April 2010


Bruce Guthrie, editor-in-chief

Just a quick note about the news today  Bruce Guthrie, of the Herald Sun, insisted on taking the title editor-in-chief, despite only controlling one paper, when he was offered the job.

So says News Ltd CEO John Hartigan, while Guthrie denied he demanded the title, instead claiming it was offered to him.

While I do not want to get into the ins and outs of a legal case, I would not be surprised if an editor with an ego wanted a fancier title.

And I’ve seen some odd ones over my time already – deputy editors who edit several papers, news editors that are really that paper’s editor, trends reporter (is that even a specialisation?).

We have a style guide for the papers, so let’s all do the world a favour and get one for our job titles too. Though mine might then become office dogsbody.

So last post I looked at the reader’s relationship with their paper, and promised this time to blog on how we as journalists feel about our readers.

“Having asked whether readers hate newspapers, I feel the same can be applied to newspapers hating readers.

Certainly in the newsrooms I have been in there is often abuse towards readers.

Just some of the accusations laid at our beloved readers are: stupid, a pain in the arse, demanding, racist, ignorant, fickle, fat, ugly, lazy, boring, wrong.

Can you honestly say you’ve never felt one of those against a reader?

Many a time a journo has put the phone down after a conversation with a reader and let loose with a tirade of abuse, whether it is for wasting their time with a non-story, pontificating over a minor point in a story, claiming a story is wrong, or threatening to sue for defamation.

The green pen brigade are sneered at and we have all laughed at some of the more obscure and passionate letters that make their way to a newsroom (personal examples are Jesus will save us from the GFC and a man who claimed to have invented the golden goals rule in football only for Sepp Blatter to steal it over dinner).

There’s the citizen journalists, whom the bosses see as the future (mainly cos they’re free), but we see as annoying amateurs twitching their curtains a bit too much and suddenly demanding to be treated as equals.

There’s the politicians we think are morons, the PR people who sold their souls to the devil, the eco warriors who smell and think you should too (I honestly met one who said dentistry was a capitalist conspiracy and was going it alone – her breath stank).

And even if we are not openly expressing our feelings about our readers, we are showing our contempt for them in our stories.

Here are two examples of national newspapers happy to think they’re readers are so dumb they won’t realise the story is a pile of crap and completely at odds with past stories on the same topic in the same paper:

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/apr/27/dailymail-cancer

http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/apr/07/dailyexpress-health

Do we really hold our readers in such low regard we believe they will just lap up this drivel and not cotton on?

Certainly Blunt in his blog Playing the Game believes we should not treat readers in this way:

http://blunt-a-blog.blogspot.com/2009/07/flim-flammery.html

He says: “The trust of your readers is a hard-won thing and all too easy to lose”. Quite true.

But perhaps as illuminating (although clearly somewhat in jest) is his sign off:

Be fair, be accurate, be balanced. The only complaint they can have is they don’t like the story.
Then you truly can tell them to go and fuck themselves.

Ir’s an attitude that is out there. But “so what?” you may cry.

Well, how can we expect readers to trust us, respect us and ultimately read us if we treat them like imbeciles and are rude to them. Not only is there the word of mouth if someone is shirty to a reader, there is also the premise that if you are writing to the reader, if they are your focus and your driving force, then holding them in poor regard is not likely to make your product any better.

Yes, they can be dumb, annoying and a pain but they are also the ones who ultimately keep us in a job, so while we may whine and moan a bit when under the cosh, we need to ensure we see readers as lords, manna from heaven that we should worship and adore.

Is this what readers think of newspapers?

Does anyone independent of a newspaper actually like it?

This may seem a disparaging viewpoint but following on from previous blogs I’m intrigued by the relationship between newspaper and reader.

I was subbing the letters page recently and there was, as always, a good deal of feedback, some positive and some not. One letter was full of praise for the paper for highlighting a local issue of importance. Kudos for the paper one would think. And you would hope readers who were concerned about the issue would also be appreciative.

But most of these people, or at least the vocal ones, are the ones you see at the meetings anyway and would know about the issue beforehand. It seems the majority of the letters praising the paper etc come from those who’ve had something in the paper, and often from very interested parties such as politicians and community groups.

Conversely, reading Greenslade’s blog on the UK city Brighton’s paper The Argus (http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/greenslade/2010/apr/20/local-newspapers-newsquest) what struck me was the comments from readers who said they thought of the paper in the negative. I must confess that I have had the same experience here with my paper. When I mention the publication, the reaction is one of `oh yes, THAT paper’, before them going on about how there’s nothing good in it and it’s all lies.

At my old paper, we were thankfully seen in a brighter light (if people had even heard of us – but that’s another post altogether), but I imagine this had plenty to do with our competitor being somewhat brash (add horror to every headline being their key editorial policy it seemed) and thus the more conservative types preferring our straight bat approach. Even then the praise was more `you’re better than that other lot I suppose’. Hardly encouraging.

I’m intrigued to discover how many local journos have had people praise the paper just because they thought it was good, rather than because of some vested interest. And compare that to how many will openly criticise the paper and local journalism in general.

