. The Evening Chronicle printed multiple editions during the day, the Journal printed during the night for morning delivery and the Sunday Sun was its own adrenaline fuelled version of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning.
NO HIDING PLACE: Newcastle United editor Mark Douglas
prepares for morning conference under the all-seeing eyes of the
Chartbeat monitor registering real-time audience engagement
The system thrived on competition, rather than co-operation. Sometimes three reporters from the same building were at the same event chasing the same people. With advent of computers skills were acquired at the dark arts of hacking into a ‘rival’ database to look at their stories.
But for a modern media business this was a bonkers way to run the operation and in 2009 the newsrooms were combined into a single entity and in 2012 Darren was appointed to run the show.
There is still a sizeable number of journalists – 120 in all across Tyneside and Teesside – involved from hunter gatherer reporters to ‘story editors’, the latest incarnation of the endangered species of sub-editor.
Print is by no means a poor relation here. The production desk has the pick of all the stories that have been created during the day. The usual mix of breaking news, diary jobs and stories put forward by specialists from environment to entertainment.
The Journal and the Chronicle have a distinctiveness that the team seem to know intuitively what treatment will work best. Designers still craft individual pages and template pages are a guide rather than a leader. Story editors still lovingly craft headlines and captions, although they are now as likely to be from the new breed of ‘grow your own’ as from the grizzled grey cardigan variety.
“Print must be as successful as it can be,” says Darren from his neat, tidy and respectfully not expansive office next to the newsroom. “And we need to have the same standards online as we’ve always had for print.
“There is still an appetite for edgy, challenging journalism and the quality standards are still there.”
Darren passionately explains how the audience is spread over five areas: print, desktop, mobile, app and distributed platforms like Twitter and Facebook. Different masters with different demands, but behind it all is the content generation that has always been the heart of the operation.
He has the realism learned over 25 years in regional journalism and is not afraid to tackle some of the current concerns head on. “The economic reality is that we've had to find ways to cut the cost of our newsrooms right across the industry,” he says.
FAST PACED: News editor Sophie Barley and a two-screen life
“It's never easy to make those kinds of decisions but I'm pleased that our newsrooms have retained the skill and scale to do the job properly. Without our investment and belief in digital, we simply wouldn't have been able to maintain the quality we have.”
Helen Dalby has made it to Regional Head of Digital for Trinity Mirror North East as well as Editor of ChronicleLive through a digital route rather than traditional journalism, but that doesn’t stop her getting caught up in the thrill of it all.
“The job consumes me,” she admits “and I find it difficult to imagine not being in the thick of news publishing. The buzz in a newsroom when everyone is pulling together on a developing story is quite intoxicating.
“It’s a cliché, but no two days are the same and that’s hugely exciting. I’m proud of the content we publish, and it’s gratifying to have at our disposal analytics which prove that we’re answering the questions local people are asking, and doing so responsibly, ethically and with strong brand values at our core.”
Both Darren and Helen exude authority and friendliness and take great satisfaction from the people they have brought on and the systems in place to make it happen. Helen leads most of the monthly skills workshops that staff attend and every reporter has a quarterly one-to-one to look at their own individual progress.
“I get a lot of job satisfaction from seeing the training I’ve delivered helping both experienced and new reporters to reach the biggest possible audiences,” says Helen.
Those monthly sessions are an opportunity for each department and run through their audience figures. “We invite everyone in the team - managers and reporters - so we can all learn together about what worked and why,” says Darren.
“We look at why some stories didn't do as well as we thought they should. It might be something simple such as a headline that had no search value, poor timing of publication or a failure to engage fully on social.”
HOME FROM HOME: The Printer's pie in its
newly-painted pomp back in the mid-nineties
“We also sit down quarterly with individuals to learn from their data and reinforce good practice. They're positive and constructive meetings, supported by monthly training modules. Our pledge to the team is for them to be the best trained and most informed in regional media. We're fortunate to have a positive bunch that want to succeed.”
It has a been, to use Helen’s words, a thrilling and intoxicating day for me too. To see the daily dramas unfold first hand under the all-seeing eye of the metrics counter reminds me how far journalism has come.
But I don’t want to leave the Toon without two trips down memory lane. First to the Printer's Pie pub built into the ground floor of the NCJ building where many a newsroom experience has been shared over the years. But, now renamed, it is dark, dingy and shut with its secrets locked away behind the grimy curtains.
So, on to Northumberland Street, Newcastle’s main shopping thoroughfare where I am searching for the street vendor joyfully singing out the charms of that day’s Chronicle.
Unsuccessful, I ask a patrolling police officer. “Oh, I don’t think they do that sort of thing any more.” Maybe not, but they do a lot more instead…


