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Plea to 'reflect communities and reconnect with readers'

Regional newspaper editors have been issued a resounding challenge to reconnect with readers, reflect their communities and tackle freedom of information.

Speaking in his inaugural address as president of the Society of Editors, Keith Sutton said newsrooms must reflect their readership and offer better training to journalists.

He urged editors to consider the make up of their editorial team and how this reflected their readership.

Keith, who is editorial director of Cumbrian Newspapers, told the editors’ annual conference: “We need to keep in touch with all of our audience and represent them on our staff by retaining some form of apprenticeship system to enable us to recruit non-graduates.

“The conference has brought us face to face with today’s reality of multi-ethnic British society I can think of no better way to disturb white, male, middle-class complacency than through the figures indicating the low proportion of ethic minorities in editorial departments.”

He went on to sound a note of caution about the Freedom of Information Act, which is due to come into law next year.

He warned about complacency within newsrooms and told the conference: “The Freedom of Information act will be upon us in January. It is both an opportunity and a threat.

“Is it an opportunity for investigative journalism, or a smokescreen for the enemies of an open society? The Act comes in on a tide of public indifference.

“It is unlikely to join pensions, parking fines or paedophilia in our Readers’ Letters columns and until this conference it was not very high on the agenda of editors either.

“But, as with the issue of ethnic minorities, the issue of the public’s right to know – freedom of information – should remind us that it is time again for us to ‘Get Real’. Freedom of Information is not going to solve our problems in bringing information to our readers. Our problems go deeper, they begin with the Great British Public which has lost some of its faith in us as arbiters of the public good or the public interest. Opinion polls show journalists just one rung above politicians.”

Collective rights such as the ability to read in the local paper the names of young men seriously injured in a high-street collision; the names of children chosen to represent their school and hockey, were being eroded by the same kind of thinking that wants schoolchildren to play conkers with goggles on. “Conkers are a joke,” he said, “but withholding the names of wrong-doers, of victims, of the time and place of burglaries in the name of the protection of the individual is not. It is stifling the breath of free, public expression. It is indeed depriving communities of the oxygen of publicity.”

Keith closed the conference by warning that newspapers were losing many of the best young journalism graduates to the “Alastair Campbell, Charlie Whelan-inspired, glamorous and well paid” world of PR.

He said: “They are stealing a march on us by their very professionalism and by our contrasting neglect of training of our staff as juniors. I hope over the next year… to wage a mini-crusade among the regions, grabbing every opportunity to celebrate the best of our journalism.”

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