Over the past week or so, many words have been written about Trinity Mirror’s plans to cut up to 19 jobs at the Birmingham Mail. But one sentence – contained in a memo penned by an unnamed senior executive – has stood out.
“The days are long gone when we could afford to be a paper of record and dutifully report everything that happened on our patch,” said the memo, sent to staff as part of a set of FAQs on the restructuring plan.
In the days since, those words have provoked a great deal of sometimes anguished debate on this website and elsewhere, with no less an authority than the Guardian’s Roy Greenslade pronouncing that it signals the “death knell of journalism.”
But does it? Or did Trinity Mirror’s statement merely reflect what has long been the case in most regional newspapers?
For my part, I am frankly surprised by the vehemence of some of the reactions to the ‘newspaper of record’ line. To be honest, I don’t think ‘newspapers of record’ have existed in the local or even the national press for several decades.
At national level, the template for the ‘newspaper of record’ was probably The Times in the days when it marketed itself as the “top people’s paper” and wasn’t particularly bothered about counting the people it reached so long as it reached the people that count.
But all that came to an abrupt end with Rupert Murdoch’s takeover in 1981 and the subsequent defenestration of Harry Evans as editor.
Perhaps in its early days under Andreas Whittam-Smith – a refugee from the post-Murdoch Times – The Independent might have aspired to the ‘newspaper of record’ mantle, but certainly not in its later, more theatrical incarnations.
Of the local and regional papers I have worked for, the one that came closest to being a ‘newspaper of record’ was the paper where I started my career – the Mansfield Chad of the mid-1980s with its faithful recording of whist drives, coffee mornings and the like.
But that was just the community news pages. Even on the Chad – and certainly on every subsequent paper I worked for – the newsdesk would have bridled at the suggestion that something should go into the paper purely because it happened on the patch rather than because it might actually be of interest to someone.
Trinity Mirror’s digital publishing director David Higgerson put it well. “As a former political reporter, I remember the immense frustration of seeing important stories being knocked further back in the book to make way for a blink-and-you-miss-it crime story which news editors felt would shift more papers that day.”
As a former political reporter myself – and one who was not averse to fighting my corner on occasions – I can certainly identify with that.
The point is, journalists have always had to market stories to editors and news editors in order to get them in the paper, and editors have always had to market those stories to readers to get them to buy it.
If there was a problem with the Trinity Mirror executive’s statement, it was probably in its use of the words “the days are long gone when…,” the implication being that there was a golden era in which the Birmingham Mail did indeed cover everything that moved in the city.
Personally I doubt that was ever the case – certainly not when the paper was selling more than 300,000 copies a day in the early 1980s. In my experience, the bigger regional dailies always took a more selective approach to news with the result that many stories of purely niche or hyperlocal interest went unreported.
So for Trinity Mirror to say that the Mail won’t “dutifully report” eveything that happens on its patch is, quite simply, no more than a statement of the bleeding obvious. The truth is, it was ever thus.