Rather like they used to say that all young people should do National Service I think all journalists over 50 – especially those not involved in front-line newspaper journalism – should go and spend some time in a thoroughly modern newsroom like this.
They will find committed, capable people confidently handling all the channels of delivery with a dexterity that can only be marvelled at.
Much has changed. All those blinking screens telling you what’s hot and what’s not are a far cry from the “I know what my readers like” finger in the wind editor of not that long ago.
But much is the same too. The excitement when a big story breaks, the leadership needed to steer it in the right direction and the boots on ground skills of talking to people and delivering what you find out quickly and succinctly.

  • This article appears in the September 2017 edition of PJ 'The voice of news publishing and printing'.

Thursday, August 17, 2017

200 MURDERS - ten years on from that front page...

TEN years ago today we published this stand-out – can’t bring myself to say iconic – front page of the Daily Express in Trinidad & Tobago.
Notwithstanding the awfulness of the subject matter, the page was a triumph for inspiration, creativity and some downright dogged hard work – rather like everyday journalism.
The page might look very straightforward but star designer Barry Mohammed worked his magic with the deftest of drop shadows and the perfect marriage of typography for the stark figure and word.
Each murder is written up with name, age, place and what happened. Enterprising, yet painstaking work from crime reporter Denyse Renne who catalogued all these individual tragedies.
Like much of the innovative work we did at the Express – then the biggest daily newspaper in the Caribbean – reactions were mixed. Some readers thought it was a dramatic and poignant way to report THE major story on the islands. Others thought we shouldn’t highlight events which reflected badly on the specific communities mentioned and the nation in general.
Now, reflecting 10 years on, I think we did a pretty good job. Running a straight story saying murder No 200 had taken place would have had readers turning to one of the other 140 pages. At least this couldn’t – and didn’t – go unnoticed.
Even now I still find myself reading those details, like this one picked at random: No 71. Allister Jack, 27, alias ‘Stumpy’ a taxi driver of Poinsettia Drive, Morvant. Found dead with two gunshot wounds in Never Dirty, Morvant, April 8.
A life lost, but not forgotten.
PS: If we did the same page today it would read ‘295 MURDERS’.

Read more about my time as editor of the Trinidad Express in earlier blog posts.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Masterchef and a masterclass in leadership

WE’RE a lucky bunch, those of us helping media folk with the ticklish issue of leadership.
Forget management – that’s just getting the right people in the right place at the right time doing the right thing – I’m talking about showing, telling, providing guidance, direction, a kick up the wotsit and praise when due.
Because everywhere around us are examples of leadership. Some good (1), some ok (2)and some in need of intensive care. The shift leader at Wetherspoon’s who’s running around keeping both staff and customers happy (1), the train guard keeping us posted with too many announcements (2) and the head receptionist at the doctors who doesn’t seem to know or care that a bunch of sickly ‘customers’ are waiting (3).
Self-important media moguls who turn up for my one of leadership workshops soon find themselves in a supermarket, seeing for themselves how a fast-moving consumer business copes with a myriad of staff and customer issues. And likely as not the manager doesn’t even have an office!
So what a joy it was to see Michelin star chef Paul Ainsworth on Masterchef this week (BBC1), with a masterclass in leadership.

