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‘What is the point of local newspapers?’ says court news agency chief

Old BaileyThe director of the UK’s only specialist court news agency has questioned whether there is “any point” in the existence of local newspapers which don’t cover local courts.

Court News UK’s Guy Toyn says the number of serious stories going unheard is a “tragedy” for the democratic process, adding regional papers not covering even big cases were neglecting a “central, civic function of the press”.

Guy spoke out in an interview with Vice magazine, citing an example of a case he covered in which the story of a man convicted of five serious sexual assaults in East London was not reported in the defendant’s local newspaper.

He said this was “not only a dreadful shame because people aren’t being informed, but a tragedy for the democratic process as a whole.”

Said Guy: “Court reporting does take a long time, and a local newspaper can’t really sit around day-in, day-out and do it any more.

“That’s why agency reporters are so valuable. But what we’ve ended up with is a situation where so many court cases just don’t get covered in local papers at all.

“We recently had a very interesting case where a guy carried out five serious sexual assaults in Poplar, east London. Those sexual assaults were never covered in the local newspaper – his arrest was never covered, nor was the opening of his trial, his conviction or his sentence.

“You have to really ask yourself: what is the function of these local newspapers if they can’t keep people properly informed?”

He went on: “This isn’t about whether people want to read these stories or not. We’re talking about a central, civic function of the press.

“If they can’t keep people informed when a man has gone out on bail and raped someone, we have to ask ourselves: is there any point in them existing at all?”

Court News UK, the digital arm of news agency Central News, is the only specialist courts and tribunals agency operating within the UK at present.

It counts most of the major regional papers in the UK among its client list.

Quizzed by Vice on what he thought the future held for court reporting, Guy responded: “I think it’s limited, to be quite honest with you. People talk about televising the courts, and I’m afraid they’re talking absolute nonsense.

“It’s just ridiculous and would be no benefit whatsoever. The BBC and Sky have their cameras up at the High Court, but I think they’re more interested in the drama of the criminal trial than they are in justice.

“Journalism is in very real crisis and it means the bottom line is this: we’re all going to be under-informed. And no one’s up in arms about it.”

Guy’s comments come after Anthony Stansfeld, Thames Valley police and crime commissioner, condemned the impact of court closures on the regional press.

Newbury Weekly News editor Andy Murrill added the closures would stretch reporting resources “to the limit”, with sacrifices to the rest of his paper’s news operation having to be made in order to cover court cases.

31 comments

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  • March 10, 2016 at 7:57 am
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    I think we all know the answer to this one. Local newspapers are in terminal decline and what profits remain in the sector are funnelled to useless senior executives (ie. those with no specific media skills) and shareholders. Court reporters are not at their level of importance and are thus an unnecessary drain on revenue, hence no court reports. QED.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 8:37 am
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    Local papers used to buy copy and pics on a regular basis, now they are given zero budget, so you’ll hardly ever see a Central News Agency byline in any regional paper, which is a shame as they always were interesting cases that I saw in the past.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 8:39 am
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    Papers are more interested in reporting brain dead stories like eating cat food. If those resources were put into news that matters, hey who knows, maybe people will buy and read local papers in greater numbers.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 8:42 am
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    You have to agree with him,and its just another knee jerk “cost saving” thats causing long term financial losses.
    One of the main benefits and usp`s of a local paper is the hyper local news it carries,or carried,with court cases being a key element and ,along with BDMs (another category thats almost vanished due to the ridiculous rates charged but thats another story altogether) one many many people used to buy a paper for.
    The main cases will always be covered but the majority of readers in my opinion are more interested in the day to day offences,the drink driving,affray,d&d and shoplifting cases no longer covered.

    Without them the content of the dailies and weeklies i see are bland and full of easy to obtain,warmed up and rehashed space fillers which quite frankly arent worth the ever climbing cover prices.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 9:07 am
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    If an editor feels it’s of benefit to the paper and community to cover and include this type of story but over stretches the resources then he needs to put a business case to his peers to staff up accordingly.

