How we will need to adapt to the demise of the traditional newsroom

Last week Reach plc announced plans to close all bar 15 of its newsrooms – signalling a confirmation of the “temporary” situation where journalists have been working from home.

The decision to keep open only its biggest newsrooms has sparked a lively debate – from those who have left the industry and hark back to days that are part of our history and from those still active today and battling with the everyday challenges of media publishing.

Reach has merely made a public statement about the reality most publishers are grappling with – and, indeed, most businesses. I was told only last week that very few banks will return to their offices in London – having learned how to operate remotely – and therefore make savings to their bottom line.

There is a real debate to be had about the demise of the newsroom and the impact that will have on the way we work, set against the benefits.

For the past year we have learned how to publish from our bedrooms, spare rooms and kitchen tables – in a way one of my former editors described as having no crease between working from offices and suddenly decamping to home.

As with almost everything in our lives, we will never return to the normal we were used to – and nor should we.

There are many benefits to home working. It will force managers to consider more flexible working requests – something many had previously resisted or begrudgingly accepted on the advice from HR.

Accommodating the realities of working parents, child care, more flexible working arrangements, brings with it many benefits. A better work-life balance, less commuting, the ability to attract a more varied and diverse workforce who couldn’t otherwise work for us – will all help to improve diversity in our newsrooms.

Reach is not the only publisher to have conducted surveys of staff asking them their preferred mode of working for the future and will have found many will have reported a preference for working from home.

A Reach spokeswoman said: “We carried out a survey of all colleagues that showed a majority found home working suited their needs.” The question being for how long.

And publishers have to take some tough decisions about keeping offices open – with all the expense that comes with it – balanced against the need to maintain a presence in our localities.

So what are the downsides to closing offices?

Uppermost in my mind is how we can continue to mentor and develop our staff remotely. Working remotely is one thing – managing remotely is a completely different ball game. Spotting signs that people are struggling is hard enough in a newsroom, let alone via a video call.

Providing an office working environment to people entering work for the first time is essential to help them to acclimatise to a new chapter in their lives. Giving quality training and support to new entrants, learning the ropes of the job, is so much easier under the watchful eye of a departmental manager – and when they are not on hand, the colleague sat in the nextdoor seat.

Then, let us consider the loss of spontaneity that a newsroom offers. The spark of an idea, the callout for help for a headline or an intro, the casual conversations from which great story lines emerge.

These, of course, can be replicated to some extent – but not totally. We  have to be honest about this and face up to the fact that the traditional newsroom was a hothouse for great ideas, camaraderie, support and teamworking that will be diminished – despite any use of technology, such as Slack, Teams, Google or whatever you choose to use.

No publisher that I am aware of is advocating closing all offices. But focusing on a hub and spoke newsroom structure will disadvantage some people from progressing if they are not part of an office environment.

And while I am at it, most of the debate has focused on the loss to trainees of not working in newsrooms. However, the old hands I find, learn just as much from the new entrants about how to learn the new tricks our industry demands of them – something that will also be lost.

On the plus side, we will see reporters more visible on their patches, working in their communities, out and about – or at least I hope so. The risk of reporters becoming invisible by working from home is a challenge we are going to have to tackle head-on as we break the habit of lockdown reporting.

To successfully transition to more remote working, we need to build a flexible model. We need to classify those people who we want to be office-based, those who can easily operate remotely from home, and then build in an agile working arrangement for those falling in the middle.

While offices may close, publishers need to recognise a need to bring teams together from time to time and to budget for temporary office space. Hot desking will be the new norm, and this needs to be encouraged. And, as I said, we need to work really hard to ensure those journalists who should be out and about, are actually out and about and being visible in their communities.

The debate will continue for some time to come and especially as the lockdown restrictions are eased. We need to consult with staff, ask them about how they would like to work and for those of us running our businesses, have clarity about the benefits and disbenefits of remote working.

One thing is certain, traditional newsrooms are a thing of the past. This change is nothing new – from the days of typewriters, smoking in offices and decamping to the pub, which was when I started, to nowadays when the phone hardly rings, computers silence the atmosphere where typewriters provided the soundtrack to newsrooms, and shouting and hollering at reporters for making simple errors were de rigeur.