See below how he worked with a new team to provide sparkling service AND a good time for all.
EXPLAIN: Clearly set goals and make sure everyone knows what is expected of them
BE INVOLVED: Do not be a spectator, be a participant
STAY IN CHARGE: Be cool, but firm when the going gets tough

PRAISE: Little and often works best (that's a high-five, by the way!)
KEEP ON TRACK: Don’t allow to get caught up in the moment
FEEDBACK: You might be having a great time, but is everyone else?
GET STUCK IN: Do as well as show and tell when necessary
CUSTOMER REACTION: Share feedback from the outside world

Monday, May 01, 2017

The Next Big Things that journalists in the UK could (should?) be doing

Think you know what’s next for the media? No, me neither, but here’s an insight into some things that are moving and shaking in the USA, traditionally where it all happens first…

WATCH THE BIRDIES: Fashion designer Tommy Hilfiger takes a selfie to remember in the new Instagram Photo Pit at New York Fashion Week (see Instagram story below)
WHISPER it, in case any ‘digital engagement officers’ are listening, but UK newspapers have been slow to embrace social media as a newsgathering tool.
Twitter, Facebook and co are too often still seen as the digital equivalent of the green pen letter writer splurging off in the corner without recourse to facts or reason.
The occasional Facebook comment or Twitter post will turn up in a story mixed in with other quotes, but rarely is social media used as the starting point for coverage. But here across the United States, newsrooms are embracing crowdsourcing to ignite their real-time reporting.
The Florida-based Poynter Institute, America’s leading journalism think tank, tracked the use of crowdsourcing in the wake of President Donald Trump’s initial refugee ban in January.
The Los Angeles Times put out a call for people’s reactions to the news. Their collection which ran the same day, shows a collage of fear, joy, anger, respect, sadness and support.
“This is about displaying a diversity of experiences,” said Alexandra Manzano, director of audience engagement, “but it’s also about us building trust and relationships with our readers.
Manzano reports that this approach has become a rich trove for us in terms of finding sources, hearing from more people and representing more people. “We are finding more story leads and also t able to dive deep into the complexity of our country right now.”
At the Dallas Morning News editors saw pictures of travellers detained at Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and the protests in response and quickly built a form asking immigrants in Texas to share their stories.
It felt like a long shot on Saturday night when engagement editor Hannah Wise put the call out on social networks and embedded it onto breaking stories. By Monday, they had almost 50 responses from people from 29 countries. That’s almost 50 people that could be sources on the current news, updates to the immigration policy allowing childhood arrivals to stay in the US and other changes.
She heard back from immigrants from Uzbekistan, Mexico, Germany, Peru, even a former Iraq army translator whose Minnesota-based brother and family were stuck in Iraq because of the ban.
And, in terms of ‘pure news’ they are also people who have not been ‘put up’ by PRs for agencies, charities or advocacy organisations who have become the likeliest go-between for journalists throughout the world today.


Many efforts have been made over the years to present a ‘quick read’ near the front of the newspaper to hopefully entice readers into the further flung reaches inside. Now the venerable New York Times has thrown open its first two inside pages (A2 and A3) with a redesign “aimed to give readers an overview of what The Times is doing both in print and digitally”.
The paper says it is modelled after the ‘front of the book’ concept of a magazine and will become a place where readers will find interesting, useful and fun information about what The Times is doing not only with its core news report, but throughout the entire organisation. The pages will offer stories and content that has not been part of the print paper before, including a mini-crossword (hats off to i, which is already there) and a “behind-the-scenes look at our journalism”.
“The Times has a universe that extends well beyond the print newspaper, and we’re excited to transform pages A2 and A3 into a must-read destination that gives readers a sense of that,” said executive editor Dean Baquet. “As we continue to invest and innovate in print, this redesign is a step toward creating a print newspaper for a digital era."


There’s some black humour doing the rounds that soon we’ll all be working in ‘Nonprofit News’, but here in the US there are now 120 organisations signed up to the Institute for Nonprofit News, which is committed to improving the skills and durability of the sector.
The Institute, part of the Oklahoma-based charity Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation (EEJF), is launching a new program to support leadership and skills development for future leaders of nonprofit news organizations.
Called ‘The INN Emerging Leaders Council’ it will provide training, professional development and peer support for 10 mid-career individuals in nonprofit news who have demonstrated the potential to become top executives and leaders of the nonprofit news media sector in the U.S.
Nonprofit news organizations have grown rapidly across the US. About 10 percent of INN’s 120 member organizations reported in 2016 that they were in the process of or had recently completed succession planning to name new leaders, often replacing the founding journalists.
As part of its mission, INN works to build the business capacity of journalists founding, leading and inventing new types of nonprofit news media dedicated to the public interest. “Succession is a milestone in ensuring these newsrooms are here for the long haul and can keep serving and informing their communities,” said INN Executive Director & CEO Sue Cross.
While journalism in the UK continues to seek out its place in an increasingly fractured marketplace perhaps an organisation supporting our “news media dedicated to the public interest” wouldn’t be a bad way to go.


