One website article was all it took to take a positive, learning experience and turn it into a poisoned chalice. And yet I should have known better.
A month ago I visited the Derbyshire Times as part of my personal development and as part of my role as Subject Group Leader for Journalism, to make sure the course at Sheffield Hallam University was up to date and in line with industry.
I could only spare two days but I found it a valuable experience which reaffirmed many of the things we were already teaching and reinforced the importance of elements such as multimedia skills, old fashioned news reporting skills and media law.
I then wrote a blog post outlining the changes in the industry as I saw them. Much of the content in this post was stating the obvious and indeed that was the point. It was a simple outline that I thought would be of interest to other academics and journalists (as it isn’t always obvious to everyone), and it was based on my personal viewpoint.
The Derbyshire Times were happy with the blog and it received a couple of positive comments which described it as “fascinating” and”timely”. It was not earth-shattering news or groundbreaking observation but I felt it had served its purpose and been of sufficient interest to a handful of people.
The blog post then began to circulate on Twitter and was retweeted by academics, journalists and Johnston Press who own the Derbyshire Times – all in a positive manner.
This brought it to the attention of the trade news website Hold the Front Page and then things took a different turn.
Whilst I was on a family holiday I was contacted by a reporter from Hold the Front Page who wanted to know more about my work shadowing at the Derbyshire Times.
In my naivety I thought they were simply following up my blog post and looking to write a piece about how things had changed in regional newspapers (indeed I had written a column about this for the Derbyshire Times). I was asked to pick one thing that stood out from my work shadowing and since my blog largely talked about the use of multimedia and this was a pretty obvious thing to point out, I decided not to repeat myself and said one of the biggest changes was reporters uploading content straight to the web without any secondary checks.
This information had come from senior staff at the newspaper, from my own observation in the news room and also from my own experience as I had to upload my own stories and footage straight to the website whilst I was there. It was also reaffirmed by friends of mine who still work at regional newspapers who follow this same practice on a daily basis (some have no problems with it and others are anxious about it).
For some journalists this is not an issue, as they are excellent at media law and discuss any potentially problematic stories with their editor – but not all journalists are the same.
However this is not an exclusive Derbyshire Times or Johnston Press or even weekly newspaper issue. It happens in virtually all newspapers whether they are weekly, daily, national, Johnston Press, Local World, Newsquest and so on.
I was therefore surprised to see that the line taken by Hold the Front Page was ‘Weeklies cutting corners in rush to publish on web’ and the wording of the article appeared to single out the Derbyshire Times.
The journalist in question, had done what I have admittedly done in my time as a journalist – he had taken my quotes and fashioned them into the story that he felt had the strongest angle, but without the broader context.
Many of the comments I made to the journalist were based on my PhD research which took place at Newsquest and Local World newspapers and were my generic thoughts about the industry rather than criticism of the Derbyshire Times.
Yet the journalist had decided that was the angle he wanted to follow and and failed to acknowledge that my original blog was actually praising the reporting team who are under resourced and yet still manage to put out a great multimedia, printed and online product without any legal problems.
Indeed my comment about writing straight to the web was largely to make the point that our journalism students need to be extremely hot on their media law.
However I do think there are concerns about what is happening in the industry and I was relieved to see that the comments under the Hold the Front Page story were in agreement on this. I also received a congratulatory email from a Johnston Press employee saying ‘thank you, this needed to be pointed out by someone outside the company’.
Unfortunately some of the comments under the story took the personal attack approach rather than reflecting on the issue raised in the story and felt it was necessary to criticise me (yes I do have a PhD) and the journalism course at Sheffield Hallam University (which has 93% student satisfaction). Again – something I should have expected as this is increasingly common with the anonymous comment brigade.
I have no problem with constructive criticism and I am glad that the comment thread raised some healthy debate, although I regret that the article appeared to be a personal attack on the Derbyshire Times.
However what I did find particularly bizarre about the comment thread criticism was that I was accused of being out of touch even though I had made the effort to get back into the news room to make sure I wasn’t out of touch and indeed the experience had reaffirmed what we have been teaching at Sheffield Hallam University for several years.
Academics should know what is happening in the news room but for me personally, the best way of knowing, is experiencing.
The whole journey from work shadowing to blog post to journalism article through to comment thread has been an interesting, frustrating and illuminating one which will definitely shape my teaching going into the next academic year.