Change is ever present. It is how we adapt to it and how we introduce it into our businesses that will determine how successful we will be.

This blog is my personal opinion: If you have an opinion about this, please feel free to email me jeremyclifford@celebratingjournalism.com

How the Society of Editors did a disservice to journalists over Meghan

I write this with no joy, but the Society of Editors has got its position on the racism debate surrounding the Meghan and Harry interview on Oprah so very wrong.

The press this week has been accused of racism and bigotry in the way it has portrayed the Duke and Duchess of Sussex – and particularly its coverage of Meghan.

Watching that interview on Monday I was shocked by the headlines selected to contrast the way Meghan has been reported upon compared with similar stories about her sister-in-law Kate.

Within the wider context of whether Harry and Meghan have endured racist treatment at the hands of the Institution of the Royal Family the couple levelled serious allegations about the racist and bigoted coverage they had suffered from the media.

I am not going to wade into that debate – and I am pretty sure the leaders of the SoE regret the way they did, too.

A firm and, in my opinion, arrogant rebuttal penned by Executive Director Ian Murray has made our industry as guilty as other sectors in our society of making a blanket denial about the existence of racism in their organisations.

The furore over the manner of his riposte has forced the SoE to backpedal and to say it will now reflect on the reaction it has provoked.

No doubt this was as result of the incendiary style of Mr Murray’s performance on the Victoria Derbyshire show this morning.

Contrast the flat denial of any problem with racism by Mr Murray with the rather more eloquent response penned by 160 journalists in reaction to the SoE statement issued on Tuesday.

His “nothing to see here” denial was an inflammatory response and missed the chance to discuss a very real issue in the wider media industry – representation.

The authors of the letter deplored the comments made by the Sussexes and held out the path the SoE should have set out.

“The SoE should have used the comments by the Sussexes to start an open and constructive discussion about the best way to prevent racial coverage in the future, including through addressing lack of representation in the UK media, particularly at a senior level.”

The sad thing is, the SoE has, in recent times, attempted to throw a focus on the lack of racial mix in our industry. I do not know what progress they have made on this, but I do know Mr Murray had contacted a number of senior editorial leaders to set up a working group to look at the problems we face in increasing representation in our newsrooms.

And so his response, which at times bordered on aggressive, on the Victoria Derbyshire interview, was a missed opportunity to say that we, as an industry, are acutely aware of the issues we face, and need to try a lot harder to face them.

Look at the facts, there is less than 10% representation of non-white journalists in our industry according to the Reuters Research Institute.

And that percentage dwindles even further when you look at the number of non-white people in managerial positions.

The Society of Editors, instead of embracing the issue of racism, portrayal and representation, have merely tarred our profession with the same brush that other institutions have used.

Have we learned nothing from Black Lives Matters and the need for balance, sensitivity, openness and humility?

Many journalists are distraught at the way they have been misrepresented and the way this issue has been mishandled.

Whether or not the press is guilty of racist coverage or not – it should be playing a far more educated and sympathetic role to inform, shed light on and campaign against racism and under-representation in all walks of life.

And that is why journalism has not been well served this week.

If you have a view, write to me at jeremyclifford@celebratingjournalism.com

Postscript: Ian Murray has now resigned from his position – however, the written response from him was approved by the SoE and therefore, I believe the issues raised are still relevant and need to be addressed.

Is the Facebook agreement with Australia really a good deal?

So who has really won in the battle between Facebook and the Australian Government over whether Facebook should be forced to pay for displaying news content on its platform?

Facebook’s cack-handed decision to withdraw Australian news and inadvertently essential government information from its platform drew opprobrium from around the world – and quite rightly so in my opinion.

As a monopoly operator, its decision to withdraw its platform has been described as bullying tactics.

Whether you agree with Facebook’s argument or not – that the government’s code fundamentally misunderstands the workings of publishing on the internet – a view supported by the internet’s creator Sir Tim Berners-Lee – the fact of the matter is this:

Facebook has been instrumental over many years in executing a strategy that has played a major role in irreversibly destroying the business model upon which publishers relied – a combination of advertising and newspaper sales revenue – to pay for journalism.