Over on the thoughtful corner Ben Thompson, the author and founder of independent analyst Stratechery, spells out the effect the onset of the internet has had for all businesses, but the message is loud and clear for publishers.
“Today the fundamental impact of the internet is to make distribution itself a cheap commodity — or in the case of digital content, completely free,” says Thompson. “And that, by extension, is why I have long argued that the Internet Revolution is as momentous as the Industrial Revolution: it is transforming how and where economic value is generated, and thus where power resides.
“In this brave new world, power comes not from production, not from distribution, but from controlling consumption: all markets will be demand-driven; the extent to which they already are is a function of how digitized they have become.”


For a media company with such a cutting-edge reputation, the latest wheeze from the Huffington Post to tackle a traditionally tough market has a distinctly old new-tech feel.
To introduce itself to its next generation of readers, the HuffPost is going straight for their inboxes. It has launched The Tea, a weekly newsletter targeted at female Generation Z readers (or, as they were once known, teenage girls), but unlike most newsletters, which just repackage content originally published on other platforms, The Tea’s content — an exclusive interview with a celebrity — will only live in an email. If you want it, you need to subscribe.
“We know that teens haven’t really made decisions about the brands they’re going to allow into their lives in a behavioural way,” said Kiki Von Glinow, Huffington Post’s director of growth and analytics. “This is about introducing them to HuffPost’s brand.”


Meanwhile, still with ‘young people’, student James Tyner chimes in with a timely reminder that “news in 2017 doesn’t need to follow the production cycle of news in 1987”. As part of a university class looking at how to create new journalism products, he asked fellow students what got in the way of their news consumption.
“For people like us, who didn’t grow up with newspapers and who have used the internet since we were toddlers, a lot of the conventions of news today don’t make sense,” says Tyner. “Adapting a newspaper for the modern web isn’t good enough for people who never read newspapers in the first place. We deserve something new.”
He cites site layout, story length and bias as major issues. “These are problems that erode trust in young people and stop them from engaging with the news. The same young people who will be working, communicating, politically active news consumers for the next half-century or more.”


Uploaders to Instagram were granted full access to the runway alongside the traditional fashion photographers at New York Fashion Week. “This is HUGE,” says Emma Klug from fashion blog The Style Note. “What happened to the days when the front rows were filled with pads of paper, pens and photo equipment? Traditionally, photo pits have been reserved for photographers with professional media credentials, and for a good reason. However, naturally, as the popularity of social media has grown, so has the fashion industry’s infatuation with it. Popular Instagrammers with mass followings can offer a lot to brands who are looking to make a mark in the social media landscape.” Whatever next? Instagram photographers only behind the goal at Premier League games or on the royal rota? You read it here first…
  • This is an edited version of Alan's column in PJ - 'The home of the printed and digital world of news media'

Monday, March 13, 2017

LETTER FROM AMERICA: The good, the bad, the completely mad

Never has the United States been, quite literally, more in the news. But while President Trump is falling out with the free speech lobby and apparently falling in with fake news what is happening on the front line of local journalism? ALAN GEERE, a former newspaper editor in the US, has been down in the deep south on the Alabama/Florida border to see if journalism is still alive and well thousands of miles from the events in The White House. And what are the lessons for regional newspapers back in the UK? 

