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Editor’s blog: Is demise of the ‘newspaper of record’ old news?

Saturday's Birmingham Mail front pageOver 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.

14 comments

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  • June 15, 2015 at 7:42 am
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    The point here is surely not that newspapers no longer report every last detail on their patch (did they ever, in living memory?), but that a lack of staffing means genuine issues get ignore or just covered directly from the press releases councils, police and the rest churn out. So we have so-called prestigious newspapers shovelling in council press releases as page leads and press officers enjoying the opportunity to see propaganda presented as news.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 9:27 am
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    Overthehill is spot on.

    The sad thing in the last few years isn’t that papers are so hard pressed that they can’t cover everything, but that the power brokers no longer even pretend they want to.

    As an ex journo you really notice now. The retail company I work for laid a lot of staff off recently and the report was in the local paper, but it was basically a barely rewritten press release. There wasn’t even a counter comment from the union – surely the minimum you’d expect.

    No way I’d have written something like that or, been allowed to write something like that. And I’ve only been out of it a couple of years.

    Words masquerading as stories.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 10:25 am
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    Must confess, just don’t see the ‘ever thus’ rationale, unless it is put forward in slightly mischievious vein to stimulate debate.
    There’s naturally always been a balance between staff numbers, pagination and deadlines, to decide what can be ‘recorded’ and what can’t.
    I recall joining the Evening Mail in B’ham (in Nov 1988), thinking I’d come to a big city title – which was a ‘paper of record’.
    One night, living in Handsworth Wood, I popped into the local chinky and saw (for the first time) an Express & Star.
    I remember standing at the counter, going through the pages, gobsmacked at the huge no of relevant and interesting stories which were there for B’ham and Black Country audiences, but which were not in that afternoon’s Mail.
    True, the Mail was far better laid out (not hard by comparison), had a strong campaigning aspect, and was much easier to read.
    In content terms though, the E&S was way ahead.
    At 7am the following day, I shot across to the Mail news-desk, in my innocent naivete to ask if they’d seen all these stories in the E&S.
    The pithy and forthright response was (translated) that they’d got the resources and the Mail hadn’t … which was explained by the large no of unoccupied desks in the Post/Mail/Mercury editorial hall.
    However, if Ingersoll then (or TM subsequently) had filled more of those seats, the news desks would have ‘recorded’ more news, and to be fair, the Post and Mail always had the big stories from their core B’ham patch, which is how I translate being a ‘paper of record’.
    The stunning aspect (to me) about TM’s admission is that it has now given up on even wishing it could cover the big local/regional news.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 10:56 am
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    Thing is, it was a secret. Like the drugs in the Tour de France. Everyone knew,but no one said…

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  • June 15, 2015 at 11:21 am
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    My old weekly once TRIED to cover every blade of grass. It went to parish council meetings, district council meetings. business association meetings, football league meetings, every major outdoor event personally, magistrates court every available day and news reporters worked weekends covering sport.
    Reporters were regularly sent out to towns and villagers and requested to return with stories.
    Still we missed stuff but not a lot.
    How much more is being missed though now with few reporters and most chained to a computer?
    Editors are happy not to even try.
    “Please send us a press release and a picture.”
    Fine for a freebie, but really not what any self-respecting paid-for should be about!
    Papers of record are truly a thing of the past, and if management have their way papers will soon be a thing of the past.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 11:41 am
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    All papers are different to an extent. My old boss worked for the North West Evening Mail and said they were very much like that, ‘if a sparrow dropped they’d cover it’ were his words.

    Some papers’ draw is that they cover everything on the patch, others are more concerned with particular types of stories, because they know what sells.

    That being said, the town I worked in at last count had one reporter and a news editor, at its height in the 50s it had 19 reporters – 19! For a town of 60k.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 1:18 pm
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    I hate to be that PC finger-wagger, IanHalstead, but are you sure you want to be using expressions such as: “I popped into the local chinky”?

