One of the things I most enjoy about being the Chief Executive of IPSO is visiting local and regional newspapers. I try to do one every two weeks.
The visits aren’t inspections – I don’t sniff around trying to spot breaches of the Editors’ Code or other examples of heinous non-compliance.
There are two points to visiting. Firstly it keeps me in touch with what’s happening in the industry and how editors and their (in most cases) increasingly small staff bring together a high quality product on a daily or weekly basis. It also offers the editor and the staff a chance to get an update on IPSO, ask me questions and hold me to account.
The visits are all different but the news conference is always my favourite part of the day – watching editors and journalists mulling over what stories they’ve got, what further inquiries need to be made, what else is coming up during the day or week etc. I’ll also spend time with whoever handles IPSO complaints and I’m always very interested in how the paper manages its digital service. I also really enjoy talking to young reporters about why they got into journalism and how they use the Editors’ Code in their work.
Before I started this job I’d never spent a day in a newsroom and it’s now one of my favourite things. I’m always impressed by the passion the editors and their teams have for the job and the sense of responsibility they feel to their town or city. Local newspapers don’t feel to me like they are owned by companies – they feel like they are owned by their communities and the ‘owners’ and editors are just temporary custodians.
The great pity of it is that, although people couldn’t imagine their town or city without the Echo, or Advertiser or Evening Post that doesn’t mean they go out and buy it. A weekly paper I visited recently serves a town with a population of 75,000. Twenty years ago it probably sold 40,000 copies. These days it probably sells 15,000 and that’s falling year on year.
The paradox of this is that the readership of local newspaper content is probably at its highest for 10 years and is rising. All local newspapers are embracing the challenge of digital and are getting audience that other industries would give their right arms for. But making digital news make money is really, really hard.
Two highlights of my visits that stick in the mind: At the Teeside Gazette, Chris the editor asked me if I’d like to go out for lunch. At the local Italian he recommended a Middleborough speciality, the chicken ‘Parmo’ – a chicken fillet beaten flat, breadcrumbed, deep fried to within an inch of its life then covered with béchamel sauce and cheese and grilled and served with chips and salad. 1600 calories. And no one eats the salad.
Another particular memory is visiting the Southern Daily Echo where Ian the editor welcomed me by saying, “It’ll be a slightly unusual visit. You’ve come on the day I’m announcing to the staff I’m retiring after 20 years and since I don’t like long farewells – today is my last paper.” He was very reassuring that it had nothing to do with my presence!
Most surprising thing I’ve discovered? Apart from the London Evening Standard there’s almost no paper left in England that is an evening paper – produced and printed during the day. Even a paper that calls itself the Evening something is almost certainly a single edition printed overnight.
I’ve read a local newspaper since I was a kid. I always sort of knew they were important, but it wasn’t until I started this job that I knew just how important. There are towns in this country where the local council is effectively one party rule. In those places, the local paper is what holds the council to account and tells the community what is being done in their name. Local papers aren’t just a vital piece of our communities, they are vital for our democracy. We should value them a whole lot more than we seem to.