SubScribe: The full Monty: the Local World vision and how it is already working Google+

Tuesday 26 November 2013

The full Monty: the Local World vision and how it is already working

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The theory

Good bosses have vision and drive. They recruit the right people and let them get on with their jobs. When planning changes they make sure that they involve colleagues and staff, first to enthuse them with their vision and then to encourage them to drive it forward.

Newspaper companies are not renowned for their inspirational leadership and man management. Most of us have complained of mushroom syndrome, but in the past we'd laugh and say 'journalists are lousy administrators'. When the corporate types with their Harvard degrees and bonding weekends and seminars moved in, the least we expected was efficiency. Some hope.

David Montgomery appears to combine the worst of the journalist manager and the corporate type with no idea of what producing a newspaper involves but plenty of ideas about how to cut costs.

His mission statement for the future of the Local World group of 100+ newspapers and websites was leaked to Press Gazette last week. It has alarmed and disappointed staff (who have been neither consulted nor informed), the industry in general, and those of us who still love or care about the Press from afar.

Alarmed because of its dismissiveness, not only of the efforts of his 2,800 staff, but also of the entire culture of newspapers. Disappointed because everyone recognises that radical change is needed to keep local media alive and the creation of Local World at the turn of the year brought hope of fresh minds and new beginnings.

Local World was formed by the purchase of the Northcliffe and Iliffe papers, bringing together a stable that served some 10 million people and putting it in the same league as Johnston Press, Newsquest and Trinity Mirror.

Montgomery was the man every media analyst and commentator wanted to interview this spring. How was he going to save us? Bit by bit, in appearances before MPs and assorted interviews, his ideas emerged. The first signs were not good, with talk of getting rid of subs, 'harvesting content', reducing the 'human interface' in news gathering. He was impressed by Norway, less by so one of his own evening papers, which he criticised for failing to the character and feel of the city it served. Community was to be paramount.

Back then Montgomery was working in partnership with Steve Auckland, who came from Northcliffe as chief executive.  But Auckland left the company suddenly last month - anything to do with The Vision? - and Montgomery took over the executive reins and a figurehead chairman is being drafted in.

The first tangible move after the change of ownership last year  was to homogenise the websites so that they all had identical templates, whether they were in Plymouth, Uttoxeter or Hull. Was that such a terrible thing? Maybe not. Most groups have done the same; templating makes it easier to build the site. Also, apart from the terrible ads on the home pages, the 'inside' pages are generally clean and attractive.

(One extraordinarily annoying feature of the sites - and those of rivals - is the double underlined word that looks like a hyperlink. Indeed, it is a hyperlink, but  to an unrelated advert rather than to useful background. Why would I want to know about a special offer on disposable nappies when I'm reading about a hospital's record for treating cancer?)

Then came job cuts, but these have been quite modest. Monty hasn't gone in there with his flail flying. However much we may view The Vision with distaste, we'd be jumping to unjournalistic conclusions to say that it necessarily means wholesale redundancies. It might, of course. But it might also mean the redistribution of staff so that they can work more effectively and produce better newspapers and websites. The document makes no mention of cuts, nor even of 'rationalisation'.

It would also be wrong to assume that the abolition of the roles of subs and news editors necessarily means that the people doing those jobs now will be out of the door. If Montgomery is serious about getting the best out of  people, he won't allow himself or his 'content directors' to typecast existing staff. People do not always take all their talents with them to the office and even those who do are often denied the chance to show them off. That grumpy sub could be the world's expert on pop music; those currently deskbound may - indeed should - be every bit as capable as the reporters of taking responsibility for a 'segment' or two.

The Vision does seem absurdly over-optimistic about what one person should reasonably be expected to do in running his or her 'segment'. The one that Montgomery  chooses to outline in some detail - the crime brief - looks unwieldy even before he adds responsibility for taste, legals and style to the burden. Well yes, reporters should be required to write in style, but the only editor I have ever known to have managed to enforce such a rule was Andrew Neil. They should also be able to recognise what is in good taste and to know their law.