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  • June 15, 2015 at 2:36 pm
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    Of course, no paper could claim to be 100% the paper of record for its community. But many once claim close. What has changed is two linked things: 1) the advertising revenues which paid for journalism of the kind being debated here dropped; 2) assorted managements were not enlightened enough to deal with this.
    By managements dealing with this I mean a) accepting falls in the high level profit margins they simply opened the door and let in during the 1980s and ’90s; b) over time investing and developing alternative products and services based around their established core brands which could fill their profit gaps.
    Instead it has been all too too little, too late on the latter front (with many pale imitations of nimble start-ups predictably failing by being late to market).
    And as far as acceptance of lower profit margins is concerned, forget it. Regional media companies of my acquaintance are emphatically NOT running unprofitable businesses. What they are doing is hastening the decline of print media which might still have a role to play in a multi-platform business because they are not intelligent or flexible enough to come up with any other strategy other than cost cutting or starving editors and their teams of the proper resources to get even close to producing a newspaper which the community genuinely believes is relevant to it.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 5:55 pm
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    Yes they did, and the author of this article needs to dig deeper while researching before committing his thoughts to “print”.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 10:54 pm
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    The very notion that the Birmingham (Evening) Mail in its pomp missed stories is nothing to be proud of and has nothing to do with ownership.
    Fact is that years of neglect have allowed this. Somebody made the comparison to the E&S – they have maintained the same ‘look’ for many years. Yes, it looks dated but actually their core readership probably appreciate that. The Mail spent ££££s on rebrands, relaunches, localised editions, more ‘celeb’ news….how about just giving the readers what they wanted: a product they could recognise and relate to? Not rocket science To then scrap cricket coverage (the Bears are the most successful sports team in the area) and dilute the football coverage to click bait has merely added to its decline. And, above all else, the internet was always going to kill newspapers. After all, who wants to pay to read newspapers when you can read it for free? This is 2015. Newspapers, at best, belong pre-1995.

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  • June 15, 2015 at 11:00 pm
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    One more thing: if anyone thinks click bait is a reflection of audience reach then they really did miss too many classes in school. You might get the hits once, twice, maybe three times. But people aren’t stupid. Readers become disappointed, dismissive, cynical and, eventually…and worst of all… they no longer care. And sadly, people in Brum no longer have a newspaper they care about.

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  • June 16, 2015 at 12:30 am
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    This ‘newspaper of record’ issue misses the main thrust of the argument. A newspaper should be a focal point for any community. It should broadcast news, ask questions, probe, investigate, expose, record, campaign, etc. A newspaper should be the point-of-call for a David who wants to take on a bullying Goliath. It should be the go-to place for people to find out what’s happening down the road or across the city.
    A city/town without a thriving newspaper is a poorer place. Personally, I think it’s also a more dangerous place, where corruption and wrong-doing will now potentially thrive without anyone left to investigate this.
    So while the remaining ‘journalists’ go in search of their target ‘hits’, I for one hope that the absence of ‘investigators’ doesn’t encourage the kind of bad practice which the Birmingham Mail should, and once did, bring to its knees.

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  • June 16, 2015 at 6:50 pm
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    Your editor’s blog misses the point entirely. Overthehill is spot on. Of course no newspaper ever reported literally everything, how could it? And although the E&S tried, its pages were more often than not stuffed with drivel. No, the point is that regional papers are no longer equipped to give their readers authoritative and comprehensive coverage and analysis of serious local affairs. They don’t have the expertise, the time, the space, and frankly, the interest. Tragic.

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  • June 26, 2015 at 11:27 am
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    Here at the Congleton Chronicle, we work on the principle that if it farts in Congleton, we report it. We still have a whist drive or two, jumble sales, coffee mornings, funerals with all the names in, cover all council etc etc. We can’t literally cover everything, as in EVERYTHING, but we have a go. We won’t be the only ones. Just remember, there are independent papers outside the big groups – North Wales, Isle of Wight, Cumbria – there are places that still get a good service.

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