The three biggest newspaper myths of 2016 debunked

newspaper myths debunked

DEBUNKED: The three biggest myths about newspapers in 2016

These early days of 2017 are worrying ones for newspapers.

Dangerous myths have grown up in the wake of the Leveson Report into the “culture, practices and ethics” of the Press.

Now, as part two of Leveson looms, it is time to debunk them.

Myth 1: Newspapers should not be biased

Yes, they should… if they want to be! Newspapers that take a strictly neutral view of the world risk being tedious. Readers enjoy publications that arouse their passions, challenge them to see the world differently, and stand up for what they believe in.

A free press can publish what it wants within (in the UK’s case) a strict legal and ethical framework (see below).

This freedom dates to when it was won from the Stuart monarch in the 17th century.

News of domestic political events before then was banned.

King James did not want his subjects discussing or debating politics.

He thought some matters of state were beyond the understanding of ordinary people (some things never change).

The end of censorship 300 years ago brought an explosion of news writing that was often partisan and boisterous, and this wonderfully raucous chorus of competing voices has endured to this day.

The only mainstream news organisation barred from taking sides is the BBC, which as a State-run organisation is bound to be impartial under the terms of its charter.

Regardless of this, groups such as the misguided and hypocritical #StopFundingHate, seek a country in which newspapers whose views it finds disagreeable are closed down.

It is angered by headlines about child refugees and last year’s ruling by High Court judges that Parliament must be consulted before Article 50 is triggered to begin negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Its assertive approach includes pressurising businesses into withdrawing advertising and promotional activities from those papers whose views it finds offensive.

If such monstrous tactics were successful it could mean the closure of newspapers and the loss of livelihoods for hundreds of people.

As I have argued here before, the necessity to listen to voices we object to is the price we pay for being able to have our own say. And that is what underpins all our freedoms.

Myth 2: Newspapers answer to no one

Yes, they do! They are already subject to strict legal restrictions that include the libel laws, official secrets and anti-terrorism legislation, the law of contempt and other legal restrictions on court reporting, the law of confidence and the development of privacy actions, intellectual property laws, legislation regulating public order, trespass, harassment, anti-discrimination and obscenity.

Some believe these laws inhibit free speech far more than is healthy in a democratic society.

In addition, there are regulatory restraints on newspapers.

The Independent Newspaper Standards Organisation is the toughest regulator in the developed world. It holds newspapers to account for their actions, protects individual rights, and upholds standards of journalism. It has the power to issue fines of up to £1million.

This bundle of restrictions places the UK a shameful 38th in the 2016 World Press Freedom Index, behind the likes of Surinam, Belize and Ghana. An unlikely position for an industry that answers to no one!

Myth 3: The phone hacking and bribery trials proved you cannot trust journalists

No, they didn’t! Phone hacking, which involved listening in to private voice messages on people’s phones, was an illegal activity.

Only a small number of journalists on national newspapers were involved, and they have been dealt with by the criminal courts in the same way as members of any other industry found guilty of breaking the law.

The practice was widely condemned in the rest of the Press as soon as it was exposed.

Oh, and who exposed it? Not the politicians, the police, or the regulators. It was the Press, namely journalists at The Guardian.

Public outrage over the scandal, and in particular the hacking of murdered schoolgirl Millie Dowler’s voice messages, gave enemies of the tabloids such as pressure group Hacked Off the excuse they had long craved to muzzle the Press for their own purposes.

The Leveson Inquiry, which investigated not just phone hacking but the “culture, practices and ethics” of the Press, was a politically motivated show trial.

One wonders why the ethics of the banking industry, which has brought misery to millions through its dodgy practices, have not been subject to an investigation of the same breadth.

Things will get even worse for the Press if Leveson part two is imposed.

A pernicious piece of legislation (Section 40 of the Crime and Courts Act 2013) would make newspapers liable to pay complainants’ costs, whether they won the case or not!

Campaigner Mick Hume describes it as a “DIY censors’ charter”.

Everyone who cares about freedom of expression should register their opposition to it at before January 10.

Hot on the heels of Leveson came Operation Elvedon, an investigation in which News of the World publisher News Corp, seeking to atone for the hacking scandal, shared confidential emails between journalists and their sources with the Metropolitan Police.

Police used the obscure offence of misconduct in public office against journalists who paid state employees for stories.

Juries did not agree that journalists pursuing stories they thought the public should know about were being treated like criminals and they acquitted those accused.