THE antics from Washington feel a long way from Escambia County here in the far north west of Florida near the naval town of Pensacola. And that in part has a lot to do with the fragmented state of the media.
The TV evening news runs for two hours across the major networks and is a rolling tide of international, national, regional and local news interspersed with sport, weather and of course those pesky ads. Nothing gets much of a play and it’s difficult for viewers to get the context of that 30 seconds on Syria let alone the latest Trumpery.
Throw into the mix the fact that the concept of ‘national newspapers’ doesn’t exist in the way it does in the UK and you suddenly realise how important the role of the local newspaper becomes.
It’s quite a long way to anywhere from here. The more traditional Florida of Miami is 700 miles away (further than London to Prague) and the nearest big cities of New Orleans (200 miles away) and Atlanta (340) are both in neighbouring states.
And we are also deep in Donald Country with few sightings of the ‘liberal elite’ among the pick-up trucks and fast-food outlets that dot the intersection corners.
The Pensacola News Journal is northwest Florida’s most widely read daily, owned by Gannett (like Newsquest in the UK). Latest available figures, from 2015, show a daily circulation of 29,981 and a Sunday circulation of 47,892.
Impressive figures for a city that has a population of nearly 51,000, about the same as Inverness or Brentwood, both of which I know well and neither of which have a dedicated daily paper.
But factor in the number of people living in the two counties in the patch - Escambia (305k) and Santa Rosa (160k) – then those figures start to make more sense.
 At first, it feels an odd shape, simply because it’s unusual. It is tall and thin, giving just four columns of type but plenty of room to display pictures.
The Friday issue looked at here has three sections, running to a total of just 28 pages in total, plus a 12-page ‘Weekender’ magazine. Given that Section B is a digest USA Today and both the other sections are a mix of local and national the home-produced content starts to look a bit thin.
When opened out page one has impact, displaying four stories (three local) with decent sized headlines and pictures. The cut-out obscuring the masthead is technically accurate and provides a good throw to the sports section. Trouble is, when folded for display in both the newsstand and on the supermarket shelves the lead headline is obscured and the main picture (a decent aerial shot) starts to lose its context.
Section A starts well with a page of ‘Local’ on page three but quickly falls away to a page of turns and syndicated material from around Florida. The second section of Section A (keep up here, please, it’s printed as a six pager, then eight) is flagged ‘Community’ and starts with local listings. On through more syndicated then a disappointing Opinion page with columnists from somewhere else, a yawn-worthy contributed column and one letter.
Two pages of cartoons, TV, crossword, stars etc some more ‘news’ tucked away on 12, 13 and a page of business (nothing local) on the back. Best thing was a well-populated obit column, sadly set in a horrible bland typeface and unedited so it was difficult to read.
Sports is another mix of local and national. But local here really just means school and college as there is nothing doing for fit and active adults unless you can make it as a semi-pro.
A staff of seven reporters – all divided up by beats – three in sport, three photographers, one opinion, three on community desk, one executive editor and a ‘Consumer Experience Director’ looks a healthy roster for a paper this size.
Make your way west out of Pensacola through the never-ending thread of high-rise condos, waterfront homes and ‘lots for sale’ that make up Perdido Bay and the coast road ends up in Orange Beach, another resort town that never seems to start or finish or have a centre.
What is does have is ‘The Baldwin Times’, a weekly paper named after the county it serves in the far corner of south-east Alabama established in 1890, and still going strong with its 75 cents (about 60p) cover price. And it’s not difficult to see why.
The 28-page more traditional tabloid format is packed with local news, both newsroom generated and submitted. And they haven’t forgotten their roots in the community, with a four-page church directory well-supported by local advertising, a calendar of events and five pages of small type public notices, which will no doubt keep the paper ticking over very nicely, thank-you.
Some unusual neat touches, like a line-up of police mugshots called ‘Why are they in jail?’ and a wonderful 16-page section called ‘College Decision 2017’ which at no time feels like the ad supplement it is.
Head north and the next big title jostling (if no more than five titles can jostle) on the newsstand is the Press-Register, published three times a week from Mobile, by the Alabama Media Group which is in turn part of the might Advance which operates 30 newspapers across the country including the Cleveland Plain Dealer and The Oregonian.
It, too, has the small sections and an expansive design that treats white space with reverence rather than the enemy within. There are not that many stories, mainly because the space is taken up by fewer loooong stories, with impenetrable turns that are all grouped together on one page inside.
Also interesting to see submitted stories from the likes of ‘Office of Marketing and Communications’ appearing alongside other more traditional syndicated sources like The Washington Post and Associated Press.
My educated guess at the best-read pages were back on A17-18 where the obituaries appeared complete with an alphabetised index to quickly check whether it’s worth getting up today.