    It’s all too easy to make excuses especially if sales of the paper,which affect everyone on the staff, are affected as a result.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 9:13 am
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    There once was a time when some defendants were more worried by the sight of a press table full of hacks from the local papers than they were of the magistrates.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 9:16 am
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    Actually Bernie, I’d disagree with your comment that main cases will always be covered. My recent experience tells me that, because trainees no longer go to court for smaller cases and learn their trade, they never gain court reporting skills. As a result, any kind of court report be it major or minor, has become a rarity.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 9:29 am
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    What it all boils down to is this:

    Everyone deserves the newspaper they won’t pay for.

    You can play the blame game until doomsday, but the reality is that the great British public would rather back Kim Kardashian’s derriere than the traditional regional newspaper, court reports et al.

    The sad fact is that the regional press cannot even aspire to providing the service the public don’t want, let alone one that should be the voice and reflection of every community.

    When your case is marked “Not wanted on voyage” the rocks really are heaving into view.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 9:35 am
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    The other thing newspapers can’t be bothered to do is to look up The Gazette website every week which has details of local insolvencies and bankruptcies. You’d be surprised how many excellent stories are just waiting to be explored.

    It’s dead easy. Just choose ‘show all’ on the the sections marked corporate insolvency and personal insolvency, type the name of your town into the box, hit ‘latest’ and see what comes up.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 10:01 am
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    Got to say this is a well crafted business plug for Central News. I wonder how much the agency is currently charging for newspapers to pay for the privilege of providing this civic duty?

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  • March 10, 2016 at 10:12 am
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    I can think of two other ‘specialist’ court reporting agencies in the UK. In Scotland, we have United News Service in Edinburgh and the Glasgow Court Press Agency in Glasgow.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 10:40 am
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    Just another symptom of the terminal illness from which the regional press is suffering, I’m afraid. It is exactly this kind of subject matter – court cases involving local people – which was and still should be the unique selling point of local newspapers. But that requires an investment in staff and resources. Instead, the proponents of a digital future want what few staff remain to be chasing clicks with a poor imitation of the kind of thing Buzzfeed and their ilk do so much better.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 10:46 am
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    yes I agree with Bernies points and also Court Diinosaurs, maybe it would have been better to say ” the main cases which SHOULD always be reported.
    in terms of weekly papers which are even worse than dailes,the court coverage has almost completely gone which was definitely the one of the main reasons local people bought a weekly paper in my experience.
    The twitching curtain effect cannot be underestimated when it comes to people knowing whos done what when and to whom with a local weekly the only place this kind of court story could be found.
    editors must surely realise the importance of covering courts these days even if staffing has been cut, they have control of the staff resources so to say they cannot justify it sounds to me like a lame excuse.
    if they appreciated the value to the business of including magistrates, county and crown court cases they would make a case themselves( no pun intended) and if their bosses were concerned abolut falling copy sales an d wanted a quick but lasting fix they would find the funds. its just a matter of how much importance is put on this matter and as Mr Toyn points out without is there “..“any point” in the existence of local newspapers which don’t cover local courts” when many of the other reasons people buy papers have already gone