So far, this is ok – if you believe in fair competition. However, Facebook continues to benefit from the investment in journalism – that makes part of its platform so attractive, by linking to that journalism – while hitherto providing no financial compensation to the owners and creators of that journalism.

It has also, by creating a behemoth of a social media platform that has little if any regulation, allowed itself to be the purveyor of views and opinions that incite hatred, bigomy, racism and, through its Instagram site, even been directly linked to the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell. Only recently has it put in place attempts to moderate this content – and cannot do so completely.

My point is this: Facebook and its associated platforms are in a market dominant position and can abuse that power and influence to further its strategies – leading to the obliteration of a regulated media industry.

The regulated industry plays a vital role in the democratic process (ref Cairncross Review) and through regulation guards against the promulgation of unlawful views.

If the journalism that provides that content disappears because it cannot continue to exist or create a new business model – then this world will be a darker place.

So, back to the argument over whether Facebook should be forced to pay for the content it does not invest in but merely showcases. It is naive for anyone to believe Facebook’s argument that it does not benefit from doing so and, indeed, by linking to that content, it rewards the publisher through providing it audience reach it would not otherwise have.

The return on that investment to the publisher is miniscule and does not pay for the cost of providing that journalism.

And this is what the Australian Government was attempting to rectify in the face of a failure by the Tech platform to want to compromise. Facebook tried to flex its not inconsiderable muscle, and in a show of its monopolistic power, withdrew its service.

The coverage of this conflict has gripped the media world, brought politicians from around the globe into the debate and has focused on whether or not Facebook, or for that matter Google, should pay for other people’s journalism.

So now, on the eve of the Australian Government passing its new media code, it is widely reported that Facebook has capitulated and is back at the negotiating table with publishers.

The change in the code means the government may not apply the code to Facebook if the company can demonstrate it has signed enough deals with media outlets to pay them for content. The government has also agreed that Facebook and other platforms which would be subject to the code would be given a month’s notice to comply.

So far so good. As reported widely, these are deals that Facebook already has in place with other publishers in the US and the UK as it rolls out its News Tab.

As ever, the devil will be in the detail. I ask you to consider the words of Facebook’s Australian managing director, Will Easton.

He says: “After further discussions, we are satisfied that the Australian government has agreed to a number of changes and guarantees that address our core concerns about allowing commercial deals that recognise the value our platform provides to publishers relative to the value we receive from them.”

The deals that Facebook have offered to publishers elsewhere in the world are a take it or leave it “offer”. There is no or very little scope to negotiate on the value of that commercial deal. I know, I witnessed this.

It reminds me of what has happened with the power of the supermarkets “negotiating” the value of milk from farmers. Once they are in a position of market dominance, the farmer has very little bargaining power and has seen his margins disappear.

So, while on the face of it, this looks like a climbdown by Facebook and media pundits are celebrating, my advice is to beware.

Firstly, the level of value being placed on that journalism has so far, in my experience, not been open for negotiation – perhaps Australia’s code will safeguard against that.

Secondly, unless media businesses find a legal way to combine to negotiate with Facebook – perhaps through their professional bodies – a divide and conquer strategy will ensure the true value may not be realised.

And thirdly, this is not a panacea for journalism.

It remains that more far-reaching regulation and compensation models are needed to redress the balance that is so heavily weighted against the interests of publishing businesses compared with Tech giants.

This blog is my personal opinion: If you have an opinion about this, please feel free to email me jeremyclifford@celebratingjournalism.com

Rediscovering Ideas Journalism

Welcome to my new blog – intended to be a celebration of journalism in a world where it is increasingly criticised for its lack of quality, relevance, polarisation and trust.

However, if you lift the lid on most of our newsrooms you will find little evidence to substantiate this.

It is within the ranks of the critics that you will find polarisation, ill-informed opinions, lack of understanding and ubiquitous criticism enabled by social media platforms where a culture of attack without consequences has been legitimised.