But does Montgomery realise how time-consuming it is to deal with different officials and contacts, to chase down that final fact, how stories get held up waiting for that call back*? Now the reporter must also monitor - and take responsibility for - what complete strangers have posted on the site. Strangers who may not recognise the most interesting point in their story. Strangers who probably do not know, understand or respect the law, boundaries of taste or the newspaper's style. This seems to be a charter for the workaholic to drive him or herself into an early grave.

(*SubScribe contacted several Local World journalists for their views on the Montgomery document early on Monday morning. Thirty-six hours later, three had come back with their promised responses - after being nudged - and two are still pondering. The others, including an editor, deputy editor and news editor, have not replied at all. By the way, I'm still happy to hear from any of them!)

The emphasis on remote working and the abolition of newsdesks also risks destroying the camaraderie that comes through working for a common cause. Montgomery clearly cares nothing for the support network that is at the heart of a vibrant newsroom, dismissing it as the 'hydra-headed nanny'. Surely even today most youngsters who aspire to be journalists still have in their imaginations the buzz of the office, the cacophony of telephones?

OK, the adrenalin rush and comedown generated by an edition deadline has been diluted by the internet baby in need of constant nursing.
Yes, Fleet Street has been deserted.
It's true that regional newspapers are decamping to industrial sites as town centre offices are sold for development.
And yes, we've heard the doomsayers telling us to face reality;  that the newspaper industry is going the same way as coal, steel and manufacturing. But they are wrong.

This isn't just sentimentality or a hankering for 'typewriters, fixed-line phones and pencil-wielding subs shrouded in cigarette smoke'.  Print may be in terminal decline, but publishing isn't. And if we want to publish great stories, investigations, features, interviews that people will want to pay for, we must cling to some of the magic that brings a particular type of person into the profession.

Montgomery is right to want to cast his net wide in recruiting the next generation of journalists. Pity he says it should be 'graduate only'. Some of the most entrepreneurial and imaginative teenagers find that university doesn't suit them. As SubScribe wrote earlier this year, the shift to employing only those young people with high academic qualifications has shut the door on too many potential stars. I'm surprised that Monty, with his rejection of a standardised training procedure, has fallen into this trap.

It's a shame, too, that he denigrates his existing staff by declaring
'The objective is to professionalise the Content Department of all our franchise centres.'

Remember, this group includes top-notch titles whose reporters are already 'highly productive', as demanded by Monty. Look, for example, at the work done by Neil White's team at the Derby Telegraph on the Mick Philpott case.

Concerns have already been raised about this notion, which really sticks in the craw:
'a single individual, Content Manager, will skim largely online published content to create (a highly templated) newspaper in a single session'.
The language and principle are seriously worrying. They insult the editor, the paper and its readers, who would be offered nothing new for their 40 or 60p.

The description of how the senior journalist will work is also offensive in that it is largely an egg-sucking lesson in contact-building.
'As trust is developed ... a rich source of more traditional stories. The journalist will  maintain and develop this relationship'
 Montgomery writes as though no reporter had ever thought of building up a relationship with contacts or of becoming actively involved with schools, businesses or societies on their patch. Membership of key clubs and associations will now be mandatory for managing directors and editors and encouraged for all journalists. But the conclusion that  this
 'will give the publisher an unchallengable local knowledge and create a one-stop shop for content' 
and the earlier assertion
 'underpinning our model is the need to comprehensively serve every one of the communities with content that is rich and comprehensive so there is no place other than the local publisher that our audience and readers need to find'
are extraordinary in that they are grand restatements of the aspiration of every editor since time began.

The document is also naive in its hope that giving an organisation access to the Local World computer system will prevent it from telling anyone else its news. The crime reporter, for example, is supposed to ask the chief constable to use the paper as the main conduit for police information of every type. It may well be convenient for the editorial team not to have to input this material, but the police won't then tell the rival Bugle reporter to go away just because he comes calling with a notebook and pencil in hand.