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  • March 10, 2016 at 10:47 am
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    Readers have had their fill of sex and sink estate stories. My local JP dailies are full of them “Monster” “Pervert” “Scumbag” in headline treatment etc etc and circulations are still tumbling.
    I don’t see how sensationalising these will help the democratic process.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 11:03 am
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    Perhaps it’s worth looking at ChronicleLive’s brilliant live coverage of the Adam Johnson trial. It was miles ahead of anything we were able to produce even in the days of multiple editions. Let’s give credit where it’s due to the centres who are getting it right – and, especially, to front-line reporters like Laura Hill, who handled the Johnson trial with great skill, pace and responsibility.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 11:40 am
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    It would help if the quality of copy coming from the agency was reliable. Much of what they send is inaccurate and leaves newspapers open to legal claims, so maybe if Guy paid his staff more the quality would be good enough to use.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 11:41 am
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    There`s no doubt some centres are getting it right @VFTN it`s just that not enough of them are doling it
    A high profile “celebrity” case like the Adam Johnson one was always going to make the headlines and that case could be followed on any news site, national paper site or via social media, its the drunk and disorderly, dog fouling and shoplifting ones that are going unreported and are the ones the vast majority of local people are more interested in.
    The Norwich EDP tried to jump on the quick copy sale increase bandwagon by loudly proclaiming they would report all drink drive offenders over the Christmas period but having lost a vast swathe of their readers previously this had little effect in tempting readers back and just highlighted how inadequate their level of day to day court reporting and coverage was.

    If anyones after a quick and easy copy sale increase ,the reporting ,even in brief, of hyper local court cases is a well proven route to readers

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  • March 10, 2016 at 11:45 am
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    View from the North: I take your point entirely about brilliant live coverage but it adds up to a stupendous free service which contributes next to nothing financially.
    When the papers are gone, ChronicleLive will consist of half a dozen news staff regurgitating press releases.
    They may spare one for the odd trial but you can’t expect a celebrity
    footballer in court every week as clickbait.
    Website of record? Not even close.
    Website of dross? Bingo!

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  • March 10, 2016 at 11:57 am
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    Its been said before on HTFP but a lot papers rely heavily on police PRs sending out post-trial reports. It costs them zilch.
    Having seen some of the copy the inexeperienced unsupervised junior hacks turn out I wouldn’t let them within a mile of a court. And that’s not their fault. By the looks of local rags on-job training, the stuff that really matters, is at an all-time low. Most of the seniors who knew what they were doing have long since gone.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 11:59 am
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    As a freelance I was asked to cover 2 court cases connected with hunting. When I walked into the courthouse where I had been a regular visitor (as a reporter) the officials said they had not seen a journalist for nearly a year. To cap it all when I put my invoice i9n the paper refused to pay for any mileage even though it had been a 50 mile round trip each day over 5 days. Yet they used to pay without a murmur. How’s that for tightness.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 12:44 pm
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    ex-court hack: Yes, most of the seniors have “long since gone” because they were basically told to sling their hooks in favour of young (ie cheap) trainees who breeze in, stay a few years to become qualified and then ship out, all in the space of a couple of years. When I started in my current employment there were half a dozen hacks who could measure their time in it by the decade. Now we’re lucky to get months and there’s a whisper going round that even these who leave will not be replaced.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 1:22 pm
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    whingerfreezone is right. I’ve seen some complete rubbish from Central News, including inaccurate rubbish, riddled with errors and incomprehensible writing.

    And Richard Smith, the paper that carried the lighter “cat food” piece you’re referring to also carries tonnes of court copy and has its own court reporter. Baffles me yet again that people like you can’t understand there’s room for lots of different types of stories, especially in the digital age of unlimited space.

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  • March 10, 2016 at 4:37 pm
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    It never fails to amaze me how far behind the times and how unaware of the issues facing the regional press most people in positions of influence outside of the industry are.
    Prior to today we’ve had shock horror at the threat from ad blockers to web site revenues even going so far as to foolishly call them a protection racket, MPs being then in by a plea to protect public notice revenues’ others calling for the local press to be protected against falling copy sales and ad revenues by asking for handouts to prop them up and allow them to continue in ‘ their communities’
    Had anyone taken the time to understand the reasons the uk regional press big boys are in caught up in an industry in decline maybe they would think twice before coming out with such surprise at how far things have slipped.