Before I get into my first topic – which is going to centre around debate – I want to reference a couple of pieces of research that debunk the myth that we produce journalism without trust. The social media trollers of our journalists quite simply have this wrong.

Throughout last year, our journalists – no matter which publisher employed them – saw their work read more widely than ever before – and the level of engagement between reader and audience increased (ref Enders). 

Detractors have castigated journalists and publishers for pursuing a clickbait diet of journalism. But the avaricious nature of our readers would have quickly turned away from this and found a different menu to consume had the quality of journalism not been met. 

Reuters Research Institute reported in a recent survey “Only a quarter (24%) of our respondents think social media do a good job in separating fact from fiction, compared to 40% for the news media.”

That is not to say we should be complacent.  More research from the Reuters Institute has pointed to a crisis of communication during the Covid-19 pandemic as the media industry’s reporting of it has been tainted by the public’s attitudes to the ways politicians have handled the crisis. Which means that if the Government cannot get its message to the public via the media, and social is largely discredited, then how does the public receive information it can trust.

Which brings me to my theme about debate – and the opportunity from this artform.

The posh titles call it Op-Ed – but try rebranding it Ideas Journalism or Opinion Journalism and you open the gates to a diverse mix of rich content.

Katherine Kingsbury, the newly-confirmed Opinion Editor for the New York Times, is leading a quiet revolution in Opinion publishing that we could all learn from. (See her interview on NiemanLab)

Ideas Journalism – is the opportunity we can give to our readers (audience) to debate matters of weight, relevance, community, life generally.

Kingsbury has radically reduced the amount of opinion in the NYT, preferring to invest in quality rather than quantity. And she is bringing the communication of Opinion into the digital age.

Embedded audio clips bring the debate to life. Topics are broadened into Podcasts. Video embeds can show debate taking place on digital platforms – all of this leading to authoritative reporting in a digital format that our audience readily consumes.

Just look at the exponential growth in podcasts, the proliferation of audio book platforms, the ubiquitous nature of AI in our households, such as Alexa – which demonstrates there is no lack of appetite for people to listen to people’s opinions.

We just need to find the right opinions. Op Ed does not have to be stridently controversial. It does not have to be a polemic debate. Debate is just that – an intelligent conversation that we can host in our printed titles or online – we just need to do it more imaginatively and to embrace the software and AI technology that is readily available.

Trint – a developing audio software enterprise now used by the NYT and Washington Post – is a brilliant example of how new technology can help to offer up audio clips as print soundbites on a content sharing platform. A great opportunity for incorporating audio debates into Op Ed or Opinion Journalism.

Just take a look at the letters pages of our titles and you would worry that debate is drying up. It has merely migrated onto other platforms because it is more convenient. So, instead of a 1500-word Op Ed piece with one person’s view about green energy or wind farms – open up the debate. Embed your audio into the article – allow differing views – be the platform that hosts the debate.

No other platform does this. Facebook and Twitter are merely purveyors of people’s views. We have the opportunity to curate, craft and collaborate with our audience to bring together debate in a reasonable way that is easy on the ear.

All we need are the Ideas. Hence Ideas Journalism. 

Take for example, a recent controversial decision about whether a regional airport should be allowed to expand. This never really developed in the media beyond an argument about jobs or pollution, while the opportunity around this was far broader. The coverage was one dimensional – and an opportunity missed about how to manage the debate and by which channels. Reader opinion panels on the subject, webcast interviews, expert opinion from the industry and universities are all tools that could have helped in this debate.

Our opportunity is not just to report on the issues, but to create opportunity through our ideas, stimulate debate, engage with our audience and watch them engage more frequently with us, helping to bring our brands to life.

So, my challenge is take a look through your titles over the past few months with a Debate Filter on – identify those opportunities to engage with your audiences that have been missed – and reacquaint ourselves with the idea of seeking out Ideas or Opinion Journalism to capitalise on debate and engagement.

Feel free to let me know your thoughts on this subject and issues you would like to get involved in: email jeremyclifford@celebratingjournalism.com