Of 34 journalists arrested and/or charged in the operation none were convicted at trial and the operation was wound up. It was a saga superbly chronicled by newspaper industry website Press Gazette.

All this this political and legal manoeuvring has helped create a false perception of an industry that does so much good for this country.

It is time to send newspaper bashing the way of 2016 and demand a freer future for us all.










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Why free speech would be the victim of Stop Funding Hate’s righteous march

Lego stormtroopers

On the march: Campaigners are seeking to silent newspapers they judge to be publishing offensive and inaccurate stories

THE hypocrisy of some supporters of the Stop Funding Hate campaign is startling.

Do they not see that the biliousness of their own attacks on tabloid newspapers undermine their claims to be champions of a fairer society?

Are they not as guilty of fomenting hatred as the subjects of their ire?

Stop Funding Hate objects to newspapers it accuses of “promoting hatred, discrimination and demonisation”.

Chiefly, it is angered by headlines about child refugees and the recent ruling by High Court judges that Parliament must be consulted before Article 50 is triggered to begin negotiations on the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

Its assertive approach includes pressurising businesses such as Lego, John Lewis and Lidl into withdrawing advertising and promotional activities from those papers whose views it finds offensive.

To be clear, I am not attempting here to defend the opinions of newspapers. But I do defend their right to hold and express them.

The necessity to listen to voices we object to is the price we pay for being able to have our own say. And that is what underpins all our freedoms.

Stop Funding Hate should expose what it sees as the absurdities, inaccuracies or injustices of some newspaper stories with passionate but reasoned debate.

Instead, it is whipping up hysteria (a tactic it accuses newspapers of using) in an attempt to put them out of business, to shut them up forever, with its call for an advertisers’ boycott.

It is a chilling response.

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Why it’s unwise to compare journalists of yesterday and today

I am not immune to indulging in nostalgia, as my recent lament to regional newspapers’ vanishing printing presses shows.

So I will cut Pat Prentice a little slack for his tribute to his friend and colleague David Watts.

It is comforting to wallow in the past, especially when remembering an old pal.

Unfortunately, Pat’s eulogy strayed from fondly remembered times into a bit of a dig at today’s journalists. It received an indignant riposte from my fellow blogger Paul Wiltshire.

Young reporters, in particular, do not deserve unfavourable comparisons with those of a generation ago.

I marvel at their ability to report live for an online audience while also taking notes for a print version of the same story, all the while shooting stills and video and distributing their work via social media.

Back at the office they are required to caption their photos,  write headlines, upload to the web, add links, galleries, social media embeds and maps.

It is a formidable job spec, and by and large it is handled with skill, enthusiasm and good humour.

I do, though, share Pat’s admiration for the craft of sub-editors (I was, ahem, one myself).

Regional newspapers are dispensing with them, and their precious skills.

I do hope some of them find roles in the institutions involved in the training of journalists. They have much to offer.

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Why KFC is worth a front-page splash

worcester news kfc front page

FINGER LICKIN’ GOOD: Yesterday’s Worcester News front page

Yet again, the Worcester News’s choice of story for its front page has riled the Twitterati.

Yesterday’s paper revealed that another KFC takeaway, the city’s second, is to open.

But our decision to splash on the story drew derision from some, who felt the story was too trivial to merit its prominent position.

Jon Card (@joncard) said: “Who says local papers are dead? Anybody who reads @worcesternews”, later adding, “Is a new takeaway really the biggest story in Worcester this week?”

Sam Box (@samjbox) said: “Whereas this is good news, I’m not sure it’s worthy of the full front page compared to the story above [a tease for a rape trial that was outside our core circulation area]”.

Tom Guest (@tomguest_), himself a former Worcester News journalist now working in a different industry, tweeted me. He said: “How come this page 7 nib accidentally got used as the front page splash, John?!”

Later he added: “I don’t mean to be critical, I just find this click-bait led era of journalism a bit soulless and depressing.”

But was this story really trivial? Not to our readers, some of whom launched a social media campaign to bring the first branch of KFC to Worcester in 2008.

It is too early for information about how well yesterday’s edition sold, but we do know about the online version of the story.

It was one of the top 10 most popular stories on Newsquest’s network of regional newspaper websites for most of the day, and had almost six times more views than the next most popular story on the Worcester News website.

The story has also been widely shared on the Worcester News Facebook page.

Saying we are getting things wrong in these circumstances is like telling a shop to take its most popular item out of the window because it is selling too well!

What our critics find difficult to accept is that newspapers like the Worcester News are now much more likely to use stories their readers want to read, rather than stories some commentators think they should read.