PJ VERDICT: It’s a bit too easy to say "I’ve seen the future, and I don’t like it very much". American newspaper companies have traditionally been ahead of the UK in predicting trends, protecting marketplaces and adjusting the workforce to deliver those ambitions. But if this is where we are headed this side of the Atlantic then I think we’re in for a continued rocky passage.
Of course, the markets are very different, but the drive to find cheap or even free content leaves some venerable old titles feeling very vulnerable. But where the concentration is put back on ‘local’ – by whatever definition you may choose – then media companies will continue to complete that virtuous circle of readership, audience and advertising.
I get a funny feeling that for once we in the UK are beginning to show the way…

This article appears in the March 2017 issue of PJ ‘The voice of news publishing and printing’. To subscribe go to

Thursday, October 27, 2016


HOW quaintly nostalgic to see this page from FIVE YEARS ago to illustrate a piece on how clickbait is “killing journalism”.
Also included in the case for the prosecution were other well-thumbed pieces of evidence that have previously amused the anonymous posters of the mediarati.
But what is the truth about clickbait and listicles in the regional press in 2016? This original research may surprise, irritate or even disappoint the doom-mongers of journalism as we knew it.
It is a chapter from the same book as the original piece above. Save up for your copy now. Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the slow death of print? published by Abramis Academic Publishing in January 2017.

JOURNALISM'S newest dirty word is clickbait, now shorthand for anything that isn’t traditional, ‘proper’ journalism, especially but not totally confined to online media. But what is really going on deep inside regional newspaper websites? ALAN GEERE gets his hands dirty

Departing Northern Echo editor Peter Barron warns that future of local journalism cannot be built on 'clickbait'
Spiked column by star writer on Leicester Mercury railed against 'risible' standard of clickbait online journalism
Online journalists' survey: 'Public will soon live off attention-seeking, fact-free, gossipy clickbait'
Once we had comment. Now we have clickbait

The academic community is surprisingly united in its definition of clickbait and its desired effects. “Clickbaits are articles with misleading titles, exaggerating the content on the landing page. Their goal is to entice users to click on the title in order to monetize the landing page. The content on the landing page is usually of low quality,” say Biyani, Tsioutsiouliklis and Blackmer (2016) in their research paper "8 Amazing Secrets for Getting More Clicks: Detecting Clickbaits in News Streams Using Article Informality”.
Similarly Chen, Conroy and Rubin (2015) assert that “Clickbait refers to content whose main purpose is to attract attention and encourage visitors to click on a link to a particular web page and has been implicated in the rapid spread of rumor and misinformation online”.
Chakraborty et al (2016) maintain that Clickbaits exploit the cognitive phenomenon known as Curiosity Gap.  “Headlines provide forward referencing cues to generate enough curiosity among the readers such that they become compelled to click on the link to fill the knowledge gap.”

Peter Barron left the Northern Echo after 17 years as editor with a valedictory editorial. In it he reflected on his successes but cautioned readers as follows: “The future of local journalism cannot just be built on 'click-bait' – stories which attract the biggest number of hits online.
“There will be those who call me a dinosaur but if I see another 'stomach-churning compilation of the best spot-squeezing videos' on a 'news' website, I may well take a hammer to my computer. Exploding spots may get lots of hits, and that may attract digital advertising revenue, but it isn’t news.”
In the Midlands Lee Marlow, the writer behind the hard-hitting Fred Leicester column, also wrote a piece when he was made redundant, but the editor at the Leicester Mercury chose note to run it.
Edited highlights of that column are as follows: “We have a website which is updated all day, every day, constantly. Yet it’s a website festooned with so many ads that you try to access it on your phone and it’s barely readable.
“And on that website there will be not just all of the news from the paper, but other ‘news’, too. Stories about Apple iPhone batteries. Product recalls. Some stuff about how people are comparing Leicester City to Donald Trump. (No, really. Apparently, they are.)
“This is ‘internet only’ news. Clickbait. You may have heard of it. It doesn’t have a good reputation and its reputation is deserved, if you’re asking me.
“But you can also see how these stories have been shared. This one had been shared more than 8,000 times on Facebook and Twitter. Click, click, click, click. In this brave new world of digital journalism, this is what counts. The click is always King. It doesn’t matter that your readers are laughing at you when they click. It just matters that they click.”
In South London, reporter Gareth Davies took to Twitter after accepting his redundancy cheque from the Croydon Advertiser to bemoan the direction his old paper was going. “A paper with a proud 147-year history reduced to being a thrown together collection of clickbait written for the web,” he tweeted.
He added: “What do readers get? A website focused on live blogging everything, with reporters told to ‘write like they speak down the pub’. Well, it breaks my heart. I couldn’t stick around to watch the paper be destroyed & I would not help them do it.”

