The uncomfortable truth behind Montgomery’s vision

Most commentators were aghast at the vision for the future of the regional newspaper industry sketched out by Local World chairman and chief executive David Montgomery.

Critics such as Steve Dyson and the National Union of Journalists condemned his rambling, jargon-filled vision statement for being insensitive to the journalists whose trade he wrote of so derisively.

Others, notably The Guardian’s Roy Greenslade and blogger Game Old Girl, were more sympathetic to Montgomery, himself a former national newspaper editor, though they easily picked holes in some of his less well developed ideas.

I think it is unfortunate (and ironic) that Montgomery’s stream-of-consciousness ramblings were made public in the unpolished (and un-edited) state they were in. It left him wide open to ridicule when he could have been igniting a more rational debate.

The truth, uncomfortable though it is for many of us, is that our industry must change, and the central and perhaps most contentious way it must do that is to make much more use of contributed content.

Put simply, journalists are no longer in charge of what people read. The communities (and niches within communities) that local newspapers serve have their own agendas and interests, and if we do not provide them with a suitable publishing platform they will create their own.

Traditionalists dismiss the material produced by such non-professionals as “dross”.

This is deeply unfair.

True, it is unlikely to be of the same technical standard as that produced by professional editors, writers and photographers.

But it is likely to resonate when it is addressed at a group of which the author is a member. Its value is self-evident when it goes on to be shared on social media.

One of the strongest objections to Montgomery’s vision is his call to publish unedited press releases from organisations such as the police, hospitals and councils.

But these organisations are already, as I  discuss elsewhere in this blog, publishing directly to readers themselves through their own websites and social media timelines.

We face a choice of allowing them to bypass newspapers and build their own audiences, or we upload their press releases and scrutinise those that our experience tells us merit investigation. Isn’t this how we have been working for years in print?

The crux of this is that journalists must let go of their ownership of the news.

They need not become, as Montgomery suggests, purely “harvesters” of material produced by other people.

But they should be willing to share their publishing platforms more readily, to encourage and help others develop a voice (through words, photos, video and audio), and continue to made their own professional contribution to a mix that will enrich local newspapers, not destroy them.

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About John Wilson

Group deputy editor of the Worcester News, Berrow's Worcester Journal, Malvern Gazette and Evesham Journalist. Journalist for more than 30 years.
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