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29 October 2012

Journalists Must Get Out More

The internet is a wonderful thing. You wouldn't be reading this if it didn't exist. But I'm worried a new generation of journalists is emerging that seldom, if ever, ventures beyond cyberspace in the course of finding stories or conducting research, and that's a bad thing. Because the internet is very good at telling us what's on the internet, not what's happening in the real world.

The essence of journalism is keeping eyes and ears open for the unexpected.

That's how I created a twitterstorm - OK, a twitteripple - with a bit of classic observation on the way home from a Radio Academy event in Leeds last Monday night.

I was walking past Jessop's on The Headrow when I noticed this sign.

I tweeted it, got a bit of reaction. The social medium of Twitter might be new, and no-one paid me to take the pic or to post it, but in its own little way it's the essence of community journalism. Keeping alert in the street for something out of the ordinary, maybe something not quite right, and bringing it to the attention of a wider audience.

That's something that happens much less much in today's newsrooms than it did when I started my career back in the 80s. We used typewriters and carbon paper and edited radio interviews with razor blades and sticky tape. My first editor chain smoked, and had an actual spike on his desk. There was a big red telephone in the newsroom that was meant to ring to give us the four minute warning. It rang six times a day, the number being one digit adrift from the Lookers of Bradford service department.

Most importantly, seven of us worked there. When there was a sniff of 'something not quite right' in City Hall, or reports a Guiseley nurse had been murdered in Saudi Arabia, or suggestions that a book could be burned at a demo because some people found it offensive, a reporter could spend some time checking it out. Often, it turned out to be nothing. Other times it was a national lead.

In today's slimmed down, efficient newsrooms two or three people are typically responsible for the same output. The tools make editing faster and there's an ever growing range and variety of inputs, most of them coming from the internet. From being newsgatherers journalists are becoming news processors, endlessly re-versioning the material to hand to fit different formats of text, audio and video.

Like the eternal flame they never go out. Or hardly ever.

Council stories are fed in from former journos working in multi media press offices. Crown Courts are staffed for the openings and conclusions of cases, Magistrates' Courts only if a murder remand is due. The idea of walking a beat and chatting to people with no actual 'media event' scheduled is a rarity.

Instead 'issues' are picked up from social media. I had a call recently from a radio journalist who had no idea of my personal history. He'd seen a tweet I posted about my 86 year old dad being ripped off by a directory enquiries service and wanted to interview me about it. It's a valid way of working, but it reminds me too much of the science fiction dystopia in which a 'connected' elite live in air conditioned worlds with every luxury to hand whilst excluded barbarians, and those who choose not to conform, inhabit the wasteland beyond.

That's where, very often, the real stories, the real scandals and the unexpected events happen. With no-one there to report them.

I'm doing what I can, in my own practice, to battle the trend of web-fed, web-led journalism. Every year my postgraduate journalism trainees are given a task as part of their induction to track down people and places round Leeds that remain 'off the grid'. Every year it becomes more difficult to find the targets, but even a ten-minute walk round the city centre will prove there are still plenty of good stories waiting to be told.

And for our undergraduates I'm using my Leeds Trinity teaching fellowship appointment for 2012-13 to work in partnership with East Leeds FM and the LS14 Trust to give radio students an insight into the community, working between now and Christmas to each produce a 'community news' bulletin reflecting different aspects of community life in Seacroft; health, education, sport, arts activities, childcare, transport, faith communities and so on.

It's a small start. I hope by planting the idea that stories come from you and me, not URLs, these journalists will be better placed to report the communities around us whatever happens in the development of new technologies.

This article was originally commissioned for the Leeds Culture Vulture blog where there's lots of good stuff online - so I suggest you pop over there for a browse if you're interested in the arts, community and related topics round West Yorkshire.
It's what I was trying to do with 'Highlight', 'The Book Programme' and '235 Weekend' on Pennine Radio in the pre-web era mentioned above. Only better.


  1. The trouble with radio newsrooms these days is that they are so "efficient" that journalists (often 1 person per shift) can't ever leave the station to go out on stories, let alone go out and find them. The hamster wheel of journalism just goes around and around whilst PR companies and corporate communication departments feed them the information they want putting out there, seldom with the questions that need asking actually being asked. This is as a direct result of years of underinvestment in the commercial sector, and the attitudes of PCs (often with little understanding of news departments) that because news does not "pay for itself" that it is unimportant, or that their listeners consider it unworthy of more than 90seconds. Shame Ofcom didn't stop this before the rot set in, now it's probably too late to do something about it.

  2. Couldn't agree more, and understand why you're choosing to remain anonymous.

    You'll see a few pointed remarks from me on the competence or otherwise of superannuated jocks as programmers in my latest post (above this) - Give Me a Reason to Listen.

    Never forget though that even on the hamster wheel you can make a difference. Your 90 seconds may be the only world view some listeners get. They're not listening to Radio Four.