Online audience, not unsurprisingly, continues to grow while print sales fall.
The latest figures for  daily average unique browsers in regional publications (Jan-June 2016) show Newsquest with the biggest group-wide jump over the six months to the end of June, with a 24 per cent rise year-on-year to 1.575m daily uniques, 23 per cent up on the last half of 2015.
Johnston Press was up by 22 per cent year-on-year while Trinity Mirror, which boasted the biggest number of daily uniques at 2.471m, was up 19 per cent year-on-year. The Local World Network, owned by Trinity Mirror, was up 13 per cent year-on-year to 1.393m daily uniques.

For the purposes of this chapter we returned to scene of the crimes above to examine the websites and determine just what sort of job they are doing. They are by definition a snapshot and concentrate on the ‘splash’ page or opening page of the site where by definition any clickbait would reside. Each site was monitored for quantity and quality with a verdict delivered at the end.


Accessed Friday September 9 2016 at 09.12
Opening page has 25 news stories, four videos, 20 in the Most Popular column.
Sport – 17 stories
National sport – four stories
Four ‘others’ inc the infamous Headline Challenge started by Peter Barron, who lives on it its blurb [see illustration]
Ents (that’s what it’s called) - seven stories
Echo memories – seven
Business news - seven
Trending across the UK – seven stories from other Newsquest titles
National news – seven, although the most recent was 9 hours ago
Most popular (again) – top 18
Social media
Twitter: 41.4k followers, 29.6k tweets, Followers Per Tweet (FPT) ratio 1.4
Very handy Twitter directory of all staff, plus their number of followers, including the ex-editor Peter Barron leading the way with 13.9k followers. The current editor Andy Richardson is still listed as Business Editor with 0 followers, probably because the Twitter name given @bizecho links to a baby supply store in Indonesia.
23k Facebook likes
Verdict: Lots to look at and lots to read, a la, with a big landing page that takes quite a bit of scrolling through.
Clickbait score 0/10

Trinity Mirror/Local World
Accessed on Friday September 9 2016 at 09.50
The top of the opening page has three stories, which are not labelled, one Latest News and two Editor’s Choices.
The lead is a timeline of a fatal crash on the MI, which happened that morning, lively updates with pix and maps.
Sport – seven stories (all Leicester City)
News – seven stories
Entertainments: Features - seven, events - five
Social media
Twitter: 72.7k followers from 75.3k tweets with a FPT ratio of 1.03
Facebook: 45k likes (although link takes away from website)
In common with all Trinity Mirror/Local World sites readers have to “Answer a survey question to continue reading this content”. However, the advice on getting around the survey is neatly provided by the paper on its Facebook page.
Verdict: Practical, purposeful and if anything, a little understated. Plenty going on, but nothing that jumps out at you. The ads are there but aren’t intrusive.
Clickbait rating 0/10