This does not as a consequence entail dumbing down the news.

Those who see little worth in our KFC story should take time to read some of the comments people are posting, both on our website and Facebook page.

It is a worthy community story in the best traditions of local newspapers, and some interesting points have been raised.

Some question society’s attachment to junk food, despite warnings about its effect on our health.

Others are worried about the litter the new takeaway may bring.

There are concerns, too, about the boy racers who may be tempted to use its car park when darkness falls.

If your life is affected by these issues they are far from trivial, and in less sanctimonious circles our treatment of this story is more likely to be welcomed than sneered at.

This is, incidentally, not the first time the paper has been criticised for giving a prominent showing to a story about the opening of a business (we have not, by the way, received any financial ‘inducement’ from KFC).

Our live report about the opening of a new Adli supermarket drew similar disparaging remarks, and I blogged about it here.

But these stories are relevant to people. Shopping and dining are leisure pursuits that occupy a great deal of their time and interest.

I made the point in my early post, and it is worth repeating, that we do not run stories like these at the expense of more ‘traditional’ news.

The KFC story was, in fact, part of a report from Worcester City Council’s planning committee. In addition to the local authorities, we continue to cover courts, inquests, crime, schools and all the other staples of the regional press.

Far from abandoning serious reporting, we are doing our utmost to ensure it remains relevant.




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After 300 proud years, the presses fall silent in Worcester

printing press in action

Me inspecting a copy of the Berrow’s Worcester Journal, which used to be printed on the now closed Worcester News press in Hylton Road

For the first time in 30 years I am working for a daily newspaper that is not printed in the building where it is written and edited.

The last copy of the Worcester News rolled off its ageing press in Hylton Road this summer, and more than 300 years of newspaper printing history in the city came to an end.

Production has been moved to Oxford, where there is a more modern press and room to take on more work.

It was inevitable. Not as many newspapers are printed now than in their heyday, so fewer presses are needed. Those that remain are the biggest and most technologically advanced. They take in their stride the workload once handled by a dozen smaller presses.

The move makes the Worcester News more efficient, and that is a vital quality in an industry grappling with the tumultuous changes unleashed by the internet.

But I am terribly sad.

I am so sorry to see the men who worked on the press, some of them for many years, lose their jobs.

I regret, too, the end of newspaper printing in Worcester. I have worked for several of the country’s great regional dailies, among them the Chronicle and Journal in Newcastle upon Tyne, the Sentinel in Stoke-on-Trent, the Post and Press in Bristol and the Derby Evening Telegraph. None are now printed on the premises.

The loss of this press, though, feels worse. It’s about history.

Berrow’s Worcester Journal, the sister paper of the Worcester News, was first published here in the city in 1690, though it was then called the Worcester Post-man, and is the world’s oldest continuously published newspaper (it is also now printed in Oxford, and has been for some time).

I treasured that connection with the past, with the pioneering successors of William Caxton who raced to bring news to the people once the freedom of the Press had been won from the Stuart monarchy.

That link is broken now. The sound of the press at full speed no longer rumbles through our building. A pulse has been stilled.

I have peered for the last time into that press hall to marvel at a daily publishing miracle and smell air warmed by electric motors and thick with the aromas of newsprint, oil and ink.

Even after so long in the business it retained the power to enthral me. I was not alone. Over the years I have watched parties of visitors being led through our building and told the secrets of how newspapers are made.

They listened politely, of course, but what they were really here for was to see that mighty press; to hear the noise and be thrilled witnesses to the birth of tomorrow’s headlines.

It was there that the spell of newspapers was strongest, and the reason why so many of us who work on them have been bewitched forever.

But I must wrest myself from this sentimental gloom. The Worcester News is so much more than a press, and it remains in rude health.

Although print is still vitally important, our news is increasingly distributed via our website and social media. As a result, our combined print and online readership is more than 43,000 every day and growing, making us by far the biggest professional news provider in Worcestershire.

Like those early print pioneers, we are seeing opportunities in a changing world. A future as exhilarating as our past beckons.

1960s printing press

State of the art. The Hylton Road printing press when it was installed in the late Sixties. Picture: Newsquest (Midlands South)







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Twitterati sneers as Worcester News live-blogs opening of new Aldi supermarket

Worcester News front page

Flying off the shelves: the Worcester News front page splashing on the opening of a new Aldi supermarket in Worcester

THE twitterati were aflutter yesterday at a decision by the Worcester News to live-blog the opening of a new Aldi supermarket in the city.