And as to the workload...It is difficult to see how - even with a press officer typing in details of stolen bikes -  the crime reporter will be able to cover the police and the courts adequately, let alone take on 'immigration and other areas of life overseen by legislation'. That is asking one person to act as crime editor, home affairs correspondent and courts reporter. And not only that, there will be no second eye on his or her work, no sub to question inconsistencies, no one else to write the headlines, captions, standfirsts.

It would have been less frightening if The Vision had spoken not of one person taking on more than one segment, but of journalists working in small teams.

Montgomery is right that an environment reporter shouldn't need to be told that there's a storm coming - but news editors do more than tell reporters what they already know. They co-ordinate the whole operation. Readers can't be expected to  look up the contact details for every journalist on the paper; they want to be able to ring a central hub to share their stories. Under Monty's model, the editor will presumably be director of operations. His or her secretary is going to be very busy answering that fixed-line phone.

And another thing. It its many years since I worked on a local paper, so this may be outdated thinking, but isn't geography as important as subject specialisms in determining what individual reporters cover? A cluster of villages in the west of your territory may have very different priorities from those of the townies in the south.

If you want a sense of community, these differences need to be recognised. Can the political specialist cover every parish council as well as the city, district and county councils, not to mention the activities of the MP and MEP? Wouldn't it be better to keep the district reporters of old alongside the municipal and crime experts?

Montgomery clearly envisages the parish pump correspondents writing directly onto the site, but who would be most likely to file the copy?

The parish clerk.

And how does that square with the principle of disinterested scrutiny?

The language

One of the distressing features of the document is Montgomery's abandonment of any terminology that could be regarded as 'old journalism'. Indeed the only word to survive is 'journalist'. Here is a brief rundown of the new vocabulary:

Editor-in-chief                 Content director
Editor                              Content manager 
Reporter                          Senior journalist        
Editorial                           Content department
Newspaper group           Franchise
Newspaper                      Product
Speciality/patch/beat      Segment
Newsgathering                Sourcing/Harvesting content
Story                                 Content
Printed paper/website     Platform
Readers' copy                  UGC (user-generated-content)
PR/stringers/contacts      Providers of content

Putting it into practice

The Grimsby Telegraph was in the vanguard of the brave new Local World when it started to merge reporting and subbing roles in the summer. Its website seems to have adopted principles mooted in The Vision - demonstrating both interesting innovations and pitfalls.

A page has been set up for blogs, and writers from anywhere have the freedom to tackle any subject, not necessarily relating to the local area. A young reporter writes a post about not looking back with regret (and is rebuked in the comments for patronising older readers), a second writer pays homage to Sachin Tendulkar and David Suchet, while the Canon of Grimsby Minster writes about the royal baptism. The MP Austin Mitchell is not averse to using this virtual soap-box.

Newspapers have always pumped their wares out into the open, never to discover how most of them have been received. The splash or a misspelling might elicit comment or complaint, the funnies and the tragic spark debate in the pub, but most stories are just there.

The internet age has changed that. There are analytics for everything. We can therefore see that very few of the Telegraph's blogs are shared, tweeted or 'liked' and many comment threads are empty. Does anyone read them? Does anybody care?

The one that brought the most response - 17 comments - was a  post from deputy editor Michelle Hurst about the three-week closure of a local swimming pool. It reads rather like a leading article and raises an interesting and important point. Just as local newspapers are supposed to do.

But does it sit happily between a junior reporter writing about her Diana award and another writer commenting on Louth being designated a 'crap town'? (No likes, shares, tweets, comments for either).

Another of Monty's ideas is to give people outside his organisation access to Local World websites. This can be seen at work under the Telegraph's Local Projects tab. Click on this and you bring up a page that looks unlike anything else on the site - and very  like the site. 

This is a cute move. There is space for the school, scouts, dance group or whatever, to explain what they want to do, to update readers on progress and to thank backers. Six of the 25 projects featured on the page since March last year have been fully funded, ten have yet to win any support. Many of the schemes carry a 'crowdfund fruitshare' rosette, indicating that they are part of a national campaign started by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall to get children to grow fruit trees at school.