    Lack of court reporting at very local level, greed at grabbing as much ad money for public notices as they could get away with ,a dumbing down of the content and thus value at the same time as further cover charges,a reliance on space filler dross as opposed to hyper local news content and the replacing of experienced media people with cheapo cheapo alternatives has brought local press to the position it finds itself in today.
    Time for politicians to get to grips with the real issues around the decline of the regional press in this country and ask questions of those on who’s watch this has been allowed to happen

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  • March 10, 2016 at 5:45 pm
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    I think it’s easy to make sweeping generalisations, someone has already pointed out ChronicleLive’s coverage of Adam Johnson but there’s also a great example from the Chester Chronicle who have live blogged the trial of Nicholas Crawshaw, done by an excellent trainee Mike Fuller:
    http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/news/chester-cheshire-news/recap-nicholas-crawshaw-rape-trial-10989224
    There’s all the previous reports here: http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/all-about/courts

    Live updates put new life into court reporting, especially for weekly papers, who can provide an up to the minute service from big cases for their local readerships. I mean who wasn’t following every word of one of the most bizarre court cases ever…. http://www.chesterchronicle.co.uk/all-about/chester-prosthetic-penis-trial
    or there was excellent and extensive coverage of the Sharon Edwards murder trial: http://www.lep.co.uk/live/event?1854986 from the Lancashire Evening Post

    I think it’s becoming even more crucial these live updates are done back on publishers sites, not just Twitter, which many sites do, so we can offer more context and benefit from the advertising. It also makes it easier to produce compelling print packages, as you get a really in-depth read you can push through into print.

    If you’re trying to cover court like it’s 1979 then of course you’re going to run into problems. The law changed last year so the use of electronic devices by journalists within the courtroom is expected to be the norm, so getting updates back has become easier and we should be pushing hard for reliable WiFi to become standard in courts.

    And it’s not just the big media groups covering court. Away from my day job with TM I run a hyperlocal site in Preston, Lancs, and we now pay a freelancer to cover court and not surprisingly they are some of our most read stories (not all the time, but many are). But I judge which bits of copy I will buy based on how much interest that will have with the local audience: http://www.blogpreston.co.uk/2016/03/warren-charles-jailed-preston-man-left-brother-brain-damaged-with-pub-beer-garden-push/

    Ed Walker
    Digital Development Editor, TM Regionals
    Editor, Blog Preston

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  • March 10, 2016 at 7:11 pm
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    Do you actually think the editor controls the budget these days? They don’t and they would dearly love the resources we once had when you could actually have a court rota and qualified reporters covering magistrates on a regular basis

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  • March 11, 2016 at 7:15 am
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    The headline says it all

    Products with fewer and fewer buyers charging more for less and with content potential buyers want to read excluded, apart from all the other issues around the regional press, is the recipe for business disaster.

    The lack of court reporting being one which many of us raised concerns about some while back but in an age of short term gain and instant cost savings our views went unheard.
    Short term gain, long term pain and always will be whilst those in charge then,making rash, ill conceived decisions that have damaged the industry beyond repair remain in charge now. So yes ” what’s the point of local newspapers”?
    If you’re under fifty and in RP I just hope you have an exit plan in place cos sure as day follows night you’ll eventually need one sbd sooner rather than later.

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  • March 11, 2016 at 8:01 am
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    As a court reporter axed with other specialists when our paper went weekly, I totally agree with this. I left journalism because I was disillusioned with the change from ‘on the patch’ off-diary reporting and basics like court in favour of ‘lifestyle’ pieces and press releases. It’s terrifying that court reporting, a basic aspect of open democracy, watching the establishment at work, giving voice to vulnersble victims (and sometimes vulnerable defendants) has reduced so drastically.

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  • March 13, 2016 at 10:54 pm
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    Kate Ramsgate. Editors stopped running papers years ago. JP papers are run from Edinburgh by clueless clots. Accountants rule, OK?

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  • April 6, 2016 at 3:17 pm
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    Thanks to those who have chosen to crticise the content Central News sends out – what a shame they’ve never done that when they recieved the copy.

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  • April 6, 2016 at 3:19 pm
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    Thanks to those who have chosen to crticise the content Central News sends out – what a shame they’ve never done that when they received the copy.

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