Do our readers actually like us? Or are we just better than the alternative (a poorer paper or nothing at all)? And why is there so much hostility towards local papers – and there really is a lot of vitriol out there?

That vitriol can be seen in some of the language of this post:

http://aljahom.wordpress.com/2010/04/20/epic-work/

Click through to the article it refers to and in the comments again is a lot of abuse – and this from people who at least have some interest in the media. I do not defend the publication, but journos and papers seem to bring out the wrath in the public and surely that is a concern when readership is dwindling daily.

Perhaps it is a question we should flip on its head, do we actually like our readers. That will follow in the next post methinks…

A very quick post, before getting back onto topics, to show my favourite `no shit’ headline of the week from the Daily Telegraph (Aus) about gangland killer Carl Williams:

“Dead thug was hated by most of his victims”

Brilliant stuff. You can imagine the sub stressing at deadline to come up with a four deck head and just threw it in without really thinking first.

So I read with interest the latest Dyson at Large column on Hold the Front Page: http://www.holdthefrontpage.co.uk/blog/100407dysonblog14.shtml

The blog itself was, as always, interesting  – even if some say it is easier to critique from the outside than run the ship (to which I agree). But of much more interest to me were the comments. Dyson presents the Bradford Telegraph and Argus as a good paper with strong stories, a high story count and several other features of note, but then adds their ABC figures were poor.

He puts this down to poor marketing as costs are cut. Speaking from personal experience, the marketing departments of most newspapers are truly terrible and have no concept of brand message or brand awareness or even basic marketing techniques (the exception being my current paper where a huge ad campaign has reaped rewards of a circulation increase and much excitement , but that is for a later date).

Undoubtedly some of the blame lies here, but as other commenters are quick to point out, there is no shortage of local papers where staff have been cut and budgets slashed, yet their ABCs have not suffered as much. So maybe it is not just the marketing to blame, but the content of the paper, or another arbitrary factor not considered (one comment mentioned mucking around with editions which is bound to alienate some).

Which all begs the question I pointed to in my first blog. Do we, as journalists, decide what the reader wants based on what we think sells, is readable, interesting etc? Or do we follow the reader to the end, even if it means no council stories and more about celebs on patch?

Certainly, the Argus example suggests what we journalists think as a cracking read and a top paper (and the blog seems to indicate this) does not appear to be what the reader wants if we accept their ABC figures are at least in part down to content. What then do they want? Are they fed up of crime yarns? Do they tire of council debates, community news and boring business? And how do you tell without conducting a very expensive survey which might not provide the answers anyway?

At this point the web journos come in and say look at the web stats – an instant way of seeing what stories prove popular and what do not. But of course the web readership is not the same as the paper, no matter how much of one overlaps with the other. In the old days, one might have used the letter contributions as an indicator. But this can be skewed, with the most controversial, not the most read or interesting, being pushed up the bill. And letter writing is a dying art

Ultimately, there are some tough decisions that need to be made in newsrooms. Readership is declining. But we still sit here and think we’ve put out a cracking paper, if not every edition then as many as we possibly can. I often pick up a tale and get super excited about it and think it’s going to get the world talking. But has being in the industry warped my perspective? And is it the same for editors, long in the tooth and accustomed to the usual journalism fare? Maybe those great exclusives we fight for are not worth all that much to the readers, who want a page of nibs for easy digest and big pictures to look at on the train.

An Australian man…

Perhaps the worst intro ever? But not according to some. What is the obsession with location. Yes, hyperlocal is the in thing, and yes I understand with websites that if you put locations at the top of things it makes them easier to find on Google etc.

But in a local or regional paper, does someone really need to know the suburb a man comes from in the opening paragraph? I’ve always had the belief if it’s a good yarn then people will want to read it, regardless of where they are from. Why would people bother reading national stories otherwise? Most involve people they don’t know from places far away (that they might not ever have been to). Yet they read them because they are interesting.

This means either the local rag story is dull as dishwater and the only pulling power is that Mr Darcy who stubbed his toe rather badly is from Little Bigtown, or there is too much emphasis on location. And if it is a good yarn then the reader is likely to read up until the point you mention they’re locality anyway

It’s obvious they’re going to be vaguely local as it’s a bloody local paper! Really there should be more emphasis on location if they’re from the moon rather than Townsville or wherever.

Of course, it also doesn’t help that following the strangely obligatory location identifier, the generic man is thrown in. To me it screams of lazy journalism. Someone has not asked what the subject of the story does for a living, or how old they are, or what they used to do, or their favourite past-time etc. All of these would likely make a better intro: a part-time contortionist, a retired lion tamer, a one-time pal of the Queen, a constipated plumber, a 90-year-old pole dancer…

So why do so many journalists persist in using the age-old “A Somewhere man” and why do so many sub editors let it in? What do you think of “A Newtown man”? Do you like it? Do you hate it? Do you give a monkeys about where a person’s from if they’ve just fought off a crocodile with a small eggplant? Let me know below.