One shopper queued for several hours to be the supermarket’s first customer and win a wide-screen television. About 150 others waited in line outside the store in the hope of securing other prizes.

But ‘recovering Phd researcher’ Ian Kelly (@ian_kelly3) suggested our reporting “put @guardian politics live to shame”.

While The Green Hour (@TheGreenHour) said: “What a time to be alive…”

The vein of what appeared to be sarcasm continued with pop blogger Mark Savage (@mrdiscopop) tweeting: “Journalism in action as Worcester News runs a live page for the opening of a new Aldi.”

‘Health and body image warrior’ Katie Lowe (@fatgirlphd): noted: “I know we’re overwhelmed with news but let’s not overlook the Worcester News’ incredible reporting LIVE on new Aldi.”

There were several others of a similar tone.

Now, it is dangerous to take all tweets at face value. There is little space for nuance in a 140-word message. Some of these tweets may be stating a fact, and implying nothing.

Nevertheless, the impression given is that some of these tweets are sneering as us for judging the opening of an Aldi to be worthy of our journalism.

Interestingly, we covered the opening of a new Waitrose supermarket in Worcester in the same way last month.

It drew none of the apparent sarcasm that greeted our Aldi report. Make of that what you will.

For the record, our Aldi blog was the second-most popular story on yesterday (beaten by a story about Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton’s visit to a local karting track). As I write this it is still riding high in our most-read list today. We also splashed on the story on our front page.

And, yes, the supermarket did take out a full-page advert in yesterday’s Worcester News (though it was not conditional on it receiving editorial support for its store opening, favourable or otherwise).

Of course, the money it paid, like that from all our other advertisers, contributes to our providing a free online news service, as well as maintaining our social media accounts.

The apparently snobbish response to our treatment of the story appears to have two elements.

Firstly, that we were covering the story in the first place, and, secondly, that we chose to do so using the live blog format.

The news business is changing. Readers are having as much say as journalists about the priorities given to the stories published. Online metrics give us feedback in a way we never had in print-only days about what people want to read about. And there is no doubt that anything to do with shopping, or supermarkets in particular, is popular.

Is it really so appalling to actually deliver stories that people find interesting?

It is also important to know that this sort of news does not necessarily mean our  traditional content is being sacrificed.

This week the Worcester News devoted nine pages to Brexit, had a page of reaction to the Chilcot Report, continued to cover local courts and councils, reported live online on a crucial meeting about the future of Worcester City Football Club, devoted space to schools pictures, obituaries, what’s on listings, and all the usual staples of a traditional community newspaper (and website).

The apparent derision levelled at our decision to use a live-blog was also unmerited.

The use of this format should not be taken as an endorsement that a news story is important or dramatic.

It is merely a flexible and effective way of presenting a developing story online. It is massively popular with readers, who are able to contribute their own observations and pictures using social media or our own website’s comments facility.

Aldi has based its success in the UK by giving its customers what they want. If newspapers do not do the same they risk feeling as sidelined as some of the German firm’s British rivals.






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You don’t get clicks without good words


Be passionate about words… they’re as important online as they are on paper

It was inspiring to hear Sun editor Tony Gallagher talk so passionately about the job.

Describing his paper’s ethos, he said: “We want to take no prisoners every day, no friends, no fear or favour.”

But I was most taken by his thoughts about the perception some journalists had about their role.

He said they see themselves as part of a profession or academic discipline.

“I think that’s wrong. It’s a trade and you learn it by practising it,” he said.

He went on to bemoan the trend for the industry to recruit people with degrees and post-graduate qualifications, and that the route for eager 18-year-olds into newspapers appeared to have been cut off.

His comments reminded me of my stint working shifts for the Scottish Sun in Glasgow.

I was deeply impressed by the subs there, in particular a couple of lads who were not much older than me but vastly more able.

They were the type Tony Gallagher might have had in his mind when he was outlining his thoughts on the industry.

They could have had degrees, but I doubt it. They struck me more as craftsmen, intensely serious about their trade.

Both spent ages polishing their work until it achieved that unique Sun blend of wit and assertive brevity.

“It’s all about the words. The words are everything,” I remember one of them saying.

He was so right. Not even the internet (which came along much later) has changed that.

Only through a mastery of the language can a journalist conjure that magical link between the words on a page or screen and a spark of emotion or curiosity in someone’s mind that makes them want to read on… or click on a link.

Even in an industry moving from page to screen, it is a craft that should be cherished.

Read my earlier post about the craft of headline writing.




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