Here you can see where Monty's world might have something going for it: instead of reporters spending hours writing up 20 stories on school fundraising efforts, the schools can update their own space here.
But reporters still need to keep an eye on these pages, just as they always have on the village pars, for good live stories that the children or their teachers may not recognise.

Someone should also be watching the 'community' and 'have your say' tabs. Last year, the 'community' page seemed to be working just as it should. People were agitated about the sale of the Salvation Army hostel and the fate of the plants in the closed Floral Hall. But the page has now been taken over by spammers. There are barely a handful of local issues raised in 46 pages dominated by people advertising kitchens for sale from all corners of the country.

There are only three pages of 'have your say' but they, too, have fallen victim to the spammers. Here we have a picture of the sunrise over Grimsby and a man saying 'thank you' to a woman who stopped to help when he was knocked over by a pavement cyclist - but the other notices are for another kitchen designer and from companies urging readers to unlock their pensions.

These pages desperately need moderating and reclaiming from the invaders, but are there enough staff around to fulfill the function? The pages also show how dangerous it is to allow outside interests free access to your site. These are comparatively harmless people selling kitchens and finance schemes. It is easy to imagine ambulance-chasing personal injury specialists, cash-for-gold pawnbrokers and the like jumping in too. But so might the dodgy dating sites, weightloss scammers and porn peddlers.

What the hacks say

Sadly, Michelle Lalor has not responded to requests for comments, but SubScribe would be delighted to hear from her. In the meantime, we have the views of three journalists from Local World titles across the country:  a writer who has been with her paper for 20 years, a sub and a recent recruit. Needless to say, they were all promised anonymity. This is what they had to say:

'The mood remains buoyant despite editorial cynicisms.
Monty's ideas sound bizarre. I can't see how they can stop regional papers plummeting into abyss. No matter who the boss is, there's no avoiding the fact that people don't buy. None of my non-journo pals read any now.
Old timers like me are hanging on, but i feel my days are numbered - with or without Monty.'

 'The reaction has been one of disbelief. Most feel frustrated at both the vision itself and the way it has been communicated, or rather withheld from most of the staff. 
In a recent survey of editorial staff, there was by no means an overwhelming confidence or trust in the senior management and this will only make matters worse.
Morale generally isn't great, despite talented, experienced and passionate members of a team that are trying to make the best of the situation.
Ever-increasing online targets set from above, more pressure on the print product as a result and the increasing number of hours needed to produce both products to the standard desired, is putting a huge strain on all departments and is stifling passion and creativity.
An investment in staff is needed to cope with increasing demand to maintain the product and expand digitally, with one eye on the future. The vision outlined is the polar opposite and makes for very worrying reading indeed.'

'I’m very happy in the new job here – we’ve a very good and engaged group of reporters, a newsdesk that helps us through everything and an editorial group prepared to fight our corner as much as their own.
I’ve just been hired at the same time as someone else, and that both of us are on a damn sight more than counterparts at Trinity or Newsquest papers should be seen as a positive thing I think. I’ve always had people to help me out when I’ve needed it, which not all fledgling hacks have. 
From my lowdown view things haven’t really changed dramatically. It seems to be business as usual more or less, with a few additional changes coming through. We’ve been implementing a few more digital things lately. I think it’s fair enough to expect reporters to use Twitter and have a smartphone for vox-pops, while saving the bigger jobs for the expert photographers.
In terms of the grander scale I think it’s a re-titling of subs, news editors etc. rather than a replacement, which is a major relief, as I think they’re absolutely essential to the smooth running of the place. If they went and we were sent out remotely, I would find it a lot harder to do my job.
Like many people the management-speak spooked me a bit, but my feeling is we’re already evolving well enough to inform as much as conform to senior ideas. So I’m confident we’ll carry on much as we are.
I don’t think we’re at panic stations yet.'



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