Trinity Mirror/Local World
Accessed Friday September 9, 2016 at 08.40
Splash page has three stories plus another headlined Worth The Money?
The lead is a court story with picture taken by reporter
Sport – seven stories, all Crystal Palace
Editor’s Picks – two
More news – six local stories inc ‘The insane giant milkshakes you can now buy in Croydon’ with one comment, which was spam
Most read – five stories (three Crystal Palace)
What’s On - seven features, five events
‘9 things you'll know if you were a regular at London nightclub Fabric’ was more than 1,200 lovingly crafted words by written by a staff member and actually deserved better than the lame listicle headline. Not local though.
Social media
Twitter: 11.8k followers. 15.7k tweets FPT ratio .75
Facebook 19k likes
Verdict: Plenty to read, well written and from a visit later in the day updated regularly. Sponsored content (Staples back to school), some ads but nothing obtrusive.
Clickbait score: 1/10 just for that ‘9 things’ headline

In the interests of fairness, we also looked at titles from the other two big groups, Johnston Press and Archant – this time selected at random from a numbered list using number generator.

Accessed Tuesday September 6 2016, 12.34
Under ‘Latest’ 10 items – crime, news, views, education, motoring, all time stamped
Mustard tv promo
‘More’ – five items, one sport
Photo galleries – six items
More ‘more’
Most read – top five
Revealed: The number of parents fined at every Norfolk school for taking children out of class was a super FOI story with comments, facts and figs
Social media, reached by big, bold links not the usual tiny symbols
Twitter: 39.7k followers, 59.6k tweets FPT ratio .66
Facebook: 13k likes
Verdict: Bright, accessible page. Interesting to see sport mixed in with other content, although readers can click through to a dedicated page.
Clickbait score: 0/10

Johnston Press
Accessed Tuesday September 6 2016 at 14.36
Hot Topics – seven items
Followed by Sky promotion and ‘Supermarket price war’ credited to Offbeat
Sport – eight stories
What’s on – three stories
Essential daily briefing from inews – five stories which open in new window
Lifestyle three stories (two local)
Trending now nine stories (all local)
Promoted stories (nine) ‘Promoted link by Taboola’
Social media
Twitter: 12.1k followers, 39.2k tweets FPT ratio .31
Facebook 25k likes

Verdict: Register to leave a comment clearly is a put-off with just four comments on whole of news page. A neat story on organ donation surrounded by ‘sponsored links’. Felt far more commercial that the other sites looked at.
Clickbait score: 2/10

As this research shows claims for the pervasive influence of clickbait appear to be exaggerated. All the sites visited showed an honest commitment to providing local news, sport, information, comment and entertainment to the highest standard.
If anything, they were somewhat prosaic, lacking the, er, buzz of, the sheer breadth and depth of or the clickbait heaven (or hell) of
Perhaps because of the eternal ‘time constraints’ or the effect of job cuts throughout the industry engagement with the audience via website interactivity or through social media was low. Perhaps it’s time for the regional press to get off its high horse and start to realise the full potential of the ‘new media’ at its disposal.

Note on the contributor: Alan Geere is a journalist, academic and international editorial consultant. He was editorial director of Northcliffe Newspapers South-East and, as editor, led the Essex Chronicle to two successive Weekly Newspaper of the Year awards.
As an editorial executive he worked in the UK, Canada, United States and the Caribbean and his consulting career has taken him into 200 newsrooms worldwide.
He was head of the Media, Communications and Journalism undergraduate degree course at Victoria University in Kampala, Uganda and taught journalism at City, Westminster and Worcester Universities. Alan was also a member of the board of the National Council for the Training of Journalists (NCTJ).

Biyani , Tsioutsiouliklis and Blackmer (2016) 8 Amazing Secrets for Getting More Clicks": Detecting Clickbaits in News Streams Using Article Informality. Proceedings of the Thirtieth AAAI Conference on Artificial Intelligence (AAAI-16) pp 94-100
Chen, Conroy, and Rubin (2015) Misleading online content: Recognizing clickbait as false news. Proceedings of the 78th American Society for Information Science Annual Meeting: Information Science with Impact: Research in and for the Community pp 15-19
Chakraborty, Paranjape, Kakarla and Ganguly (2016) Stop Clickbait: Detecting and Preventing Clickbaits in Online News Media IEEE/ACM International Conference on Advances in Social Networks Analysis and Mining (ASONAM)
  • This piece is a chapter from Lost for Words: Can journalism survive the slow death of print? to be published by Abramis Academic Publishing in January 2017.