Monty's memo reaction round-up: Regional press needs visionaries, but it is insulting to describe local journalism as a 'medium grade craft'

When veteran newspaper executive David Montgomery led a consorrtium which merged the Northcliffe and Iliffe local newsapers groups to create Local World at the end of last year he promised to 'resuscitate' the regional newspaper business in the UK.
 
Yesterday, we got the clearest idea yet about what he plans to do with the UK's third largest regional newspaper group in a vision document distributed to staff which found its way to Press Gazette. 
 
Over 2,200 words he outlined a vision for a future where entrepreneurial journalists become their own boss – helping local businesses, police, hospitals, schools and other groups publish their own content on Local World websites.
 
He has previously said he believes that journalists can achieve a 20-fold increase in the amount of content they produce – and this is how he believes they can do it.
 
Via templating and new content technology he believes that one journalist could now put together a small weekly newspaper in a session – and a handful could create an entire daily, by 'skimming' online content.
 
It's probably fair to say that his musings about the future of journalism have not been universally welcomed. The reaction on Twitter, and from Press Gazette's commenters, has largely been one of horror.
 
For my money I think it is a good thing that regional press bosses like Montgomery, and Ashley Highfield at Johnston Press,  are thinking big thoughts about the future of regional newspapers. For a while it seemed that regional press owners had no other ideas other than to cut costs and make as much money as they could on the way down.
 
Monty has a point in suggesting that regional newspapers can become a hub for content from all sorts of others organisations. Police, hospitals, schools and so on aren't very good at publishing – journalists are – so perhaps there is a role for local newspaper journalists as curators of content.
 
Where his vision may fall down is that it seems to be partly based in fantasy.
 
He describes the current role of the journalist as "entrenched in the industrial age as a medium grade craft…the school leaver culture of learning a trade dominated or media school graduates poured into newspapers with unquestioning academic thinking that perpetuated this industrial past".
 
He says that in future bright, multi-skilled graduates will create a new elite corp of Local World journalists. I suggest he examines the CVs of his current crop of reporters and sub-editors.
 
I would bet any money that they are all among the brightest and best graduates coming from a variety of disciplines. And to say that what they do is a "medium grade craft" is frankly insulting.
 
Any local newspaper reporter today is immediately given immense responsiblity to do a complex job: comforting bereaved relatives on doorsteps, running campaigns, producing interviews, features, news, analysis, print stories, video, Tweets and social media content.
 
They are the eyes and ears of their community holding council leaders, police chiefs, business people, schools and hospitals to account.
 
They explain complex life-changing issues in a way that everyone can understand  so that local people can make informed decisions about the future of their communities.
 
They ensure that justice is seen to be done by sitting through lengthy court cases and boiling thousands of words of evidence down into a snappy and easily understood story.
All this stuff is important. It's hard. And if local reporters aren't around to do it no-one else will.
 
There is a fear that if journalists become full-time 'harvestors' of content and aggregators – there will be no time them do this sort of vitally important work.
 
If Monty is serious about a 20-fold increase in content I can't see how the journalist responsible for that content would have time to do anything more than read it for legals and correct the worst of the spelling and grammar mistakes.
 
He is right that with modern content technology it may be possible for one journalist to create an entire heavily-templated weekly newspaper in a single shift. You could probably do it now in Indesign if you wanted to. But why would you want to?
 
While online is immediate, print is a longer read and requires some finesse if it is to be done well. 
 
Here is a round-up of some other reaction to Monty's memo.
 
 
Dave Toomer: 
 
This is a typical attempt to produce content as cheaply as possible. Good online journalism requires more resources not less. A lot of decent stories can be picked up using digital tools and utilising citizen journalists. But they can only get at half the story. Skimming already published online material will not get at the news at the heart of communities local papers should be serving. It will not pick up the story about the local football club treasurer siphoning off funds, or the local man suing his hospital for negligence. That has to be done by journalists embedded in the communities. It also condemns sections of communities, particularly in socially deprived areas where the internet isn't used to access news, to be without a news service if the dash for digital ends up with the demise of local papers.
 
Steve Zacharanda
How incredibly depressing. Letting the police and councils put their content direct on websites and in paper is dangerous in a democracy. "Content harvesting" is a phrase straight from hell. No mention of getting exclusives?
Stuart Crow
A reason local journalism is in decline now is because too many papers print press releases from various bodies as stories without any critical analysis. The News (a Johnston title) in Portsmouth has done this for some time now, and it is destroying the paper's credibility.
 
It leaves a gap in the analysis market for bloggers; many of us are forever hearing comments like "Why isn't the paper telling us this?" The usual answer is "Because there's nobody left who understands the topic".
Futurist
 
I think he's got it right. it is sensible to develop a closer publishing relationship between the main pillars of society, the Police, Council, Fire Service etc. Why not give them direct access to our sites so that they can upload their content which we can then selectively repurpose. It's a much more efficient model than the current mode of copying and pasting press releases. And our professional journalists still have the control to edit and take down anything they do not believe is suitable.
He's right in that the current production model is outdated, its roots are in a bygone age. Trouble is most editors have a great deal of fondness for that bygone age and are determined to cling onto it. They need to change their mindset and think carefully about this very clearly thought through strategy. It looks much more like the reality of the future than the model most editors cling to.
 
 
David’s vision seems to take rather a lot from the civil service, with his talk of the foot-in-the-door reporter being updated with organisational ability.
 
Being able to get all your pencils in a row is an organisational triumph but David hasn’t managed it yet. There are too many holes in his plan.
 
Take courts for instance. Courts? You remember them? Where do they fit into this DIY newspaper idea? Every reporter I’ve ever worked with has had NCTJ or the equivalent training.
 
Surely it’s just a bit of shorthand and making sure you spell the chairman of magistrates’ name right? Yes, but then there’s the problem  of juveniles and S39 orders.
 
I’ve lost count over the years of the number of times I’ve asked the newsdesk (no newsdesk in David’s new office) to check facts in a court story.
 
When people ask me what a sub-editor does – pay attention as you won’t be seeing them in Local World –  I tell them my main role is to keep the editor out of jail. It’s also to keep money for the shareholders, rather than splurging it on payouts for things we’ve got wrong.
 
If you don’t have subs  David, you’ll need libel insurance, a lot of it.
 
What he’s completely forgotten is that news is often the sort of thing that people don’t want in the paper. When is the reporter uploading all these press releases going to have time to actually follow up